Following an initial announcement on September 2019, Google has officially changed the way it interacts with nofollow links. Previously, Google obeyed all nofollow links as a directive, which means it excluded links marked “nofollow” from its Search algorithm’s consideration altogether. Now, as of March 1, Google only treats nofollow links as “hints” as to what to exclude from Search. In other words, tagging a link with nofollow no longer necessarily means Google won’t consider it.
Google’s March 1, 2020 nofollow update could make a major difference in how Google crawls your site or even how you rank organically. Here’s everything you should know about the new nofollow rules and how you can best adapt to them:
What are nofollow links?
Nofollow links are links on a webpage that have the HTML tag “rel=”nofollow” applied to them. This link is used to disavow any endorsement of the information the link leads to. It was created in 2005 to combat comment spamming. Marking a link “nofollow” told Google to ignore that link when crawling and indexing your site.
This matters because links are a major way Google awards PageRank, sometimes called “link juice.” Broadly, the more links a webpage has, the more important it looks to Google—unless those links are nofollow. Up until March, Google pretended like nofollow links didn’t exist as far as passing “link juice” credit was concerned. Nofollow links could still live on a page, but they wouldn’t help the linked page rank. Now, nofollows still exist, but the way they work is going to change.
What does Google’s change mean?
When Google says they will consider nofollow links a “hint” instead of a directive, they mean Google’s algorithm has started looking at these links again when crawling and indexing sites. According to Google, processing the data contained in nofollow links instead of ignoring it completely will allow their algorithm to “better understand unnatural linking patterns.”
Just because Google is looking at nofollow links doesn’t mean it’s treating them the same way as dofollow links, however. According to Google’s original FAQ, they will generally treat nofollow links the same as before, and won’t consider them for ranking purposes. In practice, however, this change could make a major impact on your page’s rankings.
How will this affect me?
Since 2005, the way webmasters use nofollow linking has expanded. Site owners began using the nofollow attribute as a means of preventing pages on their own site from being indexed. You’d do this if, for instance, you created a specialized page to fulfill a niche purpose, but you didn’t want Google to index that page at the possible expense of your higher-priority pages. This was never a recommended way to use nofollow tags, but up until March 1, it worked! Now… not so much.
If you’ve been noticing pages you don’t want to rank showing up in your SERPs, it may be because Google has begun granting them “link juice” from your internal nofollow tags. This is a problem because when pages you don’t intend to rank start showing up, it could alter your site’s overall performance. These pages don’t just get unwanted visibility, they could also leach visibility from the pages you do want to rank.
What should I do about this?
First, review how you’re using the nofollow tag on your website. You should only use nofollow tags for external links you want to disavow, such as user-generated content or sponsored links (to avoid penalties). You shouldn’t use nofollow tags on internal links to pages you don’t want to show up in your SERPs. Instead, you should create a robots.txt file for your website and use the content=“noindex” tag on a page-by-page or section-by-section basis.
Using noindex rather than nofollow has always been the recommended procedure for curating pages you didn’t want to rank in Google’s SERPs. Noindexing a page specifically tells Google not to consider it for inclusion in SERPs, which means you won’t have to worry about it ranking in any results and stealing link juice or value from the pages you want to promote.
One more important note: just because nofollow tags are a “hint” instead of a directive, does not mean you should stop using them. In fact, nofollow tags have more potential to be valuable now than ever. The only difference is they’re now doing what they were always intended to do: providing Google information about the content they’re referring to. Leave your user-generated and paid links as nofollow. Just don’t use them to hide internal links.
As with all big Google updates, the nofollow update is a good opportunity to take stock of your site’s SEO help. Take a look at your nofollow tags and make sure everything’s up to date with Google’s latest initiatives, and your site will benefit. If you have any questions about nofollow or anything else Google’s up to, Gruen Digital Marketing Agency is always here to help!