Nofollowing Links in 2021 and Beyond: What SEOs Should Know

12 February 2021

“Nofollow” has long been one of the most broadly discussed SEO topics.

It is also one that is causing the most contradictions in our industry.

As the name suggests, “nofollowing” means directing a search engine to not follow a link.

But why do we need links if they should not be followed?

Let’s try to figure out what nofollow is and how to use it going forward.

 

First Things First: Nofollow Link Attribute vs Nofollow Meta Tag

Before we discuss the details, let’s clear one common confusion up. There are two ways to follow links on any web page:

  • The nofollow link attribute can be added right inside <a href=...> code. This “nofollows” this exact link only
  • The nofollow meta tag can be added in the header part of the web page. This “nofollows” ALL links on that web page.

This is the nofollow link attribute:

nofollow link attribute

 

This is the nofollow meta tag (This tells Google not to follow ALL links on this page):

Google not to follow ALL links on this page

So you can see how calling the nofollow attribute a tag could cause confusion.

The History of the Nofollow Link Attribute

Nofollow link attribute was introduced by Google as a way to allow website owners to monetize their sites with paid links while allowing Google not to include those paid links in their algorithm.

The initiative was eagerly supported by other search engines.

As it is widely known, Google has been heavily relying on links when calculating the trustworthiness of a resource. If many sites link to a page, it must be a solid, well-cited resources, so it deserves to rank higher.

At the dawn of nofollow craziness, the link attribute was just meant to do this: Help Google remove non-editorial links from their link analysis.

In other words, if that link was paid for, it wasn’t “earned”, so that link wasn’t counted as a vote.

Apart from paid links, the nofollow attribute was used for user generated content where website owners had little or no control over links that are being added by users.

Search engine optimizers have also started using the nofollow link attribute to remove certain internal links from Google’s equation. This was called “PageRank” sculpting, and the tactics was based on an assumption that Google would push more power to certain links if you nofollow the less important ones. This tactic was officially announced as ineffective, so it was dropped.

Over time Google has started forcing more rules on website owners though. Suddenly they demanded links in free editorial contributions be nofollowed as well. There have been several series of bans for those publishers who refused to abide.

 

The fear forced many of huge publications to apply mass-nofollow strategy, i.e. nofollowing every single link on the site. This has resulted in what many website owners had predicted: The nofollow attribute has lost its value as a link signal.

With so many trusted resources using sitewide nofollow attribute, Google has started seeing less and less value in using the attribute as part of their algorithm. As a result, Google has announced that they will start ignoring the directive when they feel it needs to be ignored deeming the attribute pretty useless.

From now, the nofollow attribute is being used as a “hint” instead of being used as a strict directive.

The Nofollow Attribute Now

As a result of massive nofollow attribute adoption, Google was forced to reconsider the attribute and its usefulness. The next move came as no surprise: Google announced they were no longer strictly abiding nofollowing directives. From now on, the nofollow attribute would be used as a “hint”. 

Google has referred to the update as “evolving the nofollow attribute” but it really sounds like they are sunsetting it.

Additionally, they introduced two more attributes:

  • rel="sponsored" should be used for all cases when the link was paid for (this includes affiliate links)
  • rel="ugc" should be used when users of your site add links you have no control over.

rel="nofollow" remains in use for other general cases when you want to link without endorsing a page.

All of these three link attributes are being used as “hints” which means Google may still use these links when establishing the authority of a page those links are pointing to.

All of these changes went into effect as of March 1, 2020, which coincided with both an unconfirmed Google update and the start of the Covid-triggered lockdows all over the world. Clearly, it is impossible to tell whether the nofollow change has had any impact on organic rankings.

Additionally the nofollow meta tag directive was not effective by the update meaning that pages including that meta tag do not pass value through its links.

When asked why website owners should even bother to use the link attributes, Google naively points out that they should do that in order to inform Google better.

Should You Nofollow Links Now?

If you are a good website owner who strives to follow Google’s rules, you should by all means continue doing so. Google needs help identifying which links should pass value from page to page, and you can help them by using one of those link attributes above.

If you are using elements of user-generated content on your site (comments, q&a, etc.), it is not a bad idea to use rel=”ugc” to tell Google you may not be controlling (or endorsing) those links that are added by your users. WordPress has adopted rel=”ugc” since its 5.3 version.

Conclusion

The future of the link attribute is not yet clear: Google may be dropping it completely in a few years or they may be forcing even more link attributes on us. 

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: It is not worth your time to go back and change / remove those link attributes now. Time will show where it all goes. One thing is clear: Nofollow is losing its power as a signal. Hopefully, Google will be smart enough to figure out which links are endorsements without our help!

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