Introducing the Nofollow, Sponsored, & UGC Attributes
On Tuesday, September 10th, 2019, Google announced that the currently 14-year-old “nofollow” attribute would be set to receive two significant new siblings: the “sponsored” attribute and the “UGC” attribute (UGC stands for “user-generated content”).
So, why improve something if it is not broken? Why two new attributes where before one was seemingly working perfectly well? Let’s get into it.
As mentioned, the original nofollow attribute was introduced back in 2005. We will give examples of the new attributes a little later, but for now, here is a reminder of a nofollow attribute to make sure we are all on the same page:
<a href="http://www.example.com/" rel="nofollow">Link text</a>
Anyone with an interest in SEO should be aware that the purpose of the nofollow attribute is to highlight to Google that a link should not parse PageRank and therefore, not influence the ranking of the destination URL that the link is pointing to.
Essentially, the use of the nofollow attribute allowed webmasters (in theory) to prevent PageRank parsing through links they did not editorially endorse (either internal or external).
However, Google has now introduced two similar types of attributes, called the sponsored attribute and the UGC attribute. Just like the original nofollow attribute, these two new rel values will still highlight to Google that the link should not parse PageRank. However, the main difference is that the two new rel values will give a “hint” to Google about the link’s overall use and intent. Below we explain how each new attribute will work.
Sponsored Link Attribute
With the introduction of the sponsored link attribute, it now means that sponsored links (advertising) can be definitively labeled as such, whereas at present untrusted links have to use the same (nofollow) attribute as sponsored/advertising links. Both may have no editorial endorsement from a webmaster’s perspective, but at least with a new sponsored attribute, Google can decipher advertising from “untrustworthiness.”
The UGC (user-generated content) attribute will also allow webmasters to signify they do not editorially endorse specific hyperlinks on their site. Additionally, the UGC tag will also let Google know that the link is within user-generated content, such as a user comment or forum post. Again, this is one more layer of information to Google and provides clarity that the link is not any form of advertising.
Why Not Just Stick With the Nofollow Attribute?
Although the nofollow attribute has been working effectively since it was introduced, there are several reasons in favor of expanding into more than one type of link attribute that prevents the flow of PageRank. For example, the new “sponsored” and “UGC” values will assist Google in designing a better-defined linking architecture against which unnatural linking patterns can be judged.
In addition, the new attributes will also assist Google in an ongoing analysis of anchor text, specifically the relevance of the anchor text in relation to the destination content. Finally, the new attributes will help to protect site owners against committing to a show of full support for links that may not be fully trusted.
How Do the Nofollow, Sponsored, & UGC Updates Affect Webmasters?
Nofollow links have historically been seen as the definitive method of insisting to Google that a link is not to be editorially endorsed. This meant that Google was potentially losing out on more granular information such as which links were advertising, which were untrusted, which were placed by the webmaster, and which were placed by users.
Here is some advice on how webmasters should handle the new attributes.
Use a combination of new attributes where relevant (e.g., rel="nofollow ugc").
Use nofollow or a combination of nofollow+sponsored attribute for paid links.
If already using the nofollow attribute on ads or sponsored links, no markup changes are required, although Google recommends switching future link elements when convenient to do so.
Takeaway: no immediate webmaster action is required—Google offers no incentive/punishment scheme in support of updating links that were in place prior to the availability of the new attributes. However, sites with sprawling navigations that use nofollow to prevent Google wasting “crawl budget” may wish to consider adopting the new attributes, but there is no clear evidence thus far of any benefits.
Quick Recap—What are Nofollow, Sponsored, & UGC Attributes?
Let’s recap and paint a clear picture. We will begin with a regular link example for comparison, which looks like this:
<a href= "https://example.com">Link text</a>
This type of regular (or “default”) link will be crawled, indexed, and could affect ranking. Now let’s look at the new triumvirate of link attributes (also worth noting that the rel= attributes are only used with <a> tags, here is an explanation of each for clarity):
What is the nofollow attribute?
The nofollow attribute looks like this:
<a href="http://www.example.com/" rel="nofollow">Link text</a>
Webmasters are encouraged to use the nofollow attribute to prevent Google from crawling, indexing, and analyzing a link that you would rather Google not associate with your site. This option is ideal for marking up all unapproved links in contributor content as well as any pages on your site you don’t want crawling.
What Is the Sponsored Attribute?
The sponsored attribute looks like this:
<a href="http://www.example.com/" rel="sponsored">Link text</a>
This attribute should be used to markup all paid/sponsored links (potentially including affiliate links, Google has not made this clear at the time of writing). This is now the preferred attribute to use.
What Is the UGC Attribute?
The UGC (‘user-generated content’) attribute looks like this:
<a href="http://www.example.com/" rel="ugc">Link text</a>
This attribute should be used to markup all links posted in any designated user-generated content sections of websites (i.e., links posted in the comments section). The Google guidelines do, however, make exceptions for the omission of the UGC attribute in the markup of links submitted by trusted contributors.
When Will the Nofollow, Sponsored, & UGC Changes Be Implemented?
Google has stated that the rollout of the new sponsored and UGC attributes are already working as hints; the change to the nofollow attribute will become a hint on March 1st, 2020. As mentioned above, changes to existing links don’t necessarily need to take place, although please also see “Do I need to rethink my existing nofollow attributes?” in the FAQ below for a more detailed answer.
FAQ—Welcome to our YES/NO Quickfire Round
Following Google’s announcement surrounding the forthcoming updates to the nofollow attribute, we know that many of you will have many important questions. Check out our FAQ for instant YES/NO answers on the big questions.
Do I need to rethink my existing nofollow attributes?
NO. The nofollow attribute is the long-established method of ‘blocking’ a paid/sponsored link on your site, meaning Google will not infer a desired association with the destination site. Existing nofollow links will continue to function as such—no action is required.
Can I combine rel values to create dual-purpose links?
YES. Where a link is both paid/sponsored and part of user-generated content, you may combine the sponsored attribute and the UGC attribute to create a tag that looks like this: rel="sponsored ugc".
A consideration to bear in mind is that the new attributes may not be supported by all services. Where there is doubt, the inclusion of “nofollow” within the tag (e.g., rel=”nofollow sponsored”) is recommended for backward-compatibility.
Do I have to stop using nofollow for sponsored links and UGC links?
NO. The use of the nofollow attribute to cover all cases of paid/sponsored and UGC links will continue to be supported going forward. However, where your systems are set up to append the markup, switching to the relevant attribute is recommended.
Do I still have to highlight ads and sponsored links?
YES. Link schemes (where is a link is strategically used in an attempt to positively affect PageRank and the site’s position in SERPs) can incur punishments. Avoid action by flagging paid/sponsored links with either the ‘nofollow’ or the ‘sponsored’ attribute.
Won’t the knowledge that links are seen as “hints” lead to an increase in link spam from user-generated content?
YES/NO. Moderation tools and human review already serve to deter such activity from third-party contributors. The new attributes will further help to block link spam where attempted.