The effect of Sponsored, UGC, and Nofollow links on SEO.
Google introduced the nofollow attribute in 2005, as a way for publishers to negate the SEO impact of comment spam and shady links from user-generated content (UGC).
14 years later, Google have now announced big changes to how publishers should mark nofollow links. We thought we’d take a moment to help clear a few things up.
-Link attribution can be done in one of four ways: ‘nofollow’, ‘sponsored’, ‘ugc’, or ‘default’ (which means there was no value attributed).
rel=‘sponsored’ (for paid and sponsored links)
rel=’ugc’ (for user generated content)
rel=’nofollow’ (for non-trusted links)
These new attributes can be combined. For example, rel=”nofollow sponsored” is valid.
Paid links must use the nofollow or sponsored attribute (either alone, or in combination.) Presumably, using “ugc” on paid links could result in a penalty.
Currently these attributes are used as “hints” by Google, which may impact ranking. As of March 2020, they may also be used for crawling and indexing purposes.
Publishers who currently use nofollow to control crawling may need to reconsider this strategy.
Google offers no apparent incentive for changing, or punishment for not changing.
Why was nofollow changed?
Google initially required all paid or sponsored links to be marked ‘nofollow’. If you were caught accepting anything of value in exchange for linking out without doing so, you could be penalised.
This system generally worked, but larger sites – such as Wikipedia – began applying nofollow across their entire site, for fear of not being able to properly police UGC.
As a result, entire portions of Google’s link graph were made less useful. Through these changes, Google is simply attempting to better understand the web, and allow for the collection of more meaningful data.
Do publishers need to make changes?
The answer for most sites is no – unless publishers want to. Google isn’t currently requiring sites to make changes.
That being said, there are a few cases where site owners may want to:
Sites that want to help Google better understand the sites that they – or their contributors – link to. For example, it could benefit everyone if open source sites like Wikipedia adopted these changes.
Large faceted sites that use nofollow for crawl control. It’s too early to tell if these sites need to change this, but it’s worth paying attention to.
Can you be penalized for not marking paid links?
Yes, you can, and this is where it gets tricky.
Google advises to mark up paid/sponsored links with either “sponsored” or “nofollow”, but not with “ugc”.
However, it is not clear what happens if your UGC contributors include paid or affiliate links in their content/comments.
For this reason, it’s likely that publishers will continue to markup UGC content with “nofollow” as default.
Should you implement the new nofollow attributes?
This is a decision that every SEO will have to make for themselves.
However, given the initial confusion, and lack of clear benefits, many publishers will probably wait until better information is available.
We’ll keep you posted!