How Google’s new link attributes impact SEO and how you can make the best out of it

The news that Google had changed its rules for “nofollow” links went around the internet before we could even say search engine optimization. The new approach shows, once again, how our favorite search engine has evolved since 15 years ago when nofollow links were first introduced.

However, it also changes things for website owners and their link building strategy. So, how do we stay on top of Google’s recent update?

A brief history of the “nofollow” attribute

Before 2005, links didn’t have attributes, meaning they all had the same value for ranking purposes. So Google was struggling to distinguish between comment spam and natural links. Low-quality sites were pushing to get links from pages with higher domain authority, which automatically damaged the host’s rankings.

In 2005, Google introduced the “nofollow” attribute to help website owners protect themselves from suspicious links. The new tag was more than a simple tool to counter spam. Google asked website owners to use it for marking all sponsored links, as well. Moreover, it stopped considering them for ranking purposes – they had no value for PageRank calculations.

With this new tool in hand, many websites decided to make all their links “nofollow,” a safe strategy that kept them from breaking any rules. Such websites are Wikipedia and Forbes.

What changes

Moz has made an excellent summary of the changes that Google is going to make in the way it treats the “nofollow” link attribute:

1. Google has introduced two new tags for link attribution. Besides the traditional “follow” and “nofollow,” developers will now have the possibility to mark links with the tags “sponsored” and “ugc.”

  • “Sponsored” identifies links created as part of advertisements, sponsorships, and other
    compensation agreements.
  • “Ugc” stands for user-generated content and is reserved for comments and forum posts.
2. As of March 1st 2020, Google will treat nofollow links as “hints.” This means, that robots may choose to follow them under certain conditions (that remain undefined).
3. Developers can combine new attributes to mark links. So, you can write rel=”ugc sponsored.”
4. Google will become more rigid with paid links. Compensation agreements should be marked
with the “sponsored” attribute. Unmarked paid links can lead to penalties.
5. Page owners that mark all the links “nofollow” aren’t compelled to make any changes on their websites.

Basically, if you have a website and usually mark all your links “nofollow,” there’s nothing to worry about. The changes don’t affect you in any way, and you won’t be penalized.

However, if you wish to differentiate your links, or simply help Google, you can start giving new attributes to your links, following their guidelines. For example, you could change attributes in your comments section and mark them using “ugc” or both “nofollow” and “ugc.”

Things change if you have compensation agreements in place. In this case, you need to use the “sponsored” attribute. Otherwise, you risk having your website penalized by Google and may lose your hard-earned rankings.

What does it mean for your link building strategy?

All in all, you could see more opportunities to boost your rankings if Google decides to take a look at the “nofollow” links. In some cases, they could be considered valid and automatically influence your PageRank.

Note that, even when Google ignores the “nofollow” hint, they still impact SEO indirectly. Links build authority and generate traffic. This way, they influence a series of metrics that matter for SEO, such as pages per session, time on page, or conversion rates.

So, instead of concentrating all your efforts on only building “follow” links, you could switch to a more flexible approach. The only criteria to consider is the quality of the sites where you place your links, as some websites could weigh more than others for crawlers.

Unfortunately, Google hasn’t explained how they will deal with these hints. 

However, we can make some educated guesses about how SEO can benefit from this approach. Google made it pretty clear that, in most cases, crawlers won’t consider links marked with “ugc.” It also mentions: “We will still continue to carefully assess how to use links within Search, just as we always have and as we’ve had to do for situations where no attributions were provided.”

What we understand from here is that Google’s algorithm is smart enough to give attributes to links alone. By using the right attributes, you help Google speed up the process.

Curated content is still king

Under this light, there are reasons to believe that the new approach will benefit links from websites that publish high-quality, “curated” content. Google will get its “hints” from pages with a a lot of curated content, such as Wikipedia and Forbes.

Wikipedia already has Google’s complete trust. In 2012, the online encyclopedia appeared on page one of Google for 99% of internet searches. Also, things haven’t changed that much ever since. Its dominance over the search engine is evident, thanks to its six million content pages and a consistent on-page SEO strategy.

Could a “nofollow” link from Wikipedia have more chances to become a “hint” than a similar link on a website with lower DA? Most probably, yes. (Did we mention that Wikipedia has a 100/100 domain authority?)

The bottom line

As Google continues to polish its ranking algorithm, we’ll continue to witness changes meant to benefit quality content and discourage commercial link building.

The new attributes and the changes in “nofollow” links can have a series of effects on how website owners decide to manage their pages. We may see an increase in “nofollow” links, as a way to put websites on the safe side.

What can you do? Continue to publish high-quality content, to get organic links. Then, stay consistent with your link building strategy through guest blogging, interviews, public speaking, and contributions to round-ups. Even if you have fewer chances of getting “follow” links, you’re still going to get good traffic–as long as it’s coming from the right websites.

From now on, Google reserves the right to evaluate “nofollow” links. From our perspective, “nofollow” links from some websites especially sites with excellent reputation, will gain in value. Wikipedia is certainly the big winner in the game. If you already have a Wikipedia page, lean back and enjoy! If not, you should consider offering a Wikipedia page to your fans, readers, supporters, etc. that links back to your website. If do not have a Wikipedia page for your business, you should start considering it. It will not only be beneficial to your traffic but most likely also to your domain authority.