The Essence of No-follow Links Is Changing: How Does it Impact Your SEO?

Up until recently, SEO experts understood that search engine bots would index the links with do-follow tags and ignore the links with no-follow tags. No-follow tags were used to hide the link from search engines, either for the benefit of the site or for Google’s own reasons. As a result, they wouldn’t pass on any value – or link equity.

Now, things are changing.

Google has made some big announcements about how it will perceive no-follow links in the future, which means website owners, SEOs, and content producers need to listen up.

Here’s what’s changing with no-follow links in 2020.

What Google Has Said About No-follow Links

On September 10 of this year, Google announced that the search engine will use the no-follow link as a “hint” for ranking purposes starting March 1, 2020. Google will see the content, the anchor text, the link itself, and determine if it is a link that should be ignored or included in the ranking determination.

This is a big change from Google’s general position on no-follow links. Ever since they were introduced in 2005, Google has ignored any no-follow links and excluded them from passing link equity. If you had a no-follow link pointing to your site, it was more or less ignored by Google.

With this announcement, Google is essentially admitting that some no-follow links might actually have value and should be included in the ranking determination for organic search results. Therefore, not all no-follow links will be excluded from crawling and indexing.

Furthermore, Google also announced that it will be adding two more link attributions other than “no-follow,” bringing even more complexity to link analysis. These will go into effect immediately, but Google won’t start viewing no-follow links as hints until March of 2020.

Additional Attributes That Describe Links

Since the announcement on September 10, you don’t just need to think about do-follow links or no-follow links. You’ll also have to start thinking about the link tags rel=“sponsored” and rel=“ugc.”

As you may have guessed, the rel=“sponsored” tag will be used to identify sponsored or paid links. Although these links could also fall under the no-follow tag, Google will allow you to get more specific by labeling links from partners or advertisers as sponsored.

The rel=“ugc” tag will apply to links found in user-generated content on your site. For instance, if other customers or readers contribute links in your comment section or within a forum, you can now tag those links as “ugc” so that Google understands they were contributed by users.

Although both of these additional attributes aren’t mandatory for site owners to use, they do provide the opportunity to help Google understand all of the links on your site more intimately. This could have positive impacts on your ranking position as web crawlers visit and index the site.

What Do You Need to Do With Your Existing No-follow Links

Google and SEO experts have made it clear that there is no current need to change any of the existing no-follow links on your site. You don’t need to do anything in order for Google to start viewing them as “hints” rather than as links that should be ignored.

Keep in mind that all ad or sponsored links should be tagged with no-follow or sponsored. It doesn’t matter which, but to avoid possible link scheme action, you must use one. You don’t need to change your paid or advertorial links to the “sponsored” attribute unless you want to. It’s recommended by Google, but a no-follow tag will still serve just fine.

Additional note: you can use one of the new attributes or the no-follow tag on the same link. For example, you could certainly tag a user-generated link that’s advertorial as rel=“sponsored ugc.”

Understanding Hint vs Ignore

The biggest concept you need to understand about this entire change is that Google is now differentiating more between no-follow links by using contextual clues. The search engine will no longer have a blanket understanding that all no-follow links should be ignored.

Instead, no-follow tags will now be considered as “hints” that the links should maybe be ignored, depending on their trustworthiness. Using the anchor text and other clues, the search engine will piece together its opinion of the link and decide whether to ignore it or not.

In reference to this switch to hinting, Google stated:

“Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe the content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.”

How All of This Impacts Your SEO

Now we’ll talk about the aspect that concerns you the most: How will this no-follow link change impact your SEO in 2020?

In all honesty, there probably won’t be a huge SEO change unless Google starts counting many links that it had originally ignored. If this happens, many sites might actually start to see a boost in their rankings as Google acknowledges links that it previously skipped over.

Still, no-follow links won’t imply any type of endorsement or pass along equity to another page. Linking to them will have no positive effects on backlinking unless Google decides not to ignore them.

In terms of your responsibilities for your site’s SEO, you’ll probably want to start becoming more specific about which attributes you use for which links. Although you could label all sponsored links as no-follow, differentiating between the “ugc” and “sponsored” links could help Google understand your website more, and therefore, increase your search engine rankings.

In Conclusion

For almost 15 years, Google has viewed all no-follow links as the same. That’s why it’s a big deal that the search engine giant just announced that it’s changing its views. Now, those who have completely disregarded no-follow links in their SEO plan might want to reconsider their approach come March 2020.

  • Manish Dudharejia is the Founder & CEO of E2M Solutions, a full service digital agency specialized in Website Design & Development, eCommerce, SEO, Content Marketing, and Copywriting.
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