Blog / Articles11 October 2019

Why did Google change the processing method for rel=“nofollow” and what does this mean for webmasters?

In 2005, Google introduced an attribute for tagging sponsored links – rel=“nofollow”. It quickly became a popular spam-fighting tool: owners set it for paid links or users' comments.

Over the past 15 years, this attribute has successfully performed two main functions at once: it blocked the transmission of link signals, if the owner wanted it; and marked ads and spam as recommended by Google to avoid sanctions.

However, over time, it began to be used for other tasks. For example, some webmasters use this tag for internal links to the content that they want to hide from indexing; others simply mark all their external links with it, motivating this by an unwillingness to pass their link juice to anyone. Google decided that something needs to be done with this.

As a result, on September 10, the search engine made an interesting decision: added two new attributes for marking links, and also changed its approach to processing "nofollow". An explanation with answers to the most common questions about the innovation has already appeared on the official Google blog. And serious discussions broke out on the network regarding new attributes and their expediency.

We tried to sort all the information out and figure out what to do with this innovation.

What happened?

In addition to the familiar attribute rel="nofollow", two more were added with a similar function:

  • rel="sponsored" – to indicate paid links that were created as part of payment for cooperation (sponsorship, advertising, etc.);
  • rel="ugc" – to mark links within user-generated content, for example, comments on articles or forum posts.

The search engine now advises applying rel="nofollow" only when you want to link to a page but do not pass credit to it (for example, if the target site is of poor quality). However, if you previously set this attribute for advertising or UGC links, then changing it to the new ones is not necessary.

All three attributes can be used together: for example, such options as rel="ugc sponsored" and rel="ugc nofollow" are working. Moreover, according to Google representatives, even if you accidentally put the "wrong" attribute on a link that is not paid, nothing bad will happen: the system will understand this. The main thing is not forget to use "sponsored" or "nofollow" for advertising, otherwise you may get sanctions.

It is important to note that the "nofollow" attribute used by the search engine as a directive for ranking, crawling and indexing purposes before these changes. That is, the robot simply did not follow such a link (if we believe what Google claimed). Now the approach to its processing has changed: this attribute, as well as two new ones, is treated only as a hint when ranking. This means that the search engine will only see a signal that this link should not pass the ranking credit, but not necessarily consider it.

In addition, the "sponsored" and "ugc" attributes are now treated as hints for indexing and crawling. The robot can follow the links marked with them. The "nofollow" attribute will begin to be considered a hint for crawling and indexing from March 1, 2020. This is probably done to give time to take action for webmasters who use this attribute for hiding content from indexing.

Why does Google need such changes?

As Google assures users, the implementation of a new algorithm is aimed at improving the links processing and analysis systems. Google employee Gary Illyes at the Webmaster Conference in Japan shed some light on the true reasons for the changes.

According to Illyes, at a certain stage, the abuse of this attribute became a problem: link signals are important for understanding the Internet and the relationships between sites. Due to "nofollow", while it worked as a prohibition directive, the search engine didn’t receive a significant part of such data.

Now, when all three attributes will be treated only as recommendations, the processing of link signals will become more complete, and two new attributes will help to better understand the origin of the links. In the end, Illyes says, this will Google to return more relevant search results for users.

Google representative Danny Sullivan also gave some clarification on his Twitter: he emphasized that new attributes are needed to separate the "nofollow" functions that we mentioned above.

Danny Sullivan talks about the tasks of "nofollow", "sponsored" and "ugc" attributes

On the other hand, it would be unreasonable to trust Google completely in these matters: it is likely that the company pursues other goals in its innovation and does not want to disclose them. Search engine algorithms are constantly changing and improving; perhaps the changed approach to attribute analysis has more forward-looking tasks, the implementation of which we will see in the future.

We should not exclude the likelihood that some of the facts were hidden from us: remember at least the story with rel="next | prev" attribute. Google first said that it was no longer needed to understand pagination, but later they admitted that they had not actually used this parameter for several years. What if the same happened to "nofollow"?

Of course, there is no direct evidence for this, but our observations with the Arto Web Agency website in Search Console can serve as indirect evidence. The donor site hosted pass-through links to our resource; however, only one of them was open, the rest had "nofollow" attribute. However, we saw a significant number of links in the report.

If you accept this hypothesis, then maybe Google turned "nofollow" into a recommendation for a long time ago, and collected some data that showed the need to add "sponsored" and "ugc" during the test? We are unlikely to know the answer to this question, of course, if the company employees do not share it themselves.

What are the implications for site owners?

At first glance, this innovation should make life easier for webmasters. But in fact, it caused a flurry of questions and objections. First of all, site owners wonder: why do we need this? What is the point of abandoning "nofollow" in favor of new attributes if you say that there is no fundamental difference between them?

Danny Sullivan actively answers such questions on Twitter; however, he did not provide a clear and understandable answer. The main argument is convenience for webmasters and the ability to structure content better.

Danny Sullivan talks about new attributes as new opportunities, as well as about the fear of overloading webmasters with unnecessary work

The participants of the dialogue try to get to the truth with leading questions: for example, we learned that the purpose of the innovation was not to accelerate the crawling of large sites

Joost de Valk, the Yoast founder, expressed an interesting opinion. He thinks that it was wrong for Google to make changes to work with rel="nofollow" unilaterally: although they introduced this attribute first in the world, but other search engines, such as Bing and Yandex, still support it today. However, Bing representatives also reacted: as it turned out, they always used "nofollow" as a hint, and not as a directive.

Although Google assures that the innovation is not a mandatory guide to action, but only a recommendation, de Valk suggests that most webmasters will try to "please" this search engine, because it is a market leader.

Danny Sullivan and Gary Illyes assure that the use of new attributes is voluntary, and they did not want to add new worries and cause troubles to webmasters. Despite this, site owners are still concerned that technical experts will have extra work to do, the effectiveness of which remains in question. Many Google Technical Support Forum visitors are even sure that this innovation is just a search engine's trick to lower sites' ranking and to monetize content.

What do site owners need to do?

You can apply the old attribute further if it is configured on your site automatically, but it is advisable to gradually switch to rel = "sponsored". Both options are suitable for tagging advertising or affiliate links. You also can use two attributes at the same time.

We also would like to recall that from March 2020, rel="nofollow" will be processed only as a hint while crawling. If now you are blocking pages from indexing only by "nofollow", then you should switch to other, more reliable tools (for example, using robots.txt or meta tags).

Thus, changes to the processing of advertising or user-generated links are more likely to be needed by Google itself than by webmasters. We do not yet fully understand all the goals of these innovations; however, it is very likely that they will really help the search engine to better process link signals and provide more relevant content.

For site owners, there is no cause for concern. Whether you continue to use "nofollow", or switch to "sponsored" and "ugc", the main thing to remember is to use them for links that may be perceived as spam. At least until Google will announce something new in this area.

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Nikolay Ashpin
SEO, blog editor
I have been engaged in copywriting since 2014, in SEO - since 2017. I am interested in Internet marketing modern trends and search engine optimization, as well as in the capabilities of the Google My Business tool, and I share the experience of using it at seminars and conferences. If you have a question about this article, please write to nikolay@arto.agency.

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