PageRank: Acting Brand New

Late last year something went down in the SEO world, literally. It was big and if you are into Internet marketing you would have noticed it. The Google PageRank of large numbers of publishers (gasp!), the ultimate navel gazing tool, took a big hit. Some dropped by two points and some by as much as 5. Should you care? Does it matter? And what is this PageRank business anyway? Keep reading to find out.

PageRank is Google’s view of the importance of this Page

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I will offer a "brief" analysis of a somewhat lengthy problem. Not everybody got hit; just a large enough percentage for the differences to be noticed. First I will define what PageRank is (hopefully in an interesting fashion), then I will critique its use by Internet marketers and SEO practitioners.

To some people the news contained in this article is "extremely" old news. Then again, in January Google updated their PageRank again, as they usually do every three months — so they are about due once again. It looks as if it is business as usual in the Googleplex and there is little or no fear of another huge PR upheaval as there was in November of last year.

PageRank

PageRank is a patented algorithm written by Larry Page (Page-Rank). It is a trademark registered to Google. It is a numeric value that represents how important a page is on the web. According to Google "PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value." In essence, Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page B. But Google looks at more than the sheer volume of votes, or links, a page receives; it also analyzes the page that casts the vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves "important" weigh more heavily and help to make other pages "important."

Another thing we should briefly look at is the fact that the PageRank that is most viewed (the green indicator on the toolbar) is an historical indicator that does not change in real time. Instead, it is updated about every three months. Therefore it is only representative of the real Google PageRank at that point in time. According to one blogger, PageRank is one of those things that everyone uses but nobody really understands. 

I won’t delve too deeply into the mathematics of the algorithm. Anyone who is interested in it should take a look at Wikipedia’s page on it. However I will look at how SEO practitioners and Internet marketers used SEO in such a way as to turn PageRank into one of their marketing points, and how eventually it created a competing model against Google’s pay-per-click ad model.

Google PageRank is one of the most important developments in the history of the web. It changed the way search was done due to its emphasis on "voting." Now the more pages there were on the Internet, the more useful PageRank became; it tapped into the power inherent in the network which was the web.

With a huge number of pages online, organizing the SERPs is a big and complicated problem. PageRank became the basic algorithm which sort of underpins how Google performs its activities of crawling and indexing pages on the web. The SERPs depend on a variety of factors, from keyword density to the page’s PageRank value. PageRank keeps Google’s SERPs on point so that the millions of searches performed on Google continue be relevant and targeted.

Note that a lot of things which affect the SERPs do not affect PageRank, according to this report on PageRank

  1. Frequent content updates don’t improve PageRank automatically. Content is not part of the PR calculation.

  2. High PageRank doesn’t mean high search ranking.

  3. DMOZ and Yahoo! Listings don’t improve PageRank automatically.

  4. .edu and .gov-sites don’t improve PageRank automatically.


According to Google itself, "Google tries to find pages that are both reputable and relevant. If two pages appear to have roughly the same amount of information matching a given query, we’ll usually try to pick the page that more trusted websites have chosen to link to. Still, we’ll often elevate a page with fewer links or lower PageRank if other signals suggest that the page is more relevant. For example, a web page dedicated entirely to the civil war is often more useful than an article that mentions the civil war in passing, even if the article is part of a reputable site such as Time.com."

PageRank can also provide a guide of sorts to how a site’s link building efforts are going. A high PageRank does not guarantee high rankings in the SERPs, but it does indicate that Google (in some vague, nebulous way unknown to all of us) has a high opinion of the back links the web site is generating.

This is where the trouble starts. You see, nobody can consistently guarantee to be on top for a particular keyword. Therefore, online firms started placing heavy stock in the value of their PageRank and began commercializing their web sites accordingly.

In 2002 Google arbitrarily reduced the PageRank of www.searchking.com (currently a pariah in nternet marketing circles) to zero. I checked it recently and, at the time of this writing, it’s still zero (this is after a couple of years). This history is repeating itself (more on that later). 

At the time a very important legal precedent was set. It was decided by a judge that PageRank was merely "Google’s opinion," and as such was protected by the right to free speech. Not everybody seemed to notice that this ruling more or less said PageRank was owned by Google and could be changed at any time they wish. Search marketers took exception to the idea that Google was persecuting Internet marketers, and some complained that Google was simply picking on the web sites because they were offering advertising models that competed with Google’s pay per click program.

The arguments made were considered moot since Google owns PageRank and could "arbitrarily" change their opinion about what was going on, math or no math. Google was more concerned about the results of their SERPs than any couple of web site owners’ income streams, and that led us to the mess we had in the last quarter of last year (more on that later).

The problem is an over estimation of the importance of PageRank. Google does not help the situation by displaying approximate PageRank values on the Google toolbar. This is one situation in which Google should very much keep its opinion to itself. Showing a site its PageRank (Google’s "opinion" of the site) has brought nothing but grief, and a maddening conceit followed by anger when Google changes its opinion.

The Bad

The pay-per-post phenomenon and Google’s very late update last year resulted in history repeating itself. It’s now official; selling text links can hurt your PageRank. Google has found a way to incorporate paid text links into their PageRank algorithm. But pay-per-post restarted Searchking’s business model and got egg on Google’s face. What is important to notice is that if you try to sell your web page to advertisers based on its PageRank, your PageRank will be affected. 

The problem is that no one is sure how much of is automated. TechCrunch, a vocal opponent and critic of pay-per-post’s advertising model (they liken it to prostitution!) said in this post that Google has declared a "Jihad" or holy war against blog link farms. How holy the war is remains to be seen. I think Google is more concerned about the bottom line than holy things.

For those that are still wondering why Google seems to be bashing the PR of blog link farms, consider that it is perfectly normal in other venues. Standards and Poor and the Fitch agency give credit ratings all the time — and believe me, it is only an opinion. When they change their opinion, it makes it harder for the company which has been downgraded to access credit. According to  a recent post by Danny Sullivan on PageRank:

  • It’s Google’s search engine. They have every right to say that if you sell links, they might penalize you.

  • Google is not telling people what to do with their sites, which is a popular point of argument. Google is telling people what to do if they are concerned about doing better in Google. Don’t want to be harmed in Google? Don’t sell links.


The situation according to Danny is a war ("jihad" anybody?) between paid links and AdSense, and for now, the bigger Google is taking the paid link sites to the cleaners. Just ask the editors of www.daily.stanford.edu, who saw their PageRank drop to five from nine, or the gurus at textlinkads.com, whose fall is documented here at daily moolah. Now the bloggers at Pay-per-post have seen their bubble burst after months of warnings.

The biggest situation is still that of Pay-per-post. The web site just went off beta. I have never used them personally but I saw the merits in their operating model. Perhaps full disclosure would be preferred on the side of the bloggers so that readers will know when they are writing content about a sponsored page or if they are financially unbiased towards the product been previewed. 

However, with the PageRank of bloggers on Pay-per-post getting slammed, it is possible that the entire business model may be compromised. If the bloggers’ advertisers see the PageRank of their sites as essential, or if Google goes one step further and starts pulling the blogs from their SERPs, it could result in mass flight. Hopefully such a horrible thing won’t happen. Pay-per-post has switched to an Alexa ranking scale so that its model is disconnected from Google’s PageRank, but it seems possible that Google SERP trouble will eventually affect the Alexa ranking of these sites.

The Way Out?

Google PageRank is over-hyped. If Google really wants to reduce the amount of sites which sell paid links based on PR, they should stop showing sites their PageRank. Until then both the innocent, who sell text links on their web sites for income, and the guilty — you have to ask Google to define who those are — will be punished. Until Google’s dance and PR updates stop being studied with the intensity of a US Fed chairman’s announcement, there will be no end to the amount of drama that will ensue because history will always repeat itself.

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