One Year Update: Did rel=”sponsored” Change SEO? | Startup Hero

In September 2019, Google introduced a bunch of changes to how outbound links can be contextualized to better help search engines understand their intent. Specifically, the “sponsored” attribute was supposed to really shake things up, giving people an opportunity to pay for inbound links in a transparent manner, without running afoul of Google, and without having to resort to the “nofollow” attribute, which has other connotations. So exactly one year later, have the rel=”sponsored” changes made any difference to the way people link out?

Short answer, no.

rel=”sponsored” Links are Rare

Google has been saying for years that it penalizes sites that pay for links. Unfortunately, getting links “naturally” is an extremely thankless task. It’s rare, hardly ever works, and worst of all, can be rather indistinguishable from actually paying for links. If the paid for content is well written, relevant, and placed on a related site in a natural way, Google has no way of telling whether or not the link is paid.

Of course, this just means that Google has other “meta” ways of determining whether or not a link is paid for or not. For example, it can detect when a site has a new article every day linking out to irrelevant sites with exact anchor text, and think “Hmm…this site appears to have irrelevant links. Maybe the other links from it aren’t great either”. Truth is, no one knows. As a result, no-one I know has used rel=”sponsored” links on their paid guest posts.

Except for yours truly. I use rel=”sponsored” as insurance in case Google decides to majorly crack down on incoming links at some point in the future. But more of that later.

You Can’t Trust Google’s Advice

I take everything Google says with a pinch of salt. For example, a few days ago, John Mueller tweeted that they don’t have any concept of “toxic” domains:

We don’t have a concept of toxic domains. It’s fine to use tools to work on your site, but you should understand what the tool does, interpret the output, and not just blindly follow along.

— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu)

Perhaps. Or perhaps they just don’t call it “toxic” domains internally. In a somewhat related article, I’d noted that Google’s advice is untrustworthy, because their goals and yours are not aligned. So when it comes to toxic domains, don’t be so sure that Google doesn’t have internal systems that basically deal with a website’s reputation.

Sponsored Links are Insurance, Nothing More

There is exactly one reason to use rel=”sponsored” for your guest post placement – and that’s for insurance in case the ban hammer comes down at some point. This would however, be a massive disruption in the existing rankings, particularly since there are a lot of links that are genuinely useful, but not marked as sponsored.

But if you’re the cautious type (me), you might still want to try marking links as sponsored!

Does Google Even KNOW How their Algo Works Anymore?

The increasing role of neural networks and systems like Deep Mind, make the environment ripe for “black box” systems, where the engineers themselves don’t understand how the system is spitting out the results that it does. I have a feeling that the Google algorithm has reached this point a while back. It’s so complex and interlinked, that there’s no single person who can predict the impact of a change. As a result, they move carefully and cautiously – or at least a lot more than they used to.

Will Google Devalue Links Entirely?

As of now, links still play a huge role in the SERPS. When Google tested removing links internally, the results were pretty bad. However, we can expect that as AI becomes better and better at matching user intent to results, the role of links will continue to decrease. For that however, Google will need a lot more information about how people use websites, and it might need to tap into their Google Analytics statistics, which is another pandora’s box altogether!

Bottom Line

Google’s rel=”sponsored” links change has been almost completely ignored by the SEO community. In order to encourage more widespread use, Google needs to add actual disincentives for NOT using it, which can only be done through a rankings penalty. I doubt however, that they have the means to do this.

I’m a NameHero team member, and an expert on WordPress and web hosting. I’ve been in this industry since 2008. I’ve also developed apps on Android and have written extensive tutorials on managing Linux servers. You can contact me on my website WP-Tweaks.com!

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