PageRank Sculpting: Welcome Back to High School Hell

Being too smart can get you in trouble. I can't tell you how many business owners appear to be only mildly smarter than the turtle I'm watching over the summer from my kid's preschool.

Yet they're wildly successful business people. Their drive, persistence, and bullheaded determination makes them successful. (And they're probably a little smarter than my turtle.)

Sometimes, it also feels like Google is too smart for its own good. This over-smartness has recently caused some consternation between the SEO community and Google.

It recently came out that Google has changed how they weight links. Many other people have explained this (you can see the best of these articles here, here, and here).

But let me give it to you in a way that will cause flashbacks of terror, anguish, and absurdity: high school popularity.

Imagine you're a cool kid in high school. There's a party Friday night and five geeks beg you to get access to this party. You're so cool that everyone feels easy around you and loves you to no end.

The problem is, the other cool kids, and especially the super hot person you're dating, have seen you hanging around these geeks and it's weighing on your overall popularity. It's been found out that these five geeks are trying to use you to get to the party.

You tell the cool clique that, "Look, you can do whatever you want with Tom, Dick, Harry, and Rufus. I don't represent for those four idiots. I just want to take Sarah to the party because we all know she's totally geek-hot."

Up until sometime in 2008, that clique would have said, "Cool, dude. We agree. Sarah is totally geek-hot and if she's a friend of yours, she's a friend of ours. Screw the other guys."

Well, apparently in the last year, your cool friends got together and made a new rule unbeknownst to you. Now they're all like, "Dude, a geek is a geek is a geek. If you're hanging around all five of those people, they all look the same to us. You can just invite Sarah to the party but she really isn't all that. And honestly, she looks pretty much just as lame as those other dudes you're spending time with, whether you invite them to the party or not."

The basic gist has been, for some time, you used to be able to control how much value a link got by devaluing other links on a page. You did this using the nofollow tag on links.

You were saying, "Look, ignore Tom, Dick, Harry, and Rufus. Even though you see me hanging around them, don't give them any value on my account. And definitely don't check them out just because of me. They need to get their cred from somebody else."

Now the rule is, "Just because you tell us not to give any weight to Tom, Dick, Harry, and Rufus, we don't care. We won't go check them out because you told us not to follow them on your behalf. But you're the one who's hanging around them (linking to them). So that's going to make other people you do want to represent less important. We can't be giving special props to who you tell us to. You're the one spending time with these idiots. Look, man, if you want us to think Sarah is so awesome, you need to stop spending any time whatsoever with Tom, Dick, Harry, and Rufus."

But then you're all like, "But waddup, yo? I can't help all these geeks wantin' to hang around with me. They just come over and tell me how great I am."

It's a cruel hoax that all the people that suffered so much under this popularity tyranny in actual high school are now faced with the exact same kind of fascist popularity contest all over again. We apparently haven't absolved our sins or corrected our karma for past wrongs.

So, you have two choices:

  1. Screw the man. You like who you like and that's the way it is.
  2. Screw your friends. Imagine Google is the hottest person at your high school and is dating you. Do you really give a crap about Tom, Dick, Harry, Rufus, and Sarah anyway?

The other option is that you hang out with the five geeks on the sly... maybe across the tracks in a dark alley. You guys can all play "World of Warcraft" at some seedy gaming cafe out of the sight of your super hot lover. (You do this through iframes or JavaScript links that Google can't follow.)

We wouldn't have this problem if Google had never decided to enact this nofollow-link-juice-withholding policy in the first place. But now the problem is even worse because they're pointing a bright light on the fact that you're hanging around with all these geeks and it definitely isn't helping your street cred.

So, you better either cut all ties with them forever more. Or you better start gaming the system and hiding any sign you have any relation to them.

What a mess.

Personally, none of my clients have major user-generated content in the way of comments or forum postings. So, thankfully, I don't have to come up with some huge new convoluted strategy to sculpt my clients' pages. Because they would read this article and then ask me what they should be doing to sculpt their PageRank.

I always advocate optimizing for the visitor, not the engine. But this whole thing paints me and every other optimizer in a corner. If we don't recommend something, then we look stupid in front of our clients. If we do enact something we look like sleazy optimizers that Google can say, "See! SEOs are just out to game the system."

This has made PageRank sculpting more of an issue. Not less.

I'm going to let the chips fall where they may for my personal stuff. I just do what I do here and at other sites I put content. If people are kind enough to post a comment and links are allowed in the comments, I'll let them. My allegiance is to them, not Google.

I hate high school.

About the author

Sage Lewis started his online marketing company, SageRock.com, in 1999 during a time when most Internet companies were failing. SageRock, however, has thrived under Lewis’ direction -- growing an average of 30% every year, while also being recognized as one of the top ten search engine optimization firms in the U.S. by a third-party resource in the industry, Marketing Sherpa.

Regarded as a web marketing expert, Lewis speaks regularly to business organizations like NEOSA and COSE, serves as a resource for press about industry trends, and teaches a recurring class on search engine optimization at Cleveland State University.

Lewis has created a unique company culture that values the individual employee and client, and he has built SageRock around one principle, “The concern, respect and empathy for the individual people we come in contact with at SageRock is our single core value.”

Lewis lives in Akron with his wife, Rocky, and son, Indiana.

Read more of Sage Lewis's columns at ClickZ.