An SEO guide to nofollow, UGC and sponsored links

With these attributes, you have greater control over how search engines identify certain links. Here's how to use them properly.

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Internal and external links are essential topics every SEO must learn. 

Links send users to external sites or can be used internally to keep people on your site and help search engines find more of your pages.

Over time, you’ll find links that you want to “explain” to search engines, such as:

  • Sponsored links.
  • User-generated content (UGC) links.
  • Nofollow links.

Using these attributes properly gives you greater control over how search engines identify and categorize certain links. Learn how to master all three of these values to “qualify” the links on your site.

Regular links are created using simple HTML, such as:

<a href="https://searchengineland.com">Search Engine Land</a>

If you have this “regular” link on your site, you can expect Google to follow the link and parse the page without qualifiers. It’s a standard link that Google will make its own judgment on.

Let’s assume you have user-generated links but can’t handle moderation.

If you allow these links to be crawled without the right “rel” value, it’s possible for someone to spam your site leading to rankings drop.

In such cases, consider using the following:

<a rel="ugc" href="https://searchengineland.com/user-generated-content/Ludwig">Ludwig’s blog</a>

When you add the rel="ugc", you’re telling search engines that this is user-generated content.

Over time, as you begin to trust a certain user and realize that their contributions provide immense value to your community, you can remove the UGC value.

If your site is doing well and an advertiser offers to pay for a link or ad on your site, you can add the following:

<a rel="sponsored" href="https://example.com">Sponsored ad</a>

Using rel="sponsored" allows you to tell search engines that the link isn’t spam but is sponsored. Review Google’s Spam Policy to make sure that your site isn’t seen as spamming its users.

Finally, if you have a link you don’t want search engines to crawl, you can use rel="nofollow" just like we did in the previous examples. 

When you use this parameter, you’re telling search engines not to pass “ranking credit” to the page.

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As a site owner or manager, you have control over your domain but not others. 

For example, let’s say you run a website about cats, and someone offers you $500 to advertise their cat beds on your site.

When you check the advertiser’s site, you see fantastic cat beds that your audience will love and approve the sponsored link.

A month or two goes by, and when you return, it has been redirected to a torrent website you do not want to be associated with. 

It’s easy for the site owner to create a redirect from their page to another, and they can even do something manipulative, such as:

  • Redirect your IP address to the cat site.
  • Send anything not flagged as your IP address to a spam site.

If you’re in a scenario where this could happen, a rel="sponsored" tag will identify the link as a paid agreement. 

In the case above, you may also want to consider the rel="nofollow" tag, meaning that you don’t want to pass credit to the site.

I recommend identifying sponsored links as rel="sponsored" because search engines prefer you to do this.

For example, if you write a sponsored product review on your site, would you add rel="sponsored" to the link?

Google’s John Mueller, who I’ll be referring to a lot in the coming sections, says:

“Nah, within the site is not really an issue, since you’re just linking from one part of your site to the other part.”

You can see the question and all of the responses in the tweet below:

Identifying user-generated content 

User-generated content can provide a wealth of information to your community.

But there’s a reason you see so many blogs removing their comment sections: spam is out of control.

Others can use any user-generated content to spam your site.

It is an unfortunate consequence of offering user-generated content on your site.

You’ll want to use the rel="ugc" tag for:

  • Forum posts.
  • Comments.
  • Anywhere users can add content.

Instead of taking my word for it, listen to Mueller’s insights on the topic:

He states the following:

  • Google doesn’t differentiate between what you write and what your users write on your site.
  • If the content is published on your site, it will be used for ranking purposes.
  • Web admins that publish user-generated content should moderate it before allowing it to be published.
  • Webmasters can noindex the content before moderation using <meta name="robots" content="noindex">.
  • You can’t vouch for the links before the post is moderated, so use the rel="ugc" attribute.

If you follow these guidelines, you’ll protect your site from potential user-generated content spam.

If the link you’re linking to is external, you may want to use the rel="nofollow" attribute to tell search bots not to follow the link. 

A general rule of thumb is that if you’re adding an attribute that doesn’t fall into the UGC or sponsored category, use nofollow.  

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot of best practices for using the nofollow attribute, such as:

  • Avoid using this attribute when you link to your social media profiles.
  • Consider using rel=”me” for your social pages because they’re a representation of you
  • Don’t use nofollow to try and stop indexing. Instead, use noindex like in the previous section.

It’s also important to note that “nofollow” is not a dampening factor. Even if you add this attribute to a link, it doesn’t lower the link’s value. Instead, the link has no value. 

Many people tend to debate this, but Mueller clarified this in a 2022 tweet.

Still, many industry experts claim they notice a boost in rankings even if the link is a nofollow.

You’ll need to make the judgment for yourself and implement link attributes accordingly.

If you have a large enterprise site, like many clients I work with, it’s essential to have policies and procedures for developers and anyone posting content. 

You can create rules and instances when the stakeholders add link attributes.

You don’t need to use these link attributes if you don’t see the need for them on your site. Many of my blog posts don’t include these attributes because I link out to high-quality sites. 

However, when the content is sponsored or user-generated, these attributes serve as helpful tools for controlling how search engines qualify links.


Contributing authors are invited to create content for Search Engine Land and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the search community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.


About the author

Ludwig Makhyan
Contributor
Ludwig Makhyan is a contributor for Search Engine Land, covering organic and technical SEO. His background is in web development and digital marketing. Ludwig has over 20 years of experience in website design, coding and promotion. He is the co-founder at MAZELESS, an enterprise SEO agency.

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