Did Google Just Reclassify NoFollow Links as Sorta-Follow Links?

Any time Google changes anything from their end, there is an expected amount of subsequent freaking out and overreacting from the SEO community. We’re an excitable bunch.

So, when Google announced that they’re making changes to nofollow attribution (something they introduced in 2005 and have not changed since), the reaction from nearly every Toronto SEO agency and pundits was pretty predictable. A lot of people were not pleased and let their freak out flags fly.

How big were these changes? Substantial. Google clearly had a lot of meetings and a lot of Hangouts to discuss this one, as this represents a massive shift from their side. You don’t simply change something after 15 years on a whim.

But, how big is this change to the average small-to-medium-sized business (SMB) or typical webmaster? Not very, actually.

Allow us to explain.

How Did Google Change NoFollow Attribution?

Man coding

For the last 15 or so years, you would add a nofollow to a link that you wanted to link to, but you don’t want to:

  • Endorse it
  • Send it any SEO link juice
  • Have Google crawl it. Maybe it’s a link in a comment or a forum

Your nofollow was your Swiss Army Knife coding that you could use for all 3 of these situations. But, last week Google announced that nofollow attribution was evolving. Now, you could choose from 3 different options, depending on your situation.

As of this week, we now have:

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

Three instead of one. It’s an interesting move on their part.

“The web has evolved since nofollow was introduced in 2005 and it’s time for nofollow to evolve as well,” said Google in their blog.

“Today, we’re announcing two new link attributes that provide webmasters with additional ways to identify to Google Search the nature of particular links.”

Why Did Google Change NoFollow?

Google made this change in the name of making it easier for them to crawl our websites, which benefits both the search engine and the search engine optimizers.

“Using the new attributes allows us to better process links for analysis of the web. That can include your own content, if people who link to you make use of these attributes,” said Google.

Of course, there was the typical blowback of jaded SEO pros who questioned the real reason why Google did this. But that’s to be expected and more on that later.

And Now the Part Where Everyone Loses Their Mind

Those were not the only changes that Google announced. They also stated that: 

“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.”

Wait… What. Did they just say that nofollow links could now be followed as a “hint?” And what is a hint, exactly? 

Cue the explosion from the SEO masses.

google update angry mob

The Fallout/Freakout 

Google’s representatives then had to take to Twitter for the always wildly unenviable task of explaining and defending these changes to a Twitterverse full of SEO pros carrying torches and pitchforks.

There were questions about “what’s in it for us?

No follow update

There were the usual complaints about how much more work this will be for SEO firms and professionals.

No follow update

And the ever-present concerns about forced adoption.

No follow update

When Will These Changes Take Place?

The three new link attributes (sponsored, UGC and nofollow) all work right now, and they are currently being taken as hints by Google for ranking purposes. Google has also announced that nofollow will become a hint as of March 1, 2020, for crawling and indexing purposes as well.

For a visual aid on all of the changes and the timelines, check out this helpful graph from the people at Moz.

Who Will These Changes Impact the Most?

In our somewhat-humble-but-pretty-darn-sure-of-ourselves opinion, this is going to have almost no impact on the average SMB, or SEO company and that represents a number of SMBs.

This will most likely impact large companies, publishers or higher-end sites with:

  • Multiple digital properties to manage
  • Blogs, videos, or other content with a lot of comments (USG)
  • Sites that host community forums (also USG)
  • Companies that have a large number of affiliate links generating income

For everyone else, this is likely something that is not going to really impact you. It’s pretty much business as usual. Google has openly said that you don’t have to do anything at all because of this change. It’s great to be aware of this, but it’s not really actionable.

What Did Google Mean By a ‘Hint’

The most second-guessed part of the announcement was clearly the word hint, and what that means exactly.

Our interpretation: The link will not be crawled… Unless it’s earning a lot of clicks and attention, which is a “hint” to Google there could be something noteworthy on the other side of this link and perhaps they should crawl it after all.

Google has said that:

“Why not completely ignore such links, as had been the case with nofollow? Links contain valuable information that can help us improve search, such as how the words within links describe content they point at. Looking at all the links we encounter can also help us better understand unnatural linking patterns.”

“By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose this important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement.”

As a writer, I personally like to picture the people at Google on a Hangout call obsessing over the verbiage to use and finally landing on the word “hint.”

“Signal? No, the word signal is far too strong. How about tip? Too obtuse or mischievous? How about hint?”

Do I Need to Audit My Links?

Well, you should always regularly audit your links. But should you audit your links just for the purposes of these changes? You can.

Again, you should be mindful of this distinction for future links. But, Google has stated that you don’t really need to change your links retroactively. If you leave user-generated content as simply nofollow, you’re fine. There should be no penalty or change whatsoever.

However, Google said the one exception could be, “If you flag a UGC link or a non-ad link as “sponsored,” we’ll see that hint but the impact — if any at all — would be at most that we might not count the link as a credit for another page.” 

They added, “In this regard, it’s no different than the status quo of many UGC and non-ad links already marked as nofollow.”

However, if you’ve not taken a look at your links in some time and want to use this as an excuse to perform a much-overdue audit, by all means, have at it. One of the good passive effects of any major update is that it forces us to stop and look at what we’re doing and revisit the big picture.

SEOs can get so caught up in the day-to-day granular minutiae of creating mountains of content, it helps if we can regroup once in a while.

How Do I Audit My Links?

ahrefs link audit

If this is your first time auditing your links, don’t worry, automated software can do most of the heavy lifting for you. You don’t need to comb your site to test all of your links, or Google your company and your name and your phone number to try to find all of the links pointing back to your site.

There are a number of software solutions out there to help you audit your link profile, but we highly recommend ahrefs.

You can get a free (or cheap) trial of ahrefs and perform a full link audit in under 30 minutes. They walk you through how to do it here. This can help you: 

  • See your entire link profile
  • See your competition’s link profile (which is amazingly helpful)
  • See any bad links that may be hurting your SEO profile
  • Find new opportunities

Why Would I Want to Audit My Links?

Your link profile is the essence of your off-page strategy, which is worth about half of your SEO clout.

Your site’s ranking could be being held back by a spammy link as we speak. Google’s Penguin update really cracked down on bad links. You need to know if you’re currently being penalized. The good news is that if you are, the Penguin is now part of Google’s core algo, so you should see the results fairly quickly after you clean up your backlink(s).

The other upside that this audit presents is to find new opportunities by looking at your competition’s links. If a reputable site linked to them, there could be an opportunity to approach them to link to you. If someone ran a guest post from your competition, maybe they will run one for you too.

This can lead to some huge SEO wins and help you fill your content calendar for the next year.

Link-Building and NoFollows

link building nofollow

You would never actually build or work towards a nofollow link, right? What would be the point in that? That nofollow won’t be crawled or pass on any SEO link juice to your site, so why bother?

Well, we do it. Other SEO companies have straight-up laughed at us for doing it. But we still do it. Here’s why.

You need a certain level of moderation and restraint in your link building campaigns and strategies. If you just go full bore 100% of the time with hardcore aggressive link building tactics, Google is going to notice for all of the wrong reasons.

You’re going to set off warning bells that tell Google, “These guys are too aggressive, they’re trying to manipulate.” Now, all of your effort has been wasted, while both your links and your content are now meaningless.

We see nofollow links as sort of a PH balancer to level out link building tactics. We add in just a bit to keep things level. That way, our web trail has more variety.

Doing too much of anything can put your link building efforts in jeopardy, if you’re not careful and mindful of the trail you’re leaving. If you have given all of your writers a checklist that says you absolutely need to put a keyword in the opening paragraph, that’s going to leave the wrong type of trail.

So, in this regard, nofollows absolutely have some value. It’s not exactly exciting big-win-territory if you hire an SEO agency. You’re not anxiously awaiting your monthly report so you can see how many nofollow links they built you. But it should still be done. Try to see it as unglamourous maintenance that ensures the machine runs.

At the same time, there is also this new talk of hints. Major publications are somewhat famous for nofollows in the middle of their stories. So, if you happen to earn a nofollow on a big site, Google may see it as a hint if it’s garnering some attention. This could be a major win.

To be honest, I would have counted a nofollow from a big website as a win, even before these updates and hints becoming a thing.

Final Thoughts

To recap, this is a big move for Google, but probably not a huge move for you, unless you have a lot of:

  • Web properties to manage
  • User-generated content 
  • Affiliate/ paid links

You don’t really have to do anything right now, if you’re an SMB. Perhaps be mindful of the 3 new nofollow attributes for the future.

As we said, if you did want to use this as an excuse to revisit or audit your links, this is almost never a waste of time. You can identify anything that is hurting your SEO right now, while finding new ways to beat your competition.

Of course, if you want to hand off your link-building and off-page strategy to an SEO agency full of really smart SEO nerds, we would love to help!

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