Demystifying nofollow Link Confusion (and comparing to sponsored and ugc)

ugc vs nofollow vs sponsored link

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In this blog post, you will not only learn what a nofollow link is, but also when to use it and how it differs from sponsored and ugc links. Then to tie everything together, we will also discuss how these link types affect SEO.

Introduction to nofollow, sponsored, and ugc

There are four ways to communicate your relationship with a linked page to search engines.

  1. Regular: <a href="">Click Me</a> (sometime called dofollow)
  2. nofollow: <a href="" rel="nofollow">Click Me</a>
  3. sponsored: <a href="" rel="sponsored">Click Me</a>
  4. ugc: <a href="" rel="ugc">Click Me</a>

For a while the only options were a regular link or a nofollow link, but then in 2019 Google introduced sponsored and ugc. This rightfully caused some confusion, but my hope is that I can clarify things for you, so let’s start out with nofollow.

What Is a nofollow Link?

According to the official HTML Standard:

The nofollow keyword indicates that the link is not endorsed by the original author or publisher of the page, or that the link to the referenced document was included primarily because of a commercial relationship between people affiliated with the two pages.

The second half of that about the commercial relationship makes sense, but in my opinion, the meaning of endorsement is unclear.

Thankfully John Muller (who is pretty much the face of SEO at Google) clarifies what endorsement means in this case.

YouTube video

According to Google, reasons to use normal links on a page (i.e. reasons not to use nofollow) include when linking to:

  • the source of your research on a topic
  • a relevant resource
  • more information on a topic
  • the authority of a topic
  • the source of quote

In each of these cases, the linked page is being publically approved (i.e. endorsed) by the source.

<a href="" rel="nofollow">Click Me</a>

Bottom Line: if there’s a “commercial relationship” or the link is not endorsed, then nofollow should be used…

But: that was true until 2019, and then Google announced two additional link attributes: sponsored and ugc.

What Is a sponsored Link?

Google pretty much took the “commercial relationship” part of the HTML Standard definition for nofollow links and created another rel value called sponsored.

In Google’s own words:

Mark links that are advertisements or paid placements (commonly called paid links) with the sponsored value.

In addition to ads and paid links, sponsored links also include affiliate links.

Since the sponsored and ugc values are not recognized by the HTML Standard yet, in order to be backwards compatible, it might be a good idea to use both nofollow and sponsored.

<a href="" rel="sponsored nofollow">Click Me</a>

Additionally from Google’s perspective, nofollow on its own is still a valid way to qualify paid links, however they do state that they prefer you to use sponsored.

Google recommendation for nofollow vs sponsored link

What Is a ugc Link?

Another rel value is ugc which stands for user-generated content. This includes links in comments, posts, and other content on a website that originates from users. These types of links should use the ugc value.

<a href="" rel="ugc">Click Me</a>

As with sponsored, until the HTML standard catches up with Google’s initiative, it might be a good idea to use both nofollow and ugc.

<a href="" rel="ugc nofollow">Click Me</a>

So How Does This All Affect SEO?

While we, as visitors to a web page, only see a blue hyperlink, a search engine will actually look at the attributes of the link.

In the most simple terms, a search engine will check to see if an external link has a rel attribute with a nofollow, sponsored, or ugc value.

  • If a link has one of those values, then the search engine won’t* crawl the other page.
  • If a link does not have any of those values, then the search engine will* crawl the other page AND pass along ranking credit to the other page.

* Technically Google will make its own decision to crawl or not as these rel values are hints and not directives.

It’s unclear exactly how the passing of ranking credit works, but it’s generally understood that a link from a website with a high page rank to your website is a good thing.

I don’t want to speculate on this topic at all, so the only other thing I’ll say is that a nofollow, sponsored, or ugc link is not thought to be a negative signal for either the source or the destination website.

Bottom Line

It’s very clear to me when I should be using sponsored and user-generated links, and my hope is that you now feel the same way.

Based on my understanding, I rarely see the need to use a nofollow link by itself. I generally only link externally to reference something relevant. I can’t think of a situation where I ever linked to a site that I didn’t want to be associated with.

The only situation I can think of where nofollow might make sense is when I link to which I do quite frequently on my blog. Otherwise, if I don’t want to endorse a website, I probably won’t be linking to it in the first place.

For further clarification, I recommend that you seek guidance only from reputable sources like Google Search Central.

Let me know what your thoughts on nofollow and the other link types are in the comments below.


Meet Tony

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With a strong software engineering background, Tony is determined to demystify the web. Discover why Tony quit his job to pursue this mission. You can join the Tony Teaches Tech community here.

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