How Will Google’s New UGC and SPONSORED Link Attributes Work?

How Will Google’s New UGC and SPONSORED Link Attributes Work?


link attributes Yesterday, Google announced two new link attributes to go along with the traditional “nofollow.” The new supported link attributes are “ugc” for User Generated Content and “sponsored” for links that have been paid for. Of course the Tweets are flying in SEO circles about this. Some are excited, some are grumbling, and others are bemoaning the cost of having developers add this to their existing web site code.

For those worried about the latter and who have WordPress, Joost de Valk (creator of Yoast SEO Plugin) has said that it’s one line of code (for blog comments) and will be added to the next release. With that said, switching your comments from nofollow to ugc may not necessarily be the best idea. Read on for more information.

If you are a web site owner who hires an SEO expert, much of this article will be irrelevant to you. It will be important for your SEO team to know about, so you can send them here. Plus, if you go down to the last section of the article, there is some good practical advice for you when deciding if and how these new tags might affect your online marketing strategy (and how to avoid being conned by nefarious types who want you to panic about and spend money on these new things.)

For those who don’t want to be bothered with any of this, the documentation states that we can continue to just use nofollow as a link attribute and everything will continue to be treated like it always has. “No endorsement or ranking credit will be passed.” This is an important statement for all this. Danny Sullivan clarified and (slightly) expanded this explanation on Twitter:

They key phrase here is “deciding how to analyze those.” This was my initial gut thought when I read the news. It doesn’t make sense to classify “nothing” (which is the signal a nofollow is supposed to send) so therefore, something else must be afoot. Let’s look back at the whole story for a bit and see if we can figure it out. So, while there’s no “endorsement or ranking credit” – there is something. You don’t analyze something that means nothing.

NOFOLLOW Links (rel=”nofollow”)

Nofollow Link AttributeAges ago, Google came up with the nofollow attribute for links as a way to fight spam. By having it so that links added by other people in comments or forum posts didn’t pass along any ranking value, the idea was that it would curb people from spamming forums and blog comments.

Eventually it grew to include paid and affiliate links. This is not because those are necessarily spam, but they are not necessarily showing context and they aren’t there because of natural logic like a normal link would be. They are there because they were paid for. Unfortunately, that’s not really as cut and dry as it seems. Quite often the relevance of an affiliate link is inherent – if I wasn’t trying to sell that particular product, I wouldn’t have created this page about that particular product and linked to it. It’s an advantage sites with their own products have had over affiliate marketers for years.

Of course, not all user generated content is untrustworthy or spammy, either. I often wish I could lift my ban on links in my comments here and allow people to post links to truly decent and relevant articles that are followable. Unfortunately, that’s hard to police and maintain. What might be a decent page when I check the link could turn to spam heaven the next morning.

It’s important to remember that we’ve known for years that nofollow links have some sort of value beyond what they lack in passing the so called “link juice.” There has even been a Whiteboard Friday by Rand Fishkin on how to get value from them. And now, in the day and age where an outbound link strategy is critical to validating claims of fact or truth and #QUACK, having a different set of tags to help classify these links is more important than ever.

The new announcement also talks about nofollow becoming a “signal” rather than a directive. Signals and directives are two very different things. This means that nofollow may not actually tell Google not to follow it, but rather be a sort of simple disavowment of the link. It may evolve into meaning something more like, “Here’s a link, but I’m not going to vouch for it.”

  • Nofollow Usage Considerations: For when you are creating content that you want to link to, but that you don’t want to endorse and give link credit to – and to generally say, “this is unrelated to what we’re talking about here, but hey… have a link.”
    • It seems like nofollow links will probably end up being followed (or at least considered if the page on the other side is discovered in some way). There have been some discussions on Twitter overnight suggesting that “nofollow” is not a good way to hide a page you do not want to be indexed. The only way to do that is through meta tags on the page and/or robots.txt entries. This is a very grey area in SEO right now since there are no strict standards developed for indexation. Good SEO teams will know how to handle it – make sure yours does.
  • Nofollow Value: Google doesn’t need to follow a link to understand how it connects two things. There’s still value in using these if you know what you’re doing. In general, though, it’s a safe way to add a link and not have it considered an endorsement which might hurt your own online reputation. Even though Google may give a new kind of value to nofollow links where appropriate, Danny Sullivan has confirmed that it will continue to be true even if you keep using this tag for paid and user generated links.
  • Nofollow Usage Recommendation: Use this as you always have on your own links that you don’t want followed. And, of course, if you don’t want to be bothered and don’t have much use for the potential value of the new attributes, you can continue to use nofollow for everything as you always have.

UGC or User Generated Content Links (rel=”ugc”)

User Generated ContentAs mentioned above, UGC links are for user generated content. Comments, forum posts, even social media posts could fall into this category. These are links where you are not in direct and immediate control. Any link I put on my page goes up after I’ve checked everything and decided that the article is ready. When a user posts a comment, I need to moderate it before posting it to make sure it’s good (and I’ll want to be extra diligent in this once I switch over to UGC links).

If I ran a forum or a social media platform, I can’t possibly read everything and check all the links in a timely manner. So, in the past, I’d just make them “nofollow” and then police the posts as efficiently as my team and I can do it. Having a blanket “nofollow” does dissuade spam, too.

  • UGC Usage Considerations: Use as directed, for user generated content. Keep in mind, though, that Google is suggesting here that not all user generated links are worthless.
    • I imagine that Google will at least try to follow the links to see if there is any relevance and/or value to the page being linked to in relation to the page it’s coming from. (In my mind, it might be a sort of variation/extension of Topic Sensitive PageRank [PDF] though that concept has evolved greatly since its advent.)
    • This means that it is critically important to keep on top of spam in your comments, user posts, and other areas where your visitors are creating content. If Google comes and sees a high noise to signal ratio, it’s not going to bother. If, on the other hand, most of the posts are valuable, relevant, and the pages being linked to are talking about similar things or elements of the whole, then it might get some credit.
  • UGC Value: It’s hard to say exactly what sort of value will be gained from using these. We do know that we’ve seen a lot of new patents in recent years helping Google determine quality of sites, pages, links, and even authorship. If you’ve got valuable user generated content like many forums, social media sites, and so on, Google wants to be able to (and seems to feel confident that it can) give some sort of credit or at least make use of the links in a more useful way than simply “not following them.”
  • UGC Usage Recomendation: For blog comments I’d probably still use the nofollow attribute unless you have a site that has very on-topic comments and users who can be generally trusted. For forums, social media type sites, and so on, I’d probably consider converting over to these. Again, you still need to police for spam, but if you have a good site with generally great user content this new tag can help. It will, in my opinion, end up sending a signal something like, “these links are by users and they’re generally good links to relevant stuff, but don’t kill me if some jerk sneaks in something that smells a bit fishy.”

SPONSORED Links (rel=”sponsored”)

sponsored link attributeThis new attribute is interesting to me. Originally all paid links (be it for affiliate products or advertisements or just paid endorsements) were supposed to be set at “nofollow”. This was added to that attribute a while after it was created and it never really fit the mold. If I have a web site that sells widgets and I create a page and link to my widgets, that counts. If I sell widgets via an affiliate program and I create a page about my widgets and link to my affiliate sales page, that doesn’t count.

Again, we’re not sure exactly where this will go. Ultimately, it will come down to how people implement the tag and then what Google and it’s relevance and quality control formulas can do to make sense of it. Here are my thoughts on how it should be used and how it might all work if everyone plays along at home.

  • SPONSORED Usage Considerations: Use as directed. If there’s money involved be it via advertising or if you’re getting a commission on sales through an affiliate program – use this attribute on the links.
    • Ideally, a link with the “sponsored” attribute is sort of the opposite of “nofollow”. It is sending a signal “follow this, but I’m admitting my bias.” Bias toward something, be it for money doesn’t mean it has no value. It’s the opposite, really – it has enough value that someone is willing to pay for it.
    • If “payment” for something meant “nofollow” and “worthless” – then I’m sure everyone would have abandoned Alec Baldwin for his creepy Hulu Superbowl ad, right?
  • SPONSORED Value: If the page you are on meets other quality standards that would enable it to rank and the thing you are linking to is somehow related to what you’re saying, it only makes sense that there should be at least some value to that link.
    • As always, it’s hard to say exactly what value Google will put on these links (and Danny Sullivan said that they’re going to be determining that in the coming months) but it’s almost certainly going to be something greater than zero.
  • SPONSORED Usage Recommendations: Use it on paid links. Plain and simple. If you want value, make sure they links are in relevant and quality places, though.

Takeaways from Google’s New Link Attributes Announcement

Putting it all togetherIf you’re in the SEO business, everyone is going to be freaking out, misquoting, and wandering around generally confused about all this for a while.

If you’re a small business owner and you’ve read this article, you can take comfort in the fact that whatever you’re doing with these types of links now is probably okay (unless you’re doing nothing at all with them). Sure, there are some things that you can potentially capitalize upon, especially if you have a quality forum, active comments, on-site user reviews, and so on, but there’s no real emergency at this point.

The biggest upset to the apple cart, here, is the fact that nofollow is set to become a signal over a directive. This means that it doesn’t mean that Google can’t follow it, it simply means that Google shouldn’t place any blame on us.

Some things to consider:

  • Beware if your SEO Company (or a cold calling agency) comes at you with something saying that action must be taken and that it’s got to be done. There’s nothing that needs to be done. Your site is not in any danger that it wasn’t in before.
  • Consider the idea of capitalizing on these new attributes with your current or prospective SEO agency. Of course, that’s probably only really relevant if you have lots of paid or affiliate links and/or lots of user generated content.
  • I would not recommend opening up new avenues of user generated content just because we now have a tag for it. In my mind, the UGC tag provides less insulation than the nofollow tag, not more. Any user generated content takes strict moderation and oversight. Sure, there can be a lot of value to it and that’s worth looking into. But don’t just act because the tag is there. Act because you want to gain the value and have the resources to do it properly and maintain it.
  • If anyone you’re talking to about this is super excited, wait for them to calm down. New things like this can be big, but we really don’t know exactly how this is all going to play out. It’s interesting, sure. It stands to be a new way to leverage paid links and user content, but we really have no idea what sort of benefits we’ll get and if they’re worth the cost.
  • If it’s cheap and makes sense, consider it reasonably and rationally.
  • If it’s a big budget project that has come out of the blue simply because of Google’s announcement: beware.
  • Remember that this just happened yesterday and Google itself isn’t sure how all of this is going to play out. We’ll likely never get any official word from them on how it is evolving either – the less anyone knows, the more difficult it is to manipulate things. A well thought out, consistent, and uniform plan will be critical to getting any success. Without that, just leave things as they are. You’ll thank me later.
  • If this type of content is something you have or have been considering implementing and want to talk to someone who can advise on strategy, feel free to drop me a line.

Bonus Prediction for The Next Big Upset: How to block pages from being crawled. Watch for that to start boiling over a little bit now and come to a head around holiday season.


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