When people look at a website, it’s easy to forget all of the complex operations that are happening below the surface. Though things like link attributes and metadata aren’t seen by the user, these elements play a key role in allowing the internet to run smoothly. When Google announced it would no longer adhere to nofollow rules in robots.txt files, it sent website owners scrambling to ensure their pages were using the correct format. Last week, Google announced another change to the way that website owners can declare the purpose of links by adding two new attributes that compliment nofollow links.

The nofollow attribute was introduced nearly 15 years ago, and it was designed to give website owners more control over which links were considered by Google’s search algorithm. This labeling system was necessary because Google considered links when determining the quality of a website and where it would rank in search. The nofollow attribute made it possible to exclude links from comment spam or sponsored links. If a site wasn’t using the nofollow attribute, the site could hurt its SEO efforts. 

Google added two new attributes that work in a way that’s similar to the nofollow link attribute. Now, instead of telling Google to not follow a certain link, website owners can set it up links that tell Google if the content is user generated or sponsored. 

First, there is a rel=”sponsored” attribute. Google recommends using this attribute to identify links on your site that were created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements. Second, a rel=”ugc” was also created. UGC stands for User Generated Content, and this attribute value is recommended for links within user-generated content, such as comments and forum posts. Even with the new attributes, the old rel=”nofollow” will still work. This attribute should be used for cases “where you want to link to a page but don’t want to imply any type of endorsement, including passing along ranking credit to another page.”

Besides making it clear how each link should be viewed, these codes no longer dictate exactly how Google’s search algorithm will treat the links. In other words, just because there’s a nofollow attribute attached to a link, it doesn’t that Google will completely ignore the link. Using the nofollow attribute isn’t a way to hide a problematic link from Google. The company takes other factors into consideration and these link attributes are treated more as hints and suggestions.

As Google explained in the post announcing the change, “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. 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.

Though it may seem like a minor element in website design, these attributes are important for getting the best SEO ranking possible. Without declaring links as sponsored or as user-generated content, a website runs the risk of being penalized for linking to inappropriate content or for engaging in some kind of linking scheme. Website owners should review the links on their site to make sure they have the right attribute or combination of attributes. 

For more recent news about changes and updates to Google, read this article on how WordPress 5.3 will address the change to the nofollow rule for robot.txt files.