What you need to know about Google’s changes to nofollow links

“So what?”, you’re probably thinking, “it’s just another Google update”. Well, if you’ve been online since 2005, you’ll probably be able to remember a thing or two about just how ‘Wild West’ certain parts of the web were back then. Think back to blog posts of that era, for instance; their comments sections were often littered with spammy responses, featuring linked text along the lines of “visit my site for discount pharmaceuticals”.

It was this epidemic of what came to be known as ‘comment spam’ that forced Google to take action in the mid-2000s with its introduction of the “nofollow” (rel=“nofollow”) attribute for hyperlinks.

It worked by denying those links any credit for the purposes of search engine optimisation (SEO), wherever Google encountered the attribute.

A monumental, but necessary step

Few changes in the history of SEO proved to be as disruptive as the introduction of nofollow links. It caused the average value of a link to plummet, and the whole practice of effective link building for SEO became so much more difficult.

It was also a move, however, that Google had little choice but to make, due to the proliferation of unethical players that were effectively ‘gaming’ the site’s algorithms.

This, in turn, was causing poor-quality and irrelevant links to often feature towards the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs). Nofollow links were therefore instrumental in restoring the search giant’s control.

So, what’s changed since then?

In September last year, Google announced that it would change the way it handled the nofollow attribute with effect from 1 March 2020.

In a nutshell, while Google had previously responded to nofollow links by completely ignoring them – thereby robbing them of any SEO benefits they might have otherwise received – the search engine is now reading them as “hints”.

This means that when Google detects a nofollow link, it will decide whether the link should be included or excluded as an SEO signal. This reflects the much greater intelligence of Google’s algorithm in 2020 compared to 2005; it is now capable of analysing individual links, to figure out whether they hold any value.

The nofollow attribute, then, is now simply about flagging up links for Google to consider.

Be mindful of the potential implications for your own site

Google has justified its stance of no longer completely ignoring nofollow links by reasoning that they “contain valuable information that can help us to improve search… 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.”

It’s important to remember, after all, that the nofollow attribute introduced in 2005 wasn’t just good for nullifying any SEO advantages that comment spam links would otherwise gain – it also ensured the site inadvertently hosting such dodgy links would not be penalised by Google.

The shift in how Google handles the attribute should ensure sites continue to be protected by any such link penalties. However, the websites that these links are pointing to might now be considered to be signals by Google’s algorithm.

The change, then, could give websites the benefit of some SEO value from any nofollow links that do have any value, while still enabling site owners to tell Google that they don’t wish to be regarded as endorsing such links.

Now could be a great time to get in touch with our team

This refreshed way of approaching nofollow links is certainly a change that will introduce some greater complexity to link building. We can therefore well understand you wishing to contact some SEO marketing experts directly, to discuss what it could all mean for your own site – and how best to respond to Google’s change.

It’s just as well, then, that it’s as easy as you like to contact the PENNInk Productions team by phone or email.

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