In 2005, Google introduced the "nofollow" attribute for links, in order to enable site operators to categorize the relationships between their own site and linked pages. The goal behind this was to define the impact of external links on Search Engine Optimization (SEO). With the new attributes "sponsored" and "ugc" Google now allows a more precise categorization.

What is a link attribute?

Link attributes, or link relations, are descriptive attributes that can be assigned to hyperlinks to define either the nature of the link or the relationship between the source and the website it has been placed on. For regular links which Google is supposed to follow without any restrictions, no link attribute needs to be set. For example:

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The "nofollow" attribute introduced by Google in 2005 is primarily used to identify purchased links and links associated with advertising. For this, the attribute value rel="nofollow" can be used in the <a> -tag:

<a href="" rel="nofollow">Beispiel</a>

Links that are marked with this attribute, are usually not followed, according to Google. However, linked pages can still be found in other ways, for example through sitemaps or links from other sites, meaning they may still be crawled. In general, link attributes are used only in <a>-tags because Google can only follow links referenced by an <a>-tag. The "nofollow" attribute, however, is an exception as it is also available as a robots-meta-tag.

What do the new attribues "sponsored" and "ugc" define?

In fact, only half of Google's new link attributes are new. The attribute rel="sponsored"  from now on takes the place of rel="nofollow" and is used to mark advertisements, sponsored posts and the like. The attribute rel="ugc" is used to identify User Generated Content, for example in the form of posts in an online forum. This is intended to limit the influence of spam comments on search engine ranking.

While the rel="nofollow"  attribute has up until now prevented Google from following a link, the new attributes serve Google hints concerning searches. According to Google itself, the aim behind this is to enable the search engine to analyze links more precisely  in order to better track down unnatural links in the future.

What do the changes mean for Webmasters and SEOs?

First things first: already existing ref="nofollow" attributes do not need to be changed to ref="sponsored". Although Google prefers the new attribute, nofollows will continue to be treated as before. However, from March 2020, the ref="nofollow" attribute will also be considered a hint to google instead of entirely excluding follow-up.

The new link attributes can also be used in combination. For example, the label rel="ugc sponsored"  is perfectly fine for links pointing to sponsored User Generated Content. However, UGC does not necessarily have to be marked as such. To appreciate posts from trusted people, the attribute can also be left out of external links. This is significantly different with sponsored content. All content related to sponsoring or advertising must be provided with the attribute ref="nofollow" or ref="sponsored", so as not to violate Google's Webmaster Guidelines for linkage programs.

First and foremost, the new link attributes help Google to better analyze and links and how to use them. However, the attibutes also continue to help website owners tag content they do not want to be weighted heavily in terms of search engine rankings. Google itself states that the changes to link attributes will not have a significant impact on search results. Nevertheless, it is foreseeable that the changes will bring a lot of work for SEOs and SEO agencies. The link attribute ref="nofollow" has been a state in search engine optimization over the last 14 years and is now fundamentally changing. Consequently the new options also bring more work with them. Google justified the change with the fact that the Internet is constantly evolving and now the time has come to update the "nofollow" attribute to the current state.

What are possible long-term consequences of this update?

If, in the future, Google were to change the way in which the classic "nofollow" attributes are handled, this could actually have quite an effect on Google rankings. All external links on Wikipedia, for example, are marked with the attribute ref="nofollow".  Should it happen that "nofollow" attributed links are counted into search engine rankings, this would for sure have a positive effect on pages that are often linked to Wikipedia or other large websites.


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