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What are Link Attributes and Why Should You Care?
On Tuesday this week, Google announced on their blog the introduction of two new link attributes: “sponsored” and “ugc”.
Today, we’ve announced two new link attributes – “sponsored” and “ugc” – that join “nofollow” as ways to identify the nature of links. All will now work as hints about which links Google Search should consider or exclude for ranking purposes. More details:https://t.co/V6X2xjEC5L— Google Webmasters (@googlewmc) September 10, 2019
While this blew the minds of some SEO’s (we’re a very excited bunch when google updates anything), it’s leaving some business owners and webmasters scratching their heads about what it means for them. More importantly, many are left asking the question – do I need to do anything?
An Evolution of nofollow
First, let’s take a step back and understand what link attributes are for.
The link attributes announced this week are an evolution of Google’s “nofollow” link attribute. Launched nearly 15 years ago in an effort to fight “comment link spam”, the “nofollow” attribute gave webmasters power to markup links added to comments (typically on articles) as a way of indicating that the website didn’t necessarily endorse the links being posted.
In the earlier days of SEO, building links in the comments of external websites was a common tactic to help get websites ranked better.
Linking to external websites can provide important contextual clues to Google. If your blog has a bunch of comment spam linking out to certain websites, or other more unsavoury sites, it could potentially harm the ranking of your website.
Allowing developers to essentially say “Hey Google, don’t follow any links in my blog comments”, empowers websites to better control Google’s understanding of your site and not allow any of their domain cred to leech on.
“nofollow” also sometimes served a secondary purpose of trying to tell Google not to index certain pages, however, this served as a poor mechanism for that considering there are so many other ways a page can get found and indexed. Google has never recommended that usage, but recognizes that it has been used that way in the past.
The new “sponsored” and “ugc” tags are an evolution of this original “nofollow” tag. These attributes provide a few more clues to Google as to the nature of why you have marked a link as “nofollow”. You can even use multiple attributes.
“Nofollow” = my website does not endorse this other webpage or I don’t want any of my site’s authority passed on.
“Ugc” = User Generated Content: any content that third parties can submit to your site, for example, user comments, forum posts, online discussions, etc. Anywhere that users can submit their own content on your site and potentially include links.
“Sponsored” = links on your website placed for some type of compensation. This could be affiliate links, influencer arrangement links, sponsored guest posts, and more.
Do you have to add attributes to your links or change your existing “nofollow” links?
In regards to changing your existing “nofollow” links, the short answer is no. Google has been quite clear about this.
You literally don’t have to change anything if you don’t want. The post is explicit about that: https://t.co/rMmSrUHaSQ pic.twitter.com/gQw1k6Rgda— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) September 10, 2019
However, If you have existing links on your site that fall under UGC or Sponsored Links, and these have not been marked as nofollow in the past, implementing Google’s new guidelines would be a good idea if sustainable rankings are important to you.
How do you add attributes to links?
The code markup for links is simple:
<a href=”https://examplesite.com” rel=”nofollow”>This is my link</a>
In the example above, rel=”nofollow” could be replaced with rel=”sponsored” or rel=”ugc”, or even rel=”nofollow sponsored”, depending on the applicable situation.
Do I need to add rel=”ugc” to all my website comments?
If you’re using a CMS like WordPress, most good third party comment tools have already implemented rel=”nofollow”. With these latest updates from Google, many will update these with rel=”ugc”. Check with your comment service provider if you are unsure.
If you have a custom or enterprise website platform you may need to get your website developer to make this update for you. That will be much simpler than manually monitoring your comments and manually updating any links with the appropriate markup.
When should you use rel=”sponsored”?
So much of Google’s search algorithm is a black box. I’m personally of the opinion that when Google tells you to do something, they have good reason for doing so.
Unless you like to operate on the fringes of SEO (aka you’re OK with risking penalties), if you accept any sort of compensation for a link, you should mark the link as rel=”sponsored”.
I believe Google has gotten fairly smart at identifying sponsored content or content with sponsored link placements on its own. I suspect not using the correct markup will cause an algorithmic penalty in the future (if this isn’t the case already).
Do links marked as “nofollow” really not count for anything?
On the Google’s webmaster blog, they gave important information about the value of nofollow links:
“When nofollow was introduced, Google would not count any link marked this way as a signal to use within our search algorithms. This has now changed.”
It’s been theorized by SEOs for a while that “nofollow” links were still passing juice, if not a diminished amount. This statement confirms that this theory has been true for some period of time.
We’ll consider any links with these attributes within our *ranking* systems now — understanding how people link to each other, etc, deciding how to analyze those. But nofollow also had another purpose, which was to block crawling and indexing. That continues thru 2020…— Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) September 10, 2019
Reactions to the news
Whenever new news comes out of Google, half the fun is watching how SEOs react, and the theories that follow:
Sympathy for homegrown CMSs and Enterprise Websites:
Did you guys give thought to the number of homegrown & enterprise CMS tools that will need to be changed to support this change & how long it takes to get companies to make ANY changes to those tools?— Kristine Schachinger (@schachin) September 10, 2019
Then to get their teams of content people & devs to understand it & care? pic.twitter.com/mPrQ6TEow0
September 10, 2019
I find the shift to the “hint” model to be rather hubristic. It carves out more arbitration power for Googlebot at the expense of webmasters’ agency. So many metadata are already technically only “suggestions” to Google; we shouldn’t make things even murkier.— Calvin Ke (@ccalvinke) September 10, 2019
How will link attributes impact search going forward?
Knowing what’s going to happen with Google’s search algorithm going forward is always full of speculation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to guess.
As stated earlier in this article, I suspect there might already be an algorithmic penalty in play particularly when it comes to sponsored content. I think Google has gotten smart about websites which might be making compensated link placements and penalizing them.
My opinion is that Google is giving webmasters the opportunity to come clean before it penalizes your site. Or potentially even remove an algorithmic penalty that might be already applied.
In my jaunts through the web on a daily basis, I see a ton of high authority sites, with decent content, but are placing links, and these sites have incredibly poor traffic. It doesn’t completely add up, thus suspect an algorithmic penalty might already be in play.
This could end up causing disruption in the paid link space, which is already technically against Google’s guidelines. It seems that Google’s “stick” for enforcing this might be getting stronger.
My hope here is that this is an honest play by Google to allow webmasters to be transparent about the links they place on their sites, and ideally ultimately reward them for doing so.
But as with anything with Google, we’ll have to see!