Paid Links Can Help your SERPS with rel=”sponsored”!

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For years, Google’s advice for paid links has been the same. You must “nofollow” them. This meant that Google wouldn’t take these links into consideration for ranking. The idea was simple of course – if a website doesn’t want to “endorse” a particular site, but still needs to link to it, then should use the nofollow tag.

This was a nice solution, but it was also a bit blunt. While nofollow was initially designed to discount spam links in comments, and references without endorsements, it lacked context. When Google sees a “nofollow” link, it doesn’t know whether that link is nofollowed because it’s a paid endorsement, or because the site owner doesn’t trust the link, or whether it’s part of comment spam. As a result, it discounts them all and simply views the link as “plain text”.

Context with “sponsored” and “ugc”

Earlier this month, Google introduced a new system of specifying link context. Instead of the older, blunter “nofollow” for all non-natural links, there are now two new specifications. Sponsored, and ugc.

rel=”sponsored”

Google’s stance on paid links has been the same for a long time. If any kind of compensation is provided for a given link, it should be marked as “nofollow”. But the new standard is that these should now be marked as “sponsored”.

So instead of this:

<a href=”www.test.com” rel=”nofollow”>test</a>

It should be henceforth written as:

<a href=”www.test.com” rel=”sponsored”>test</a>

This gives Google more context as to what’s happening. Crucially, it allows them to realize that the linking site is not disavowing the target page with nofollow but is choosing to place a banner on the site. In a way, it’s still an editorial decision by the linking pages, and will probably count for something in the SERPS.

rel=”ugc”

The second kind of context is specifying links that are added in comment sections or forums via the “ugc” tag. This stands for “User Generated Content” and tells Google that these links are created by the users of the website, and not the website itself.

My guess is that “ugc” links will hardly matter in the SERPS at all, since they are by definition easy to spam. Perhaps there might be some place when the ugc links are shared on forums like Twitter and Facebook by a large multitude of users, allowing Google to identify viral content.

Joost de Valk, who’s in charge of Yoast, mentioned in a Tweet last week that WordPress will soon implement ugc for links in comments:

With WordPress being the largest website platform on the web, it’s only a matter of time before all others follow suit.

Impact on the SERPS

With this change, Google now says that all three link attributes – sponsored, ugc, and nofollow – would be treated as “hints” instead of a concrete instruction to ignore the links, as before. Now depending on the circumstances, Google can give weight to links that previously had no visibility.

This doesn’t mean that Google will take them into consideration for SERPS. Only that it can. My guess is that if a well-reputed site places a sponsored link on their page, Google will give that link some weight, because the linking site has chosen to associate themselves with the target site – even if its paid. So, a site with a lot of banner advertisements will pass on less value than one with just a few.

This is the biggest change Google has made to its link specifications in, I don’t know, forever maybe? With one blog post, they’ve changed the way the entire Internet marks up its links. My prediction is that for those of us who advertise on other sites in a judicious manner, we will see a bump in the SERPS based on the “sponsored” link. And for viral stories with “ugc”, Google will see those as ranking signals as well, going forward.

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