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The Art of Sculpting, or There's Nothing Wrong with Knowing SEO

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There have been much discussion recently about using the “nofollow” attribute to sculpt a website's PageRank for ranking purposes, a practice commonly known as PR Sculpting. If you are not sure what I am talking about or you want a visual description to help you understand, then I recommended you take the time to read the bucket post (even though it ignores PR flowing back in the opposite direction, but that is a post for another day).

PR Sculpting has been the focus of much controversy in the Is SEO a Red Flag?SEO space; most SEO professionals are either against or do not think that there is any value in PR Sculpting. Some have come to the conclusion that PR sculpting is bad for a website. Their reasoning: only SEO people know about PR Sculpting, so if a page is sculpted, SEO pros must have worked on the site. According to Eric Lander from Search Engine Journal, if you PR Sculpt, “you might as well alert the engines that you not only aware of optimization, but you're willing to go out of your way to protect your site.”

Somehow, just knowing/doing SEO is enough to raise a red flag with Google. In other words, optimization is by its nature blackhat.

Of course, that's a patently ridiculous thing to say. Matt Cutts from Google even went out of his way at the Web 2.0 conference to state very clearly SEO is neither Spam nor bad. Matt even addressed the PR Sculpting issue in a linking Q&A: “In general, worry more about the high quality of your site. After you've taken care of it, then think about sculpting.” Cutts sees nothing wrong with PR Sculpting on its own, but does qualify his statement with the coda that “Google is against abusive manipulation.” As we'll see (and is often the case with SEO) the key word here is “abusive”.

The only post to date, backed by actual data, that I have seen that comes close to showing that PR Sculpting could hurt a site is from Branko Rihtman from 10s Search Marketing here in Jerusalem. His post is about Google penalties and how they may be keyword- and destination-specific. His client did some PR Sculpting and Branko concluded that the client was penalized due to "a combination of the implementation of nofollow and a significant difference between the on-page and off-page optimization.” Branko finds that the nofollow by itself wasn't what "caused the penalty in this case," rather "it was a combination of signals that caused the infamous red flag to be risen above the customer's site."

What Branko fails to mention in the post is how much PR Sculpting the client actually did. In the comments, when asked about the quantity of sculpting, he answered, “I would say that the percentage of followed pages was much smaller than the nofollowed ones.” That sounds like more than just some PR Sculpting; it sounds like abusive sculpting. (Branko also thought that the abruptness with which he did the nofollowing might have been abusive, although we've seen speed to be much less of an issue than quantity.) And as Matt Cutts emphasized, doing anything abusive in SEO will raise a red flag, whether with keyword stuffing, link stuffing or PR Sculpting.

So there is really no data to support the fact that properly-executed PR Sculpting will hurt a site. Google is already aware that SEOs exists, and—as Matt Cutts stated—has no problem with them as long as they are not “abusive” in their SEO practices. Cutts also said that after you work on the overall quality of your site, it makes sense to “think about sculpting.” It doesn't seem like a practice to which Google objects, as long you do it with the same care as other SEO tasks. In fact, we've seen some great results from PR Sculpting—but that will have to wait until the next blog post.

Kalman Labovitz, Senior Account Manager at RankAbove, co-wrote this post.


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