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The SEO impact of Nofollow, Sponsored & UGC links

Google shook up the world of SEO and announced two new attributes for marking nofollow links, which will help Google better understand the nature of links. However, this announcement caused some confusion in the SEO world and among website promoters.

In this post, I will describe those attributes and clarify when it’s appropriate to use them in order to align properly. Furthermore, I’ll explain why Google decided to introduce two new types of nofollow links, let’s begin….

About the New Nofollow Links and When to Use Them

We’ll present the two new features that Google introduced, and you’re probably already familiar with the third one:

1. “rel=”sponsored” – These are intended to mark sponsored links and paid links on a site, links that are part of advertisements, hidden, or compensation agreements, and others.

2. “rel=”ugc” – The meaning of ugc is User Generated Content. Marking a link as ugc is recommended for links created by the user, such as links in comments or forums.

3. “rel=”nofollow” – You should mark links as nofollow when you want to link to a specific page but don’t want to imply any endorsement of the linked content and don’t want to pass credit and ranking to the linked page.

If it’s not clear, they are written as follows:

<a href="" rel="sponsored">Link Text</a>
<a href="" rel="ugc">Link Text</a>
<a href="" rel="nofollow">Link Text</a>

If you decide to change the nofollow links on your site to be more specific, then Google’s guidelines are quite clear and I’ve just presented them for you. Anyway, here’s the original text on the subject:

rel ValueDescription
rel=”sponsored”Mark links that are advertisements or paid placements (commonly called paid links) as sponsored.
rel=”ugc”We recommend marking user-generated content (UGC) links, such as comments and forum posts, as ugc.

If you want to recognize and reward trustworthy contributors, you might remove this attribute from links posted by members or users who have consistently made high-quality contributions over time.

rel=”nofollow”Use the nofollow value when other values don’t apply, and you’d rather Google not associate your site with, or crawl the linked page from, your site. (For links within your own site, use robots.txt, as described below.)

Why did Google create a new type of nofollow link?

About 15 years ago, Google (in collaboration with other companies) introduced the nofollow feature as a way to help combat spammy links in comments and user-generated content. Very quickly, the use of this feature became a strong recommendation for marking advertisement links and sponsored (paid) links so that Google could easily identify them.

Additionally, as is well known, links to spam sites or low-quality sites may harm you, and marking them as nofollow is intended to protect against such situations. So, generally, using nofollow has worked excellently for many years.

However, sites like Wikipedia or Forbes, for example, have used nofollow links extensively to avoid penalties and due to the inability to accurately describe links in user-generated content.

This situation has caused Google’s link graph to be less effective and useful. Are links appearing in Wikipedia not valuable?

Google understands that the web has evolved since the introduction of the nofollow feature, and it would be appropriate for the nofollow feature to also evolve and allow Google to better understand the nature of links through several new attributes.

If Google finds that you are receiving any form of compensation for links not marked as nofollow, you may be penalized for it.

Appendix: Could You Be Penalized for Not Marking Paid Links?

The answer is yes. Google recommends marking paid links or sponsored links as sponsored or as nofollow, but not by marking them as ugc.

The issue adds another layer of complexity and confusion. What if those contributing to UGC add paid links or affiliate links in the content or comments they add? Google has still not clarified the matter.

For this reason, you may see website owners and publishers continue to mark user-generated content links as “nofollow” or perhaps even as “nofollow ugc.”

The Impact of Those Nofollow Links on SEO

The impact of those nofollow links can be divided into three time frames:

1. Before the Announcement of the New Link Types

Before the announcement of those new features, it was believed that nofollow links worked as follows:

  • They were not used for crawling and indexing since Google did not follow them.
  • They were not used for ranking (*according to Google’s claim).

*The second point I mentioned is debatable. Many SEO professionals (including myself) believe that it’s not true and that nofollow links do have an impact on ranking, albeit minimal. I discussed this in a post on nofollow links and their value in terms of SEO.

2. Today, After the Announcement of Those Links

Anyway, after the announcement of those new features, Google indicates that they refer to the new links and nofollow links as follows:

  • They still are not used for crawling and indexing (look at the upcoming changes below).
  • For ranking, all nofollow links from now on are officially just a recommendation or a hint for Google, meaning Google can decide for themselves whether to ignore these links or consider them for ranking. As I mentioned earlier, many SEO professionals believed that this was how Google treated these links for quite some time.

3. Starting March 1, 2020

Google explicitly states that as of March 1, 2020, all link attributes will only be treated as a hint. Specifically, the situation will be as follows:

  • In certain cases, Google will treat them for crawling and indexing.
  • In certain cases, Google will treat them for ranking.

I emphasize the words “in certain cases” since Google explicitly states that in most cases, they will continue to ignore nofollow links as they (allegedly) did in the past.

Final Words

Although there is currently no real reason to make any changes to existing links, the decision to make any changes is at your discretion as website promoters and SEO professionals.

Due to initial confusion and a lack of clear benefits, many website owners will likely wait before making any changes and will wait for a stage with more precise and clearer information on the subject.

Nevertheless, it certainly won’t hurt if you mark paid links and sponsored links as “sponsored” or even as “nofollow sponsored” for added security for now. What do you think about the subject? Tell us in the comments…

Roee Yossef
Roee Yossef

I develop custom WordPress themes by design. I love typography, colors & everything between, and aim to provide high performance, seo optimized websites with a clean & semantic code.


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