The 2019 and 2020 no-follow link updates
Before September 2019, no follow links were simply treated as a directive. Google obeyed the no follow tags as an indication that the links cannot be trusted. However, the September algorithm changed all this. Google now treats no follow links as a hint. This means that the search engine will determine whether to use the link for ranking purposes or not. This meant that publishers had to review their on-page SEO tactics, link building and content marketing techniques to ensure they avoid spam at all costs.
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
Google later announced that it would be rolling out the second aspect of the update which would affect how no follow links are crawled and indexed. This algorithm update is set for 1st March 2020.
In the announcement, Google clearly stated, “For crawling and indexing purposes, no follow will become a hint as of March 1, 2020.”
What are no-follow links?
In simple terms, a no-follow link is a link which has a special HTML tag – rel=”nofollow”. This tag is applied to tell search engines like Google to ignore the link. For this reason, these aren’t indexed or crawled meaning that they do not affect search engine rankings. As a user, you can’t really tell the difference between a no-follow link and a do follow link. You can copy and paste the links just like any other.
How were no-follow links treated by Google?
Comment spamming became a major challenge for Google when blogging become very popular. Spammers would visit blogs and leave their links on different sites in the comment section. This enabled them to rank highly in Google and push out high quality sites on search results.
Google then developed the no-follow tag in order to address this problem. In 2005, Google announced an algorithm update where the no-follow tag was rolled out. Other search engines like Yahoo and Bing soon adopted this into their algorithm.
Inbound links that are typically no follow include:
- Blog comments
- Social media posts
- Some blogs and news sites
- Links in press releases
Popular sites like Quora, YouTube, Reddit and Wikipedia use the no follow tag on all their outbound links.
Another best practice is to ensure that links to paid ads are no follow. This will avoid getting penalized by Google since they want all of your links to be earned.
User generated content vs. sponsored content
Google has introduced two sets of no-follow link attributes. The first is to indicate that the no-follow link is from a user generated content whereas the second indicates that the link is on sponsored content. No follow link attributes on sponsored content give Google a strong hint not to index the page and give it any PageRank. It also allows the search engine to know that the page sells sponsored links.
On the other hand, user generated content no-follow links will be treated as hints and may or may not be incorporated for ranking purposes. No-follow attributes on this type of content might be useful for ranking purposes. For instance, forum links can be indexed and crawled for ranking purposes. This is because Google does consider certain forums as expert sources of information. Forums give people a platform to share their personal experiences with products and services as well as gives advice to users in form of answers.
By applying a no-follow attribute on a forum post, it doesn’t stop Google from sending ranking signals because the search engine believes this could be a useful source of honest and expert endorsement. However, this is not to say that Google will consider all links to forums trustworthy links. Adding a no-follow attribute to a forum link can help Google determine whether a forum is valuable.
Why is Google making these changes?
There could be several reasons why Google is changing no follow links from a directive to a hint:
- Traffic from forums has been dwindling over the years. Less people are commenting on forums and creating links.
- Blogging has also gone down. There are fewer people creating blogs and publishing new written content online.
- Video and audio content doesn’t generate links
How to adjust your no follow link policy?
If you use the no-follow tag to prevent certain pages on your website from being crawled, you might have to make some adjustments to your current approach. In fact, using no follow tags to prevent a page from crawling and indexing was never a recommended practice.
Most publishers would use this attribute for user profiles, login pages or pages that have thin content in order to keep them from affecting their rankings. However, there are better ways of preventing pages from being indexed by search engines such as using the Meta robots no index directive.
It may be difficult to tell how much the new update will affect site rankings. When Google chooses to crawl and index no follow links, rankings may be affected depending on the pages the search engine crawls. One thing we may see is the algorithm using several rules for which pages to index and which ones not to. It’s highly likely that Google will index low quality pages that have the no follow attribute.
Here’s what you can do to remain safe and avoid being penalized:
- Monitor traffic changes: Keep note of the changes expected to take place from March 1st and start monitoring your traffic. If you notice a huge change in rankings or traffic, it’s important to investigate further. You may start by changing the no follow links to prevent a significant drop in traffic.
- Perform a site audit: Take your time to review the no follow links you currently have on your website. If the no follow tags have been applied to low quality pages, change this before Google catches up with you. It may be time to move away from no follow links directly and start using the Meta robots no index directive for your pages.