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Back in the day, when backlinks weren't such a spam vector, sites (usually small personal sites) used to be part of webrings; they'd dedicate part of their pages to promoting other sites in the same network of sites.

This stopped being a thing for a few reasons, a big one being that Google's approach to content changed in response to comment spam, purchased backlinks, and other black hat SEO techniques.

I still think webrings are a fun tool to help create a sense of community. I don't want to set them up in the name of building SEO juice, I want to use them in the old-school way, as a way to promote members of the webring in small template modules.

I want to set them up to avoid any SEO penalties, with rel=nofollow attributes, but my question is this: Since you could describe this as a bartered system for site promotion, should I use sponsored instead of nofollow?

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If the links will be displayed in a way that makes it clear they are part of the webring then I wouldn't worry about adding a rel attribute. For example, if they will be under a header that says something like "visit our friends" or "other sites you might enjoy", and if you use the name of the sites as link anchors (as opposed to a high-CPC term like "car insurance").

If it was a pay for linking system, then most likely the economy of scale required for it to be worthwhile would make it clear to Google that it is a paid linking system. You would probably be using different linking patterns than a webring.

For example, it would most likely result in a network of sites that all use similar, high-CPC anchor texts and have low quality content. In that case you would probably need rel='sponsored' in order to avoid penalty.

I also don't think it is necessary to use nofollow. The human value of those links is a sense of community. Even if the topic areas are wildly different among these sites, interlinking adds value to the user because it shows them sites that you have vetted.

From a search engine's point of view, your webring's interlinking is not necessarily a signal of relevance but it is a signal of trusted authorship, which is an equally valid reason to link to something.

So it would make sense to let the crawlers through as a signal your confidence in the other sites.

Hope this helps. Anecdotally, I like the idea of webrings - its seems like an antidote to a homogenous, social media-dominated internet. Happy building.

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