SEO is changing! But that’s not big news, now is it? SEO is always changing.
But when it comes to the values Google attributes to outbound links, the search giant is giving things a long-overdue shakeup.
As of September 2019 Google has introduced 3 new link attributes. Well… they’ve redefined one and introduced two more.
A search engine’s job is to direct users towards high-quality, high-value relevant content, and away from spam.
As such, it stands to reason that they attribute certain values to links to help their crawlers understand them better. These values impact how they are accredited and how they impact rankings. These are referred to as link attributes. While Google is obviously not the only search engine, it remains the market leader and the yardstick by which all others are measures, so it will be our primary focus here.
Google’s three new attributes are;
- NoFollow (or rather NoFollow 2.0).
- Sponsored Rel Tags
There is also a fourth value, “default”, which means that no values are attributed to the link.
Why does this matter?
Whether you’re an SEO agency, a marketing company or a publisher trying to get ahead in SEO, you need to make it your business to understand how search engines work. But search engines are always changing and evolving to provide a better experience for their users.
Whether you’re directly involved in link building or not, it’s a good idea to educate yourself on link attribution as this is the key to understanding why some links perform better than others in searches.
Let’s get to know these three new attributes a little better…
If this first entry seems familiar it’s because NoFollow tags are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been around since 2005 when the NoFollow tag was first implemented. Originally, this was intended to remove the value of unhelpful content like comment spam and advertising links. A NoFollow tag is a command for Google not to give any credit to a low-value link. The opposite of this is a do-follow and remains an important attribute for link building activities.
However, as the ecology of the internet has changed, Google has recognised the need not to tar all NoFollow tags with the same brush and exert more granular control over how they are treated. Thus, NoFollow itself has been given an overhaul while these other two tags have been introduced to supplement it.
So, what’s new with NoFollow? Well, NoFollow 2.0 is the term the industry has coined to describe the changes in link attributes.
NoFollow links have traditionally been ignored by Google (at least where crawling and ranking are concerned). Going forward, however, Google will begin treating NoFollow tags as “hints” meaning that it may or may not choose to crawl them. Their value will be weighed depending on a range of factors such as the type of site, type of placement and relevance to page content.
This change is expected to come into full effect by March 2020. Although many SEO agencies believe that the search giant has been treating NoFollow tags this way for quite some time already.
It’s not like they’d tell us!
In an age where consumers know that they have a wealth of choice available to them online, social proof is an increasingly valuable commodity for businesses. User Generated Content (UGC) like comments, reviews and forum posts can make a huge difference when it comes to increasing the value of a brand in the eyes of the consumers who might need it.
When it comes to rankings, however, UGC is decidedly less useful. Indeed, the plethora of spammy links that were the bane of webmasters’ lives a few years back are part of the reason NoFollow tags exist in the first place. Interestingly, Google seems to have softened its stance in UGC to some extent. It has stated that if UGC is created by a trusted contributor, a UGC tag may not be necessary.
If you are a CMS user (i.e. you have a WordPress blog) it’s more than likely that newer versions of different management systems will start automatically adding UGC tags to blog comments regardless of quality or outbound links.
UGC tags can be used in conjunction with NoFollow tags and Sponsored Rel tags which brings us to…
Sponsored Rel Tags explained
Finally Sponsored Rel tags are, unsurprisingly, used to denote content that is created as part of an advertising campaign, sponsorship or other sort of paid promotion.
The beauty of all of these new tags is that they generate “hints” which add shades of grey to what has until now been a black and white world where links have either had some value or no value. They will not block a page from being indexed, they will simply lead to more sophisticated search algorithms. Google will use them along with other signals to better understand how to analyse online content appropriately and use links correctly within their systems.
Your questions answered
Whenever a search engine makes changes there’s always a period of confusion (and even frustration) within the SEO industry. So, we thought we’d compile some frequently asked questions to help demystify these changes and make it easier to quantify their impact on you and your operation…
When will these changes come into effect?
To a certain extent, they already have. As of now, NoFollow, UGC and Sponsored Rel tags are already used as hints as to whether or not Google should incorporate them into rankings. When it comes to crawling and indexing, however, NoFollow 2.0 and its variants will become hints as of March 1, 2020.
Publishers may fear that Google starting to see outbound links in more shades of grey may not necessarily be a good thing. They may perceive the move to a “hint” based model as an opportunity for spam comments to actually increase in frequency with impunity. However, Google’s Official Webmaster Central blog assures that the new link attributes of “UGC” and “NoFollow” will supplement rather than weaken the robust measures that most CMS solutions already have in place to address and contain link spam.
We suspect that a lot of SEOs and producers will feel some anxiety around which attributes to use for certain links and fear repercussions should they use the wrong one. But the good news is that there isn’t really a “wrong” attribute unless you’re dealing with a sponsored link. Any link that is clearly sponsored or otherwise paid should use preferably the “Sponsored” tag or even the “NoFollow”.
Marking a UGC link as “Sponsored,” won’t really have much impact on how the hint affects crawling, indexing or ranking. In fact, the difference between marking UGC as “Sponsored” or “NoFollow” is pretty negligible.
Will I be penalised for not using these new attributes?
If you’re at all unsure about all this, you’ll receive no penalties whatsoever for continuing to use the NoFollow tag. Broadly speaking there are no wrong answers where these new tags are concerned.
The only potential exception is, as stated above, failing to mark a paid link. Here’s where the changes may muddy the waters slightly. If your UGC contributors include sponsored or affiliate links in their comments this can contradict Google’s general advice to mark paid links with either “sponsored” or “nofollow” tags, but not “ugc”.
Until Google provides further clarification, we’d advise publishers to markup UGC content containing paid links as “NoFollow” or even “NoFollow UGC” by default. Do not only use UGC for paid links as this will likely invoke a penalty.
So… what do I need to do?
Technically speaking you don’t need to do anything. Google will neither reward you for going back and changing your old NoFollow tags nor will it penalise you for continuing to use the NoFollow tag and ignoring the UGC and Sponsored tags altogether.
If you can use them as a part of your usual operations, however, you’ll be helping to make Google better process links for more accurate analysis. And, as they say, a rising tide raises all ships.
What’s more, SEOs engaged in link building would to well to keep an eye out for others using the attributes correctly. If you’re using these tags appropriately but they’re not, you or your clients may still suffer for their mistakes.
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