Understand Google’s new guidelines on Nofollow links (+9 takeaways)


Google recently announced a change in the way they implement the nofollow attribute for links.

As with any change announced by Google, search-driven websites should assess the potential impact the change may have on their business.

This article examines the change Google has made to attribute binding and how it can affect businesses heavily reliant on organic search traffic. We’ve broken it down into nine simple things to consider.

1. Google introduced this change to correct the graph of links, which many think is broken

A side effect of the introduction of the nofollow attribute in 2005 was that many large sites applied this attribute to all of their content.

They did so to avoid the risk of a penalty. Lacking the resources to properly control the UGC and any links to external sites, many organizations considered this to be the wisest decision. Unfortunately for Google, they have lost visibility on much of the web. The meaning of these links has been lost and the search engine is trying to find it.

2. Sites don’t have to do anything

In any case, there is no reward or punishment. Sites can continue to use the nofollow attribute, as they have in the past, without fear of consequences.

Implementing the change is a Good Samaritan’s effort because there is no immediate benefit to your site. The only way you can possibly benefit from this is if the links to your site change their implementation of the nofollow attribute. Until that happens, rest easy knowing that you are making the web a better place.

3. Changes to the nofollow attribute are effective March 1, 2020

At this point, Google will start treating nofollow attributes as “clues”, which means they can be crawled. In the meantime, the search engine will continue to ignore them as usual, without crawling or indexing them.

It is important to remember that this change does not mean that the nofollow links are no longer valid.

Here’s how Gaetano DiNardi, Director of Demand Generation at Nextiva describes it:

“This doesn’t mean that nofollow links are no longer useful. SEOs thought that earning nofollow links was a waste of time, but that’s because they only viewed it from a link building perspective. When you step out of the SEO bubble and recognize that there are ancillary benefits, you can see the value. Even sponsored or UGC links, placed in the right places and aligned with the right audience, can generate high quality referral traffic for your brand.

4. The link with the nofollow attribute could potentially have an impact on the ranking position in the SERP

As it is, Google ignores links with the nofollow attribute. Therefore, PageRank is not transmitted to these pages and these links do not influence the rankings.

However, when the new rules take effect, that could change dramatically. At this point, Google will begin to treat link attributes as “clues” and may decide to explore them, a decision that will likely be made on a case-by-case basis.

Imagine all those links from sites like Forbes and Wikipedia that assign the nofollow attribute to all external links. Many sites could benefit from existing nofollow links on these authoritative sites.

SEO content analysis tools currently only recognize the two current attributes, nofollow and the default, which has no associated value. It will be interesting to see how these platforms integrate other link attributes and calculate the value of links in light of this coming change.

5. There are two additional new attributes for links.

These are rel = “sponsored” and rel = “ugc”. As implied, the sponsored attribute relates to links created for advertising, sponsorship, or other compensation. UGS stands for User Generated Content and is used for links in content such as comments and forum posts.

6. In the new implementation, link attributes can be combined

So, “ugc sponsored nofollow” is a valid link attribute. This means that you can add the new attributes (sponsored and UGC) to the existing nofollow tags.

7. You should always report sponsored links

This does not change with the new implementation of the nofollow attribute. The only difference is that now you have two options; use either rel = “sponsored” rel = “nofollow” or a combination of the two when assigning these links. For this purpose, Google will treat these attributes equally, although they obviously prefer that you use the “sponsored” attribution.

8. The nofollow attribute will continue to be a poor method of controlling content crawling and indexing.

It was not a good way to start. Now, it will be even worse since Google will no longer treat the attribute as a directive, but instead treat it as a suggestion.

Instead, use these options:

  • Noindex in meta robots tags
  • HTTP status codes 404 and 410
  • Password protection
  • Forbid in robots.txt
  • Search Console URL Removal Tool

As of September 1, 2019, Google no longer supports the noindex index directive in the robots.txt file, so this is no longer an option.

9. Be careful when tagging user-generated content (UGC)

If someone leaves a comment or post that includes a paid link, you could be penalized if they are not given the “nofollow” or “sponsored” attribute.

If you decide to use the UGC attribute, the safest approach is to include the nofollow attribute as well. You thus avoid exposing yourself to any risk of sanction. But if you’re going to use the nofollow attribute anyway, why bother marking it as UGC? It wouldn’t be to your advantage, it would be Google’s advantage.


Ultimately, Google has a really big demand from the web community. They want to better understand the web, especially they are looking to improve their ability to discern unnatural link patterns. And they want your help to do it.

For those who are committed to white hat SEO instead of black hat SEO, using optimization efforts that are over the edge, this should be good news. Anything that can level the playing field, reducing the effect of link farms, is a step in the right direction.

This refinement of the nofollow attribute also confirms the continued importance of links as a ranking factor. If links were not a major factor, Google would have little interest in improving its ability to detect link spam.

Yet it seems the opposite is true. The search engine makes a serious effort to refine its ability to discern the nature of certain links. And he’s asking for your help.

Need help increasing your traffic without relying on Google to do it for you? Find out how G2’s Learning Center surpassed 1 million monthly readers in just over a year, and find out how you can use these tips for your site.

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