Updating Rel=Nofollow and Why Pharma Marketers Should Care

October 30, 2019


For the 1st time in 14 years, Google is updating its system for categorizing external website links, best known for its role in the “link-building” process. Rel=nofollow – the longtime standard link format of large websites linking to outbound sites without passing “link equity” – is going away.

In the following sections we’ll introduce you to what the “rel=nofollow” attribute and link equity are, explain what is replacing rel=nofollow, and help you understand why it is important to brands.

What is a rel=nofollow and how is it used?

Rel=nofollow was introduced in 2005 as a way of fighting spam in comment sections of websites. It can be added to the code of a link that leads from your site, to another site on the web. This particular attribute could:

• Let Google know you are not endorsing this link and that you do not want any value placed on this link.

• Instruct search engine bots to remain on the current site instead of following the link and crawling that site.

• Instruct Google to refrain from transferring any rankings or authority from your website to the website that is being linked.

It was crafted with the best of intentions, but through the years site owners used it as a way to restrict Google bot’s ability to explore content beyond their site in hopes to ensure that their deeper pages got indexed and not passed over. It was very effective at protecting sites with comments and review sections from spammers, but it also gave site owners the ability to block off their sites from the rest of the world (technically speaking) which greatly restricted the passing of authority from site to site, and limited Google’s view of the value of different pieces of content. Passing authority from site to site – a concept called “link equity” – is an important practice, as it is a signal that Google uses to help determine a site’s ranking in results pages.

What is Link Equity?

Link equity is essentially a “vote of confidence” from an authoritative site showing that your site’s content is trustworthy and of a high quality.  In other words, the site finds your content so valuable that they are willing to direct their traffic away from their site to your site. However, if a site owner utilizes rel=nofollow on a majority of links, or even throughout their whole site, it completely blocks link equity from being passed.  This limits Google’s ability to see relevant content, and therefore limits the site’s ability to rank higher on results pages for particular search queries.

Why is Google making this change?

Google wants to improve its ability to look at all links it encounters on a given site or page and better determine if there are unnatural linking patterns (spam) but doesn’t want to restrict its ability to pass authority from site to site. The goal of this change is that it would allow brands the ability to be more transparent with their linking intentions, without fear of being penalized. This would ultimately help to create a better search experience. 

Google’s update is twofold: they have added new attributes that site owners can utilize, and they will change the functionality of the rel=nofollow tag in the spring of 2020. The two new types of attributes will allow site owners to further specify what kind of links exist on their webpage:

rel=sponsored: created as part of advertisements, sponsorships or other compensation agreements

rel=usg: user generated content, such as comments and forum posts

Starting March 1, 2020, Google will start treating all of these attributes as “hints,” which means that they may still choose to crawl the links the attributes describe. The assumption with this change is the bots will use their discretion to pass authority to a site that’s being linked to from another site, and site owners will no longer have to fear being subjected to “spam link” tactics from external sources. “By shifting to a hint model, we no longer lose…important information, while still allowing site owners to indicate that some links shouldn’t be given the weight of a first-party endorsement,” Google states.

First and foremost, this change makes identifying and labeling sponsored links that much more important.  All brands should work with their SEO teams to go make sure all sponsored links have the proper “rel=sponsored” attribute. Google has a practice of penalizing sites for failing to follow sponsored link guidelines, and this practice will not change with this update. Any site can be penalized for not tagging sponsored links as such, so it is imperative that brands maintain links and their appropriate attributes.

This change also expands the ability to gain greater depth of authority from other sites, as your site could be gaining more links from external sources. A strong backlink profile from trusted and authoritative sites shows Google that your content is relevant to the searcher’s intent and can therefore boost rankings in the search results. We anticipate that this update might actually help brands gain authority from sites that may have unknowingly been refraining from passing it along by way of a “no follow” via default settings on their CMS.  

On the flip side of that, it is imperative that brands review link profiles with a finer-toothed comb, as links may become considered from “less than favorable” sites. Continuing to maintain a brand’s “clean link neighborhood” will ensure the site’s authority is not negatively affected in any way. Some links could do more harm than good, and it is important to stay on top of incoming links that could potentially be malicious in nature.

Ultimately, your traffic data will tell the story of how this change has impacted your site, so watching trends and rankings carefully for the next couple of months is going to be crucial for being able to adapt. Your CMI/Compas SEO team can help you stay ahead of this change.