What rel=”nofollow UGC sponsored” Really Means – Not What it Says
You probably have heard about the link attribute (NOT tag!) called “nofollow” by now.
You know what the nofollow attribute does. It cripples hyperlinks so that they do not count for Google rankings.
Now we have more of those attributes! What do they really mean though? It’s not what the attributes and Google actually say.
nofollow – Almost 15 Years of Success
The nofollow attribute was introduced in 2005 as an initiative by
It was to combat SPAM. The attribute mostly was to protect us from
- comment SPAM
- forum SPAM
- guest book SPAM.
Yeah, some people still used guest books on their websites back then!
As we know nofollow was a great success and there is no comment etc. SPAM left on the Web!
How You Can Protect Yourself from SPAM in Comments
In reality content management tools like WordPress have curbed comment SPAM by using Akismet and making a business model out of it.
Other blogging tools even got rid of comments altogether because of it (think Ghost).
On my blogs Akismet and other comment SPAM protection tools catch thousands of SPAM comments every single day.
As Akismet is a paid tool by now I use Antispam Bee SPAM protection on my new blogs.
Many sites outsource their comments to Disqus or Facebook to get rid of that pesky SPAM problem.
WordPress used nofollow out of the box on comment links yet it never helped to curb SPAM.
Google Shoots Itself in the Foot
As nofollow was such a huge success Google over the years advised webmistresses and webmasters to use it for all kinds of links.
- User Generated Content (UGC)
that contained links were to use nofollow to make Google ignore those links in its algorithms.
Some website owners were so anxious about getting a penalty from Google that over the years many websites just added nofollow to all their (outgoing) links. Other
people stopped linking out altogether or only linked their owned sites.
The Web only exists because of links. Also the Google algorithm works because of them. Over the years the Google team has added lots of complexity to its ranking algorithm but in essence it still counts links and evaluates their value to find out how important a website is.
With nofollow increasingly added all over the place the Google algorithm encountered growing difficulties.
Many links that didn’t require a nofollow authority blocker got them while others that were paid for or otherwise not real endorsements did not use nofollow no matter how much Google penalized sites that broke the rules.
You don’t have to be the typical Google PhD to realize that they have shoot themselves in the foot. The so called link graph didn’t work properly anymore.
Just Create Great Content and Get Great Links
I’m certainly no Google brainiac – just someone who has “created great content” (as Google advises you to) over the years
Sadly the Google advice to “just create great content” hasn’t worked for me in recent years. When I stopped getting links my traffic went down.
As my grandma used to say: without links content stinks.
Thus even when you create great content you still have to get incoming links to it or its dead on arrival. It may get some initial 15 minutes of fame on social media but that’s that.
Link building or rather outreach as it is mostly called today is the most important aspect of a long term content strategy for search. Everything else is nice to have.
I hear you. Of course the technical SEO best practices need to be taken care of but they alone won’t suffice. Social and content SEO are where the actual action takes place nowadays.
Relax! It’s just a Hint, or Two or Three!
So in 2019 Google is still pretty fond of the nofollow attribute. Of course it has worked for them. Why? Brace yourself! I’ll explain now!
As nofollow was so useful to determine which sites are actually performing SEO they were glad to let it in use despite its catastrophic failure to combat SPAM and its negative effect on the actual Google algorithm.
Say what? Yes. The actual purpose of the nofollow attribute is to out yourself as an SEO practitioner. Whether they use it or not to ignore links is their own choice.
The most important information is that they know you are using search engine optimization voodoo on your site! Sorry for the old school exaggeration. You get the point though.
Otherwise it’s “just a hint”, or two or three by now. They don’t mean much though unless you consider what they really mean.
It’s Actually rel=”SEO” – not What it Says
As someone who has practiced the often misunderstood art of search engine optimization I got used to reading between the lines. Yeah, I even made a living from it for many years.
Google will never tell you the whole truth unless it works for them. They just say what you need to know so that you do what they want.
Again, you don’t have to be a superhuman Google engineer to realize that it doesn’t make sense to use nofollow in the way they explain it. It breaks the Web as a whole not just the Google algo. It makes people afraid of linking to other sites etc.
nofollow destroys the foundation of the Web – hypertext.
In the early years of nofollow some “advanced SEO” practitioners tried to use it for so called “PageRank sculpting”. They used nofollow on their own internal links! Yes, some links would use nofollow so that the others get more “link juice”.
PageRank sculpting was widely hailed as the ultimate onpage optimization technique until Google spokesperson Matt Cutts announced in 2009 that it does not work that way. In reality such link juice would simply evaporate. So you simply hurt your site by using nofollow.
Despite that “nofollow is dead” announcement SEO practitioners still kept using nofollow for all kinds of reasons.
For Google the main reason o keep nofollow remained: identify the sites that consciously practice SEO and that way attempt to manipulate the algorithm.
The nofollow attribute is like a red flag. True, Google by now openly supports SEO officially but they still struggle with manipulation of all kinds.
Sometimes people even manipulate Google without knowing it simply because Google is still a black box with still mostly unwritten rules that often change. It even happened to me despite my assumption that I was probably the most ethical SEO out there.
That’s why Google unilaterally introduced new link attributes to add to the already wide spread nofollow malaise. You can now flag yourself by also using rel=”UGC” or rel=”sponsored” or both or all three at once.
Now Google at least admits that they won’t probably even use their own link attributes for ignoring your links. They will decide themselves based on other factors. So even with nofollow added they may follow those links and count them.
In short: you are adding useless proprietary link attributes that only flag yourself as an SEO practitioner and are potentially harmful while Google probably ignores those attributes and follows your links anyway. Bing also announced that it always used nofollow as a mere hint. That’s about almost 15 years late IMHO.
What now? Just ignore these new link attributes and create websites as if Google wouldn’t exist. Just create great content and get great links. Do not spend additional effort for flagging yourself as an SEO practitioner.
Let Google and their God-like AI find out themselves. After all they have billions of unpaid taxes to invest in such machine learning.
What rel=”nofollow UGC sponsored” Mean in Particular
In case you don’t believe the red flag theory yet just think of what the link attributes imply in particular. They mean more than they say.
The nofollow attribute means that the site using it either links to not trustworthy sources or does not check outgoing links so it can’t be trusted to be trustworthy itself.
UGC means that it’s not an editorial site or that the content is not written by professionals. Again you get flagged as less trustworthy. This is another negative ranking signal you inflict on yourself.
Last but not least rel=”sponsored” says that the site using it is engaged in bribery for links and well aware that it risks a Google penalty by doing that. What else can Google find on such a site?
Does the site really flag all links correctly? Again you tell Google to trust your site less. Why would you hurt your credibility in such a way? It’s self-sabotage. Rather spend that time on “just creating great content”!
I am not sure if this is genius or just another seo conspiracy theory.
So you are saying that using the nofollow attribute on your own properties is a waste of time and maybe even harmful? Do you have proof or a case study to back this up?
Would my rankings go up if I remove all nofollow attributes from affiliate links and comments now? I am really not sure about this.
Thank you for the comment! These are some good questions. Let me answer them one by one.
First I’d like to repeat what the post says. It’s a “theory”. It was a quick write up in reaction to a development. I had to be quick to be relevant as long as the news were still “new”.
Thus I do not have a SEO test or case study to back that up. A “conspiracy” would imply that it’s some type of hidden ploy nobody knows about.
In this case it’s pretty obvious that when you say your links are not trustworthy, haven’t been editorially checked or are part of an advertorial that your content will be treated likewise as not trustworthy, lacking editorial control or being part of an ad.
Your summary of the post is pretty good though. It’s a waste of time and potentially harmful to use Google’s proprietary link attributes.
Do you need to remove nofollow from comment links and affiliate links? Good question. It depends. Here on the blog I have many thousands of comments, many of them made just for the link. Over the years I have used a more nuanced approach.
Regular commenters got a proper link and I checked all links manually to make sure I don’t link top SPAM sites. Sadly over time many of those sites went rogue so I couldn’t be sure whether the links were still OK.
As many links were a decade old I finally decided to stop displaying them altogether. On other blogs I have different approaches. When you check every single link and are sure you don’t link to spammy sites they deserve a proper link for contributing.
The same applies to affiliate links. Do you check whether the linked sites are valuable and helpful? Then they deserve a proper endorsement.
In traditional SEO a proper handling of affiliate links is to use a redirect and only link to a page on your site that is not in the Google index. Otherwise you might push the sites you are affiliated with in the search results so that they outrank you.
I hope that helps!
Hi Tad! :) Been some time.
I remember complaining in Google’s Webmaster Forums something like 10 years ago that rel=nofollow didn’t make sense on sponsored content and that rel=sponsored would have been a better choice for the sake of semantics in the code (and in content analysis) however they decided to deal with it.
I got pretty much… no feedback. LOL
Now I’m somewhat happy to see that rel=sponsored implemented, but I wonder how Google’s going to use it? There’s nothing wrong with labeling advertorials and link-based advertising on a website, that’s what we already do to comply with consumer transparency laws, so while Google may not give those links “SEO juice”, why would they have reason to punish it? Advertising is not a monster, it’s part of marketing; they treat it like it’s something super bad to have. *shrugs*
I’m more concerned about the UGC matter – who said that a post or a comment created by a user of the site is junk compared to a “professional” writer’s? That and the whole E-A-T thing (sure, not a ranking factor, but I’m still afraid it could be a “manual action” factor and some companies are already FUD’ed enough that they wouldn’t hire freelancers like me to write content because we’re not authorities in the field… Nice, huh?)
You know, I’ve come to a point where I no longer care. I’ll do what I want to do, and keep learning how to do this stuff only for the clients who are interested in looking pretty in front of Google.
I like rel attributes because I like XFN semantics. End of story. Google can do whatever with it, they’re not the rulers of Web, are they?
For comments, there was once a WordPress plugin to selectively nofollow comments that were more “salesy” or “spammy” while still bringing interesting points to the discussion (so not ones to trash anyway – just wouldn’t support their links). But that plugin’s gone a long time ago and no longer supported. I haven’t found a good replacement yet.
P.S. I hope this long comment makes sense XD I have a big headache due to the bad weather and anything I type I see it blurry.
Great to have you back here. Your comment makes a lot of sense. I couldn’t have worded it better. Apparently they also needed a decade to implement your advice LOL.
Why they penalize websites for ads? Well, they do because it’s their competition. You certainly won’t get penalized for Google ads or telling people you are a “Google Partner SEO”.
Google is – just like other huge corporations – too powerful to act ethically. They are basically the ExxonMobil or Monsanto of the Web.
As webmasters we are the poor content farmers or fishers who lose their livelihood because of decisions made by them.
Hey Tad, Solid write up all around here. I am about to give a webinar on this very topic and just wanted to see if anyone had any case study proof to test this out. I found nothing. From my ecom corner of the web, I 1000% agree these attributes are likely not worth your time.
With Google using nofollow as a “hint” for crawling and ranking, I cant help but theorize how the machine learning knows to use some vs others. The SEO in me says it probably comes down to the combo of, “is the link contextually relevant,” and the probability (or actual data) that it gets clicked. If you link somewhere that people are inclined to click, it makes sense to me the crawlers would want to follow those as a hint. My overall take – the energy you would have put into the attributes would be better served if you ask yourself, “will this get clicked on and will that be a good experience.” If the answer is no, it probably wasnt worth it anyway.
Some great points! Indeed I’d love to see the impact tested out but I’m not one of those who have the means to do large data-based studies.
In case someone else does I will be glad to link to them in the updated article, even if they prove me wrong.
Btw. It seems that WordPress by now adds the nofollow attribute automatically when you add sponsored on your links. This makes me wonder why.