Big SEO Change: Rel=nofollow, Rel=sponsored, Rel=ugc and What to Do About It


We’ve just recovered after Google stopped supporting rel=prev/next. And now this.

Yesterday Google announced 3 important things. They will change the SEO world forever. Here they are:

  • rel=”nofollow” will be treated as a hint rather than a strong signal (starting March 1, 2020)
  • rel=”sponsored” is a new link attribute to highlight sponsored and affiliate links (Google already supports it)
  • rel=”usg” is a new link attribute to highlight links in the user generated content (Google already supports it)

Shocking? Absolutely! 

Now, let’s dive deeper to understand what it all means for SEO and the Internet in general.

I’ll also share with you the results of my quick experiment. So read on!

What is rel=”nofollow”. When is rel=”nofollow”

In order to understand the consequences of such dramatic changes, we first need to understand what rel=”nofollow” is and why it is used in the first place.

Rel='nofollow'
A rel=”nofollow” is a link attribute which used to tell Google “Don’t follow this specific link”. Thus, PageRank was not transferred through such links.

And here is how the Google help link on rel= “nofollow” used to look till yesterday): 

rel=nofollow in Google help

So if you linked to somebody and wanted Google to ignore this link, you would use rel=”nofollow” and could rest assured that it will be ignored.

Rel=”nofollow” was mostly used:

  • By big publishers who didn’t want to consider each individual outgoing link and nofollowed all of them ‘in bulk’ (handy but arguable)
  • By websites having sponsored links 
  • By webmasters who were afraid or just didn’t want to share their PageRank with other websites (hint: it was just wasted this way).

The only situation when using rel=”nofollow” was discouraged was internal linking. Some websites still did this though to ‘control’ PageRank flow, ask Google to ignore and not index some pages or manage crawl budget.

A Hint vs a Signal

When a directive is a strong signal, Google follows it 10 out of 10 times.

When a directive is a hint, Google can either follow it or ignore it depending on the situation.

A rel=canonical is a great example of this: Google can use a user-specified canonical tag or ignore it if there are stronger signals. 

Here are a few words from Google on why they’re changing things:


Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns. By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.

Now the main question is: in which situations will Google ignore rel=nofollow? 

Unfortunately, there’s no answer. We’ll probably get it one day, mostly through experimenting. But this shift changes everything. 

There surely will be a set of rules Google will nofollow follow but I foresee that in most cases the answer will be ‘it depends’. 

New rel=”nofollow”: Good or Bad

It’s hard to say now which particular consequences this change will have.

I believe that first of all, Google will ignore rel=”nofollow” added to the internal links. It has never been a good idea anyway.

Ideally, Google could also start ‘counting’ some incoming nofollow links towards passing PageRank and authority. It’s frustrating when you put your efforts into something, people link to it but put the nofollow attribute on this link as if they say “Don’t trust this website, I don’t want to endorse it”.

On the other hand, websites will need to be more cautious about the links they have as now even nofollowed links might harm (starting from March 2020).

Additionally, adding the new attributes (rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc”) is lots of effort, especially for huge websites, and the impact of it is not fully defined. You might just as well leave rel=”nofollow” if you have it already.

Rel=”Sponsored”

This is a new attribute for links which are sponsored in any way. This will apply to:

  • Sponsored links
  • Affiliate links
  • Ads

So if you have links for which you get any compensation, you can use this attribute for them. I guess Barry was the first one to try rel=”sponsored” 😀

rel=sponsored

I think that many webmasters will be cautious with this tag: not everyone will want to flag a link as sponsored.

Rel=”UGC”

UGC stands for ‘User Generated Content” which is content submitted by users. 

The common examples are:

  • Blog comments (example: comments to this post)
  • QA websites and forums (example: Quora, Google Webmaster Forum)
  • Blogging platforms (Medium, Blogger)

One day, external links on the on Google Webmaster Forum might have rel=”UGC”. Currently, they are rel=”nofollow noopener”:

One of the main purposes of the rel=”UGC” attribute is to fight comment spam.

Putting the Attributes Together 

The important part is that you can combine the link attributes:


Yes, you can use more than one rel value on a link. For example, rel=”ugc sponsored” is a perfectly valid attribute which hints that the link came from user-generated content and is sponsored. It’s also valid to use nofollow with the new attributes — such as rel=”nofollow ugc” — if you wish to be backwards-compatible with services that don’t support the new attributes.

This means that if you are to add one of the new attributes to links, you can (and should) keep the ‘nofollow’ attribute too. The thing is that other search engines (yes, there are other search engines) still support “nofollow” and don’t support rel=”ugc’ and rel=”sponsored”.

Steps to Take Now

Nothing. You can relax.

But in the long run, you might need to add rel=”sponsored” to all sponsored links.

In the announcement, Google says that “There’s absolutely no need to change any nofollow links that you already have.” But in the next answer Google states “However, we recommend switching over to rel=”sponsored” if or when it is convenient.” and “Using “sponsored” [for sponsored links] is preferred, but “nofollow” is acceptable.” 

Using “sponsored” [for sponsored links] is preferred, but “nofollow” is acceptable

This is interesting. I think Google will push webmasters to using rel=”sponsored” instead of just rel=”nofollow”. But again, it’s a long-term plan, so you don’t need to do anything right now.

My Small Quick Experiment

Yesterday I did a quick experiment to check if Google indexes my pages if I put rel=”sponsored” and rel=”ugc” on the links to them.

The experiment steps:

  1. I created 3 completely new pages
  2. I made sure that these pages are not found in my sitemap.xml
  3. I linked to these pages from the new post on Google Webmaster Hangouts notes
  4. I added rel=”sponsored” to the first links
  5. I added rel=”ugc” to the second link
  6. I added a regular follow link to the control test page
  7. I requested indexing of the new post, so Google can discover links from it and follow or not follow them

The Experiment Results

From what I can see, Google ignored both rel=”sponsored” and
rel=”ugc” as both pages are indexed:

rel=sponsored indexed
rel=ugc indexed

I will also check the server log files, I still don’t have data for today.

The result is interesting. Google might be ignoring these attributes because they are added to the internal links. So I’ll need to adjust the experiment a little bit.

What SEO Community Says

What About ‘Nofollow” in the Meta Robots Tag?

I also asked John Mueller about the meta robots tag which also uses “nofollow” which tells Google to ignore all the links on a page. Here’s the answer:


But then:

So I assume that the meta robots nofollow will be a hint as well.

Update: Gary Illyes followed up on my question on Twitter with more explanations:

Final Thoughts

The change is huge and small at the same time. And there are more questions than answers now. But we’ll see how things will go from there.

Don’t want to miss anything? Subscribe for updates!

Get useful tips delivered to your email!


Pure knowledge delivered right to your inbox!

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (5 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
Loading...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *