Google PageRank: Simplified

It may be the single most divisive element in the search optimization game. Mention it in a room full of SEOs (define) and you’ll likely be treated to a mixture of groans and hurrahs. Regardless of what color hat you’re wearing, everyone involved in search has a strong opinion about Google’s PageRank.

The backbone of its empire, PageRank is the metric that defines a Web page’s relevancy in the eyes of Google.

The Tool(bars) of the Trade

The controversy lies with the more public element of PageRank: Google Toolbar PageRank. The Toolbar PageRank number is what Google lets us see. For such a critical ranking, it’s a shame updates are so infrequent.

The Toolbar PageRank is often used by SEOs to gauge the worth of a link. Since the PR number changes only when Google performs one of its non-periodic updates, one must take its relevancy with a grain of salt.

Since PR is the only public aspect of Google’s Web page valuation, major online properties factor Toolbar PageRank into theory linking strategies. With so much invested in this little 1-through-10 number, just think what might happen if certain sites were penalized for — I don’t know — buying links?

Toolbar PageRank illustrates the strategic importance of PR to business success. What about the real PageRank? That is, of course, the actual PageRank algorithm (define) — brainchild of Larry Page and the cornerstone of Google’s link analysis.

When talking about Google PageRank, you must distinguish between the public Toolbar PageRank and the non-public algorithmic PageRank. The latter is really the heart of what makes Google tick. While I’ll discuss both, keep in mind actual PageRank is the more important metric. It directly affects your rankings. What follows are my own opinions on PageRank as well as those shared by my staff of SEO analysts and engineers.

PageRank Theory for Dummies

Google states: “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.”

Google further explains not only is the sheer volume of links or endorsements a page receives important, but the evaluation of the page linking in to the page. This is the hub site to authority site relationship; a site’s worth as referrer depends on the authority of the sites it links out to, and vice versa.

This isn’t exactly earth shattering news. It’s more of a grounding of understanding for my opinions. Most SEOs have internalized this concept and build endorsements to pages accordingly. Google uses this relevancy ranking in conjunction with query relevancy to determine the results you see — not only term relevant results but also sites others (as determined through link analysis) feel are important.

As an SEO company, we apply this PageRank theory regularly in determining the strongest linking strategies for our client’s pages. While we look at Toolbar PageRank as a directional measure, we also take into account many other metrics. The overall theme, content, keywords, and on-page optimization are also factors that determine whether we want a site to endorse a client.

PageRank and the Link Buying Police

Can the system be gamed? Google states: “complex automated methods make human tampering with our search results extremely difficult.” That said, some of you may be wondering about the elephant in the room: buying links on pages with high PageRank.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. A long time ago, some overzealous SEOs figured out you could put keywords in the meta keywords section and rank highly for them, even if they were irrelevant to your content. I think those same people figured out you didn’t have to comb the Web looking for links; there are plenty of people willing to sell them to you.

From an SEO perspective, buying links from relevant properties to our client’s sites isn’t a bad practice, if they’re relevant. Stealing a line from Justilien Gaspard, “Good link building is just good marketing.”

However, Google is now at war with paid links. Sites caught engaging in this practice have been significantly penalized in PageRank, devalued both in the eyes of Google’s algorithm and potential link builders. When buying links, channel Dirty Harry and ask yourself, “Do you feel lucky?” Your clients may not be so confident.

This begs the question, does PageRank even matter? If the Washington Post gets penalized for buying/selling links, is its Web site any less relevant? Yes and no. From Google’s perspective, a lower actual PageRank means the page is less relevant than other sites for specific keywords (lower visibility). From the user’s perspective, the Washington Post is an established news entity and not going away anytime soon.

Not every site’s as well known as the Washington Post and a PageRank penalty will hurt most. Your competitors are just itching to edge you out of the SERPs (define). They’ll be popping champagne bottles if your site’s suddenly penalized with a low PR value. The onus is on you to use caution, especially when it comes to link buying.

How You’re Supposed to Use PageRank

Ultimately, Toolbar PageRank is the only value you’re able to see. Toolbar PR should be utilized as a guide to how well your site is perceived by Google. It’s not an end all evaluation or endorsement of your site.

While PageRank is an important guide for identifying proper endorsers, don’t let it be the factor in your decision. Remember, relevancy is key. It’s better to have a 100 links from relevant content with relevant anchor text than 500 links from just anywhere.

PageRank is important, but there’s no need to live and die by your Google Toolbar. Keep in mind the overall premise on linking; someone thinks you are a worthy resource, so they reference your site.

As long as you keep your site fresh, relevant, and adherent to search standards, you need not fear PageRank’s ebbs and flows. Being a useful and pertinent Web site will always be more important than the metrics used to track such success.

Join us for SES London February 19-21 and for training classes on February 22.

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