It’s possible that you could sit down at your desk tomorrow and discover your website has very different organic search rankings and that you have a whole new set of competitors.
Google has announced a change to a fifteen-year-old rule that governed SEO.
Let's first quickly summarise what is going on and how it could result in Google looking at the internet with fresh eyes overnight.
You’re no doubt well aware that links are a significant part of Google's algorithm. A link from a trusted site is a strong signal that the editors of that site are endorsing the webpage they are linking to.
For example, if an international newspaper publishes an article on their website about 'search engine optimisation' and it links to your page about SEO, Google responds by increasing the importance of your page because of that endorsement.
Fifteen years ago, Google had enough of spammers trying to game the system and introduced a way for websites to link to others, without implying that the mention was also a vote of confidence. That method was the 'nofollow' attribute for links.
From a technical point of view, when Google sees 'nofollow' on a link, it tends to ignore that link.
For example, Wikipedia was an early adopter and added 'nofollow' to all its external links by default. As a result, spam on Wikipedia dropped considerably, as unethical SEOs no longer had reason to edit articles to include links to specific sites.
Wordpress also adopted the protocol to automatically make all links left in comments “nofollow links” as a way to reduce comment spam.
Under Google’s new system ‘nofollow’ becomes more of a suggestion to Google, rather than a strong request - and two alternatives have been introduced. Google’s machine-learning enhanced algorithm may come to assign some SEO value to these new link types. Or Google may conclude that a statistically high number of these new link types is a negative quality signal, rather than a positive one. As a result, Google will have a huge number of new data points to analyse.
Yesterday, a prominent WordPress developer, Joost de Valk signalled that the blogging platform would quickly move away from ‘nofollow’ links.
Who else uses ‘nofollow’ links?
Wordpress is not the only huge platform to use ‘nofollow’ links. I looked on the code search engine publicwww and quickly found 10 other large sites that might be tempted to swap ‘nofollow’ for one of Google’s new link types:
Why is nofollow so prevalent? Forum owners, sites with blog comments and similar, also added 'nofollow' to all the links in the user-generated sections of their sites. Again, this was an effort to remove the incentive for spammy content stuffed with links to be left behind.
Importantly, 'nofollow' also meant that sponsorships, PR activity and other content created as a result of compensation should have also used nofollow. For example, if a blogger receives a free product to review, then Google would expect that blogger to add 'nofollow' to any link back to the product sellers website.
The new rules and what they might mean
Google’s new, more nuanced approach introduces two alternative (perhaps softer) values below 'nofollow'.
One is 'ugc' (user-generated content) for sites like Wikipedia, and the other is 'sponsored' for bloggers and anyone media owner who might sell links.
I’ve gone into much more detail below about the reasons for these changes. But first, let’s consider a possible edge case scenario that would have a massive impact on what type of content appears in search results.
Last week, Wikipedia automatically added 'nofollow' to every external link. Unless Google has been making an exception for the hugely popular site, it means Google's ranking algorithm has been ignoring Wikipedia links as positive SEO signals for the sites that receive them.
This week, Wikipedia may decide that 'ugc' is a more appropriate value to add to its external links. If that happens, we could wake up to an internet in which Google credits some value to user-generated links and now has the entire scope of Wikipedia's vast bank of content re-examine with these new values in mind.
I think this is an unlikely scenario as my gut-feeling is Google already has special rules for Wikipedia and that Wikipedia has no real incentive to make the change. (The same could have been said about WordPress, though, and it looks extremely likely they will be making the change.)
Smaller changes that will impact SEO over time are also likely. In particular, blogger outreach can now be more liberal with freebies and sponsorships because PR and SEO agencies can negotiate for 'sponsored' links.
Sites that want to encourage user-generated content might decide to soften their automatic 'nofollow' policies in favour of 'ugc' disclosed links in the hope of encouraging contributions.
Why is this happening anyway?
To fully understand these changes, it helps to take a step back to see the big picture.
First, Google created the link economy
Google's original algorithm leaned heavily on a mechanic called PageRank. The first generations of PageRank used links from one web page to another in order to count and weigh the importance of the pages involved. The more inbound links a webpage had, the more likely it was to rank more highly.
The importance of links for SEO created a whole industry around chasing links. It manifested first in what I call the Industrial era of SEO and which Google's first head of webspam, Matt Cutts, once referred to as B.O (backlink obsession).
Google had created two thorny problems which it needed to solve.
The first problem was spam. Sites that allowed users to generate content became riddled with poor quality, often inaccurate, content as people submitted links purely for gaming Google's link greedy algorithm.
The second problem was bought links. The algorithm wanted to treat links as endorsements from one expert to a page that that expert trusted. However, brands began to purchase advertising space from bloggers, newspapers and magazines in the form of text links. These site owners pointed out that they should be able to monetise in any way they saw fit.
As I’ve already outlined above, the solution was the 'nofollow' value for links. Site owners could now add 'nofollow' to a link to remove that implicit vote of confidence for the page the link pointed to.
In 2012, Google tripped up over its own rules. It had commissioned a series of advert videos for distribution bloggers via the platform Unruly Media. Unruly asked bloggers to write about Google's products and include the video. Some of those bloggers also included a link back to Google's Chrome page and did not add 'nofollow' to those links. It caused an outcry in the SEO industry. There have been other occasions when PR activity has resulted in SEO harm because neither the PR company nor bloggers knew or understood the 'nofollow' rules and accidentally created links that Google considered not sufficiently editorially pure.
Next, the barrier for SEO success rises
The algorithm has changed since those early days. Google now uses machine-learning technology called RankBrain to assist its algorithm, and it uses human testers to help determine which version of the algorithm yields the best results, but links remain incredibly strong signals.
It's only been in recent months that the majority view of 'search engine optimisation professionals' has come around to considering content more important than links. Rand Fishkin's survey of 1,500 SEOs for SparkToro puts 'Quality of linking sites & pages' as the second most important SEO signal.
The rise of content is due to two factors.
The first is that Google has become much better at evaluating content. It now identifies and dislikes content with too many ads, or which offers up poor user experience. Equally, the algorithm is much better at detecting and rewarding content that is written by subject matter experts.
The second is that to earn a link, without a 'nofollow', from a subject matter expert requires outstanding content. Successful brands invest hugely in user experience and content marketing, and that pushes average quality and expectations higher.
I labelled this trend the Renaissance era of SEO.
Google was worried about losing out
An unexpected side effect of these changes is that Google finds it has to work harder to discover content.
To attract links, brands need people to see their new content. Social media is a great place to share content so that people can discover it and yet most social platforms use ‘nofollow’ links as standard.
If Google treats 'nofollow' as 'ignore this link' then it can't easily monitor webpages like forums or public Facebook groups.
For example: A couple of threads of investment advice forums start talking about a new stocks and shares ISA, occasionally linking, but with nofollow values, to a newly created product page. Under the old system Google may have to ignore those user-generated links and wait to discover the new ISA page when it cycles back around to indexing the financial services company's website. Even then, Google's crawler might not notice the new page if it is buried deep in the site.
This example also works for how the new system might affect SEO. If those same investment advice forums start to use the 'ugc' value on links instead of 'nofollow' then Google will follow those links to the new ISA page and may count them as quality signals too. If the latter happens, then the company launching the new ISA will gain an SEO boost as a result of being talked about on forums.
The 'nofollow' value for the relationship attribute is fifteen years old, but Signal's SEO team regularly encounters bloggers and site owners who have never heard of it, use it incorrectly or wilfully ignore it.
Google has just made linking out to external sites more complex. It seems all too possible that bloggers and other independent publishers might fail to adopt rel="ugc" and rel="sponsored". If that happens, Google will probably drop its support for the newly created values.
When should I use which relationship?
If you are linking to a site that you do not wish to endorse in any way or where you want to reduce the incentive for others to leave SEO-minded spam as much as possible, use rel="nofollow".
If you are linking to a site you have a commercial relationship with or if you're arranging a link from a website you have a business relationship with, ensure rel="sponsored" is used.
Lastly, if you are allowing users to create content and links on a platform you run but see no need to distance yourself entirely from that content, then add rel="ugc" to those links.