Everything You Need to Know About Google’s NoFollow Attribution Changes

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Google introduced nofollow links about 15 years ago and literally nothing has changed on the nofollow front since then. So, when Google announced that they were Evolving “nofollow,” it certainly catches a professional SEO expert‘s attention. Big deal alert!

But how big of a deal is it for the average webmaster, really? Meh. It gets a meh out of ten. Like most Google updates, the bigger your company is and the more digital property you have to manage the more this will impact you.

If you’re a small-to-medium-sized business (SMB), you actually don’t have to do anything at all. But, more on that later.

Here is a deep dive into what the update is, and who is freaking out about it.

What Has Changed?

Let’s travel back in time to 2005. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the number one movie at the box office, and nofollow links are the number 1 thing on the SEO community’s mind.

Google introduced them as a way of fighting spam and identifying advertising/ sponsored links. The term nofollow quickly became a verb to SEO nerds like us. If you had a link that you would rather Google didn’t follow, you could now “nofollow” it.

That’s how things stayed, until recently when Google announced they’re changing that a little bit. 

Last week they announced that link attribution can be done in three ways: 

  1. Nofollow: You are linking to this page, but don’t want to provide any sort of rank boost to it or endorse it in any way.
  2. Sponsored: For links that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreement
  3. UGC: This is for user-generated content, such as comments or forum posts.

And Now The Part Everyone is Freaking Out About…

It wouldn’t be a proper Google update unless they said or did something that left SEO people scratching their heads saying, “Sorry, what?”

For the last 15 years, Google would not count a nofollow as a signal to use within their search algorithms. But then, Google announced:

“All the link attributes — sponsored, UGC and nofollow — are treated as hints about which links to consider or exclude within Search. We’ll use these hints — along with other signals — as a way to better understand how to appropriately analyze and use links within our systems.”

Sorry, what? What the hell is a “hint” exactly? I’m an SEO consultant, I think in binary 1s and 0s, this “hint” word doesn’t register. You’ll either follow the link or you won’t. Which is it?

google hints

Ok, that’s exaggerating. But this still has people in the SEO world talking.

Google Takes the Hint

So, what is a hint exactly? Well, early interpretation is this: If you nofollow a link, basically, Google isn’t going to pay attention to it…unless it’s a really good link. If a hundred people start clicking on it and then all of a sudden it is valuable, then it would now maybe have some weight and perhaps now pass that weight on.

Bill Slawski - Hint

When Do These Changes Take Effect?

This is where things get a little bit confusing.

These new link attributes (sponsored, UGC and nofollow) work right now as hints that Google will use for ranking purposes. 

However, they will be using the hints for crawling and indexing purposes as of March 1, 2020.

The brilliant people at Moz have laid it all out for us on the following graph.

No follow moz

What Do You Need to Change Right Now? And After March 1st? 

This is where the ‘meh’ comes in. If you’re a webmaster for an SMB, Google has openly said you don’t have to do anything, and you really don’t.

These updates apply a lot more to the big publishers. But, for a SMB campaign that’s building under ten link-building blogs a month, you’re not going to be building nofollow links.

This kind of stuff is definitely more important for the big publishers, or sites with a lot of people commenting on their content, or big online communities/ forums with pages upon pages of user-generated content. 

For the SMB, this is more something your SEO provider needs to be aware of. But, it shouldn’t have much of an impact on your campaigns. We seriously hope you’re not paying your SEO firm for just forum comment posting. If you are, yikes.

So what do you do if you’re running medium-sized SEO campaigns right now? You don’t have to do anything. And what should you do after March 2020? Again, you don’t have to do anything.

At first glance, this news seems like it’s going to call for a giant audit of every link on every one of your digital properties. However, that’s far from the case.

So, Google was mindful of not creating too much work for us. Which is nice.

The Big Questions

Of course, after any big (or small, for that matter) Google update, the SEO world is abuzz. If this was a gigantic classroom, you would see millions of eager hands shot up after the teacher asks, “Any questions?”

People in the world of SEO crave data. With that in mind, here are the answers to some of the burning questions out there.

What Are the Benefits of Switching Over?

As we previously covered, there are no real tangible benefits for an SMB with a few web properties to go switching their nofollows to one of the new ones. However, what are the benefits to the larger companies with thousands of links to worry about? 

When asked on Twitter, Danny Sulivan responded by saying, “Because you might find it useful to be more granular. People define CSS things in various ways for category and organization when they don’t *have* to. It’s kind of like that. We thought people might like more flavors than just nofollow.”

Is There Any Difference Between nofollow or UGC Link Attribute?

Sulivan said there is no real difference between the attributes, aside from one being “softer” than the other. Both will be a “hint” and Google will determine whether or not the link should be counted.

How Will This Impact Rankings?

Google has stated that they don’t see these changes having much of any impact on rankings, and we have to agree. The first wave of changes is live right now and we don’t expect to read reports of people’s rankings plummeting suddenly. Of course, like anything, only time (and data) will tell.

Rankings are also not expected to change after the March deadline.

How Should We Handle Affiliate Links?

This was a big question for a number of companies that are leveraging affiliate links as their main way of monetizing their site or blog.

When asked about affiliate links, Google’s John Mueller said, “Paid links (aka ads) are fine as long as they’re disclosed with rel=nofollow or rel=sponsored. Affiliate links may also be there because of a monetary relationship, so that would apply there too (most of the time the bigger problem on affiliate sites is the content).”

The implication here is that most affiliate sites are likely to be punished for offering low quality or duplicate content, and this represents a bigger SEO problem than how their links are attributed.

What Exactly is Defined as User Generated Content

Users asked if USG is limited to comments and forum posts, or if it could extend to other user-generated content in profiles or third-party review sites. Sulivan responded, “pretty much any place where you allow third-party users to add links to your content, that’s user-generated content.”

network circuit board link connection technology

Why We Build NoFollow Links

There is a bit of a mystique around nofollows. Would you ever want to build them, as an SEO agency? We do. We’ve been laughed at by other SEO agencies for doing it. But we do. So there.

Here’s why.

There is a value of nofollow as part of an overall SEO strategy.  Now, mind you, if you’re paying an SEO provider like us, it’s not exactly exciting to open up a report and be like, “Oh, you built me nofollow links.. Cool?”

It’s not cool, but it’s crucial. We like to think of it as the pH balancer in SEO to offset some more aggressive link building tactics.

Any time you chase SEO success via link-building, you run the risk of catching Google’s attention for the wrong reasons. Even if you’re doing good (white hat) things and organically creating linkable content, a high volume of dofollow could send up warning flags.

Everything in moderation, as they say. This is why we include some nofollows in our mix so we’re not just creating a web trail of the same thing over and over again. 

Who Else Uses NoFollow Link?

Larger and higher-end publications will be more affected by these changes as they utilize nofollow links much more frequently than SMB would.

And to be honest, those nofollows still have a lot of value. I would rather get a nofollow link to a massive publication than get no link at all. These links are still ‘big fish’ that are always worth going after. Particularly after the announcement that these links can be “hints.” There is still value there and potential for that high-end publication to pass some link juice to your site if a significant number of people see your and click it to go to one of your web properties.

These links do count and they do matter.

The History of Link Building 

As we said, this is the first real change to the nofollow tag since it was introduced in 2005. However, the world of link-building, in general, has seen massive shifts over the years.

To give you a bit of historical context of nofollow’s evolution, let’s see how link building has evolved over the years.

The 1990s

These were the lawless early frontier days of the interwebs where anything goes, and there was no real sheriff policing how people and businesses published content.

There was no Google, so there were no Google penalties to worry about. Yahoo! and Altavista were the go-to search engines for the world, and you could get away with a lot. In fact, keyword stuffing was seen as a viable strategy back then. Nobody was really worried about links yet, as they didn’t hold any real SEO weight yet.

Your SEO success was all about how many keywords you could use on your page, in your images and in your metas.


Google hadn’t quite risen to a world superpower just yet, but in 1998 they introduced their revolutionary pagerank based algorithm that sought to clean up this giant mess that was the average search result circa the late 90s. Finding what you were looking for back then was not even close to what it’s like today. The user had to do a lot of work. Now, that concept is blasphemous. 

This would now put more focus on keyword placement (versus volume) and give real weight to inbound and outbound links for the first time ever.


Google becomes more than the de facto search engine. They become a household verb. To search for something on the internet was now to Google something.

Google’s influence and mission to provide the best possible search experience for the user leads to websites now getting punished or ignored for spammy tactics. And, man, there are a lot of spammy tactics!

Marketers now know the value of links and start building them, without any real thought to relevance. Actually, with blatant disregard for relevance in a lot of cases.

Irrelevant links, same-source links, and link directories are everywhere and you can actually see SEO wins by using them. Directory submission links were huge and were actually gaining some traction.

These directories were basically trying to be Google My Business before it existed. As a business owner, you would pay one of these directories to list your company on their site, complete with your logo, link(s) to your website. These directories had a brief day in the sun and could actually help you rank. 

Another successful link building tactic for that time was the press release. Business owners could release a press release and load it with links and keywords and pay to have it released by a major press release distribution company. News releases were now more about earning links than getting into the news.

2005 -2010

Google was getting smarter, but black hat marketers were still trying to outsmart and “hack” it. The biggest brands in the world are guilty of spammy SEO tactics. Even BMW is publically shamed by Google’s Matt Cutts and penalized for keyword stuffing.

Companies are almost completely focused on quantity. They’re trying to publish as many pieces and acquire (notice how I didn’t say “earn”) as many links as humanly possible with cheap and low-quality writing, or even automation software that publishes borderline gibberish.

Eventually, Google looks to end this saturation and tells marketers that overusing or stuffing keywords in your anchor texts is now a no-no. Not only will it not help you, but you can now be penalized for it. Google introduces the nofollow tag as a way for webmasters to give Google a better roadmap on how to navigate their site.

Google tells the world that the best way to rank is to earn natural links through organic content. Blackhats respond by saying, “Nah, there’s gotta be a faster way to do it” and keep doing their thing.

Even former retail giant JC Penny is trying to buy fake links. Of course, the top-level marketing people deny any authorization of using link farms, fire their SEO company, and take the links down. 

Were the links helping them? Let’s put it this way. The NY Times reported that once the links were taken down, JC Penny dropped from the No.1 rank for “Samsonite carry on luggage” all the way down to No. 71 in a matter of hours.

2010- Present

Google gets better at separating the black hats from the companies doing the work to earn SEO success. If you’re a smart marketer in this decade, you’re following Google’s guidelines, not trying to hack them.

The first Google Panda update in 2011 acts like Thanos snapping his fingers and wipes out half of the sites that deliberately didn’t follow Google webmaster’s guidelines. 

Ok, it didn’t wipe out half. However, the Panda did impact about 12% of all sites on the web, which was absolutely massive.

A few years later in 2012, Google rolls out the Penguin update as probably the biggest smackdown on spammy links they’ve ever released. Relevancy is now the name of the game and Google is now punishing links that hold any value to the searcher. 

The Penguin updates every few months. As a result, if you discover that a link is hurting your site and you take it down, you have to wait until at least the next update to start to recover.

That is until The Penguin becomes part of Google’s core algo in 2016 and updates were felt in real-time. This was good news for companies that were looking to rebuild after the penguin penalty, as their good work would show up almost right away.

2019 and Beyond

That brings us today.

We frequently say that the Google algorithm has never made more sense than it does today. It’s more in tune with what a searcher wants to see than it ever has been. Every update seeks to provide a better searcher experience. That means only relevant and related search results.

This also means rewarding the sites that are doing the work, and penalizing sites that are taking short cuts.

Do some of the link building and keyword stuffing tactics we explored above still exist. Oh my lord, yes. And it kills me every time I still see them. 

You almost have to laugh when you see a spammy site full of spammy links and nonsense/keyword-stuffed text that’s just not fooling anyone. They’re now a punchline and something we forward around the office like, “Look at this hack-job LOL” or “Nobody told these people it’s not 2008 anymore.”

The Key Points to Know

The three biggest takeaways from all of this are the following:

  1. “Rel=sponsored” and “Rel=ugc” are now more granular attribution for links
  2. You don’t have to change your current nofollows if you don’t want to
  3. A nofollow is a “hint” for ranking right now, and will be for indexing and crawling in March 2020.

I’m sure there are lot of people who work in PPC sitting back and saying “Ok, let’s watch all of the SEO guys freak out over the latest Google update… Again.” Some will freak out over this. Some will do nothing. We will be in the middle.

My dad always had a good saying that every story is kind of like a coin. There is the heads and the tails. And then there’s the rim around the outside. One side of this coin is freaking out and the other is doing nothing. We’re on that rim.

One thing we’re definitely taking away from this is links DO matter on the scale of SEO. Google has traditionally said the opposite. There has been talk that links are dead and that links don’t matter.

But, here we are, Google is completely changing things and creating a 3 pronged classification system for nofollow links. Links clearly matter to Google, otherwise, what would be the point of doing this? 

The fact that Google needs a better system to classify nofollow links means that links do have some importance. For Google to want to change the way that they internally process billions of links on the internet means something. You can bet that there were a lot of meetings and a lot of discussion on this at the Google end.

As we said, this is not really something you should lose any sleep over. Particularly because there are SEO nerds who are already voluntarily losing sleep over these changes, up all night scanning Twitter and blogs to decipher it all.

Want to get some of those nerds working for you? We would love to help! Click here to contact me any time.

About the Author

Paul Teitelman - SEO Consultant

Paul is a well-respected Canadian SEO consultant and link-building expert with over 15 years of experience helping hundreds of companies rank for competitive keywords on Google. He is a Toronto-based SEO consultant who is passionate about search engine optimization and link building. Over the years, he has made a reputation for himself as a leader in the industry by consistently delivering phenomenal results to his growing client base.