Google has announced a major change with how nofollow links are counted. Previously, Google treated the nofollow attribute as a directive, however, for ranking purposes, nofollow links will now be treated as a hint.
What is Nofollow?
Nofollow is a link with a HTML attribute (rel=”nofollow”) applied to it which tells the search engines that the link is not trustworthy. Nofollow attributes were originally designed to fight against blog comment spam, where eventually they became useful on advertising links and other types of content that couldn’t be trusted.
Google’s Official Statement
Google announced the following statement in the change of nofollow links:
“When nofollow was introduced, Google would not count any link marked this way as a signal to use within our search algorithms. This has now changed.
All the link attributes — sponsored, UGC and nofollow — are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within Search.
We’ll use these hints — along with other signals — as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyze and use links within our systems.”
Will this change impact ranking?
Before the update, it was believed that nofollow links worked as the following:
- Not used for crawling and indexing because Google didn’t follow these links.
- Didn’t affect ranking which was confirmed by Google.
Google’s new guidance states the following about nofollow link attributes:
- Nofollow links are still not used for crawling and indexing.
- It is now used for ranking purposes: All nofollow links are now seen as a “hint”, which allows Google to decide whether to ignore it or use the link for ranking purposes.
Should publishers make a change?
For a lot of websites, publishers will not need to make any changes unless they want to. Google (for the moment) isn’t requiring websites to make any changes.
If a site is using nofollow links correctly, it is recommended to not make any changes, although you are free to do so. You should not expect any increase in rankings for making changes, nor should you expect any penalties for not.
However, the use of nofollow links may evolve in the future, which may or may not benefit websites if nofollow attributes are used in a specific way. It will be very interesting to see in the future if a ranking benefit does apply to nofollow attributes.
Which link attributes are used for what?
You can use different attributes to make your nofollow links more specific. There are 3 different types of nofollow links which have different effects;
- rel=”nofollow” – as previously mentioned, these links will not be used for ranking or indexing purposes.
- rel=”sponsored” – used for paid and/or sponsored links. This would also include affiliate links, however, Google hasn’t confirmed this.
- rel=”ugc” – UGC standing for ‘user-generated content’. These links are within user-generated content.
It’s good to mention that link attributes can also be merged, for example, a ‘rel=”nofollow ugc” is a valid attribute.
Why did Google change nofollow links?
In 2005, Google introduced the nofollow attribute for publishers to be able to address comment spam and suspect links from other users. If your site was linked to low-quality or spam websites, your website could have been penalised. Nofollow links allowed publishers to protect themselves and their readers from harmful links.
The addition of the nofollow attribute worked to an extent. Large websites such as Forbes and Wikipedia applied nofollow links across their entire site to ensure that they wouldn’t get penalised.
Google realised that this was flawed in some ways. For example, Google thinking that the trusted Wikipedia contributors were posting suspect links. Google will be able to understand the web better if they changed the purpose of a nofollow attribute.
By changing the purpose of nofollow attributes as ‘hints’, this allows Google to use these links to help improve the accuracy of their algorithms.
Should you use nofollow attributes to prevent being crawled and indexed?
Using nofollow attributes has never been the recommended way to prevent Google from indexing your content. If you’re looking for ways to prevent Google from indexing your content, check out their recommended methods, most commonly a form of ‘noindex’.
However, you can use nofollow attributes on large websites so Google only crawls the important websites you want to be indexed. Each website has a crawl budget, which is how many pages Google will crawl on your site automatically before ending the crawl.