There is a long running debate in the SEO world about whether Google’s PageRank and its corresponding algorithms have any value in SEO anymore. Some think that PageRank is an old tool that Google no longer uses while others think that it is just as important today as it ever was.
Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. Yes Google PageRank is important but it’s not the ranking factor it used to be.
What is PageRank?
When Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page first developed Google as a university project they determined that sites with the most links were probably the most trustworthy sites on the web. They then devised a ranking algorithm called “PageRank” which analyses those links to find out which sites have the most. The algorithm has gone through many changes since its inception around the turn of the century but at its core it is still the same.
However what has changed is how PageRank is used in the rankings.
A few years ago, PageRank was “The” ranking factor Google used. You could do a search and the pages at the top of the results always had higher PageRank values while pages lower in the results had lower PageRank values. And if your site didn’t have a PageRank value, then your site hardly saw the light of the first page.
Soon after, webmasters and SEOs began to recognize the value of PageRank and began developing ways to artificially inflate it. In some cases it was easy. I figured out early on that a “master page” (what we now call a sitemap) that had links to all other pages on the site was an easy way to build PageRank. This was because PageRank was iterative – it would re-run on pages that linked back and forth. Therefore if you linked your sitemap page to every other page on the site, and then linked back to it from each of those pages, the PageRank value would flow back and forth between pages.
Of course there were factors at play to stop this seemingly never ending loop, but you could push your site PageRank up one or two points simply through this type of interlinking on your own site.
SEOs then figured out that external links had even more power. Essentially, the site with the most links ranked the highest. Link farms sprang up, offering reciprocal linking services. Their motto was “you link to me and I will link to you” and soon link farms were outranking regular sites for queries. This of course led to poor Google results, so they adjusted their algorithms to compensate, and PageRank became less of a ranking factor.
Is PageRank being used by Google now?
While no one outside of Google can say for sure, there is ample evidence to suggest that PageRank is still being used, but not as the ultimate ranking factor it used to be.
If you were to check the PageRank of the sites ranking right now on any query, you will see the values are all over the map. You have sites with a PR1 (PR is short for PageRank) outranking PR7 sites.
But that doesn’t mean Google isn’t using PageRank now – it’s just used in different places.
Where is PageRank important?
Even though PageRank isn’t as important in rankings, I still refer to it for many things.
For example, a site’s home page PageRank value is a good indicator of the site’s overall worth to Google. If the toolbar is clear (indicating a PR value of 0) or grey (has no PageRank) it means Google has either penalized the site, or its links, or doesn’t consider it to have enough value to even warrant a PageRank value.
But even if it does have a value, a lower number indicates that it could be a lower value site.
But be cautious when reading into the PageRank value. This is because that value that you see – whether it is a Toolbar or a web based service – doesn’t get updated very frequently. Therefore the number you see could be several months old and not a reflection of the current PageRank value of the site. As such you should only use it as one of many indicators of a site’s true value.
PageRank is also important in that it helps determine the depth and frequency of a Googlebot crawl. This means that you want to be sure your internal pages have a PageRank value as well, especially if your site is larger, as this provides feedback to Googlebot on when and how often to crawl the page.
If your site isn’t too big then this is less of an issue but if you run a large site, such as a directory or portal site, then you want to ensure you have PageRank value transferring down from your home page to internal pages. And if the PageRank value doesn’t flow then you need to figure out why and fix it.
What is PageRank flow?
PageRank flow, also called PageRank inheritance, refers to how, or even if, PageRank is transferred from higher pages to lower pages.
Consider your site like a pyramid. The very top is the home page and as you go down through the layers (click through the site), they get wider (indicating more pages). Most large sites are organized like this. The hierarchy indicates that for many sites, most of the “meat” of the site – the site content – is found lower in the site; likely 2 or more clicks from the home page.
In most cases PageRank should not drop much, if at all, as you click through the site. So, for example, if your home page PageRank value is 5, you would expect your next level pages (pages that are 1 click from the home page) to be a 4 or 5 value. Pages below that would be 3-4 (these would be pages 2 clicks from the home page) and pages below that 2-3 (these pages are usually 3 or more clicks from the home page). If your PageRank value doesn’t flow like this it could indicate that Googlebot is having an issue crawling through your site.
What else is PageRank good for?
As I said above, PageRank is a pretty good indicator of a site’s worth on Google. Therefore it is one of the factors I consider when requesting links for my clients from other sites.
I tend to stay away from sites with a PR value of 0 mostly because, as I said, this could be an indicator of a larger problem which Google has with the site, but any value greater than 0 would be a good link. Of course you would like to get links from higher PageRank sites, but that should not be your only indicator of the value of that link.
You also want to look at the PR value of the page where your link will appear. While the site’s home page may have a higher PR value, that doesn’t always mean that PR travels correctly down through the site. As I said above, an improperly coded site could negatively impact PageRank inheritance between pages, therefore check the actual page first.
Also look at the number of links on that page. This is because the value of the PageRank that will be transferred to your site will be divided up among all links on that page.
Put in other terms, getting your link on a PR1 site with only 5 other links is worth much more to you than a link on a PR4 site with 100 links. Because if you do the math – 1 divided by 6 (5 links plus yours) is 0.1667 while 4 divided by 101 is 0.0396. Since 0.1667 is higher than 0.0396 it is safe to assume that the link from the PR1 page in this case is “worth” more to your site than the link on the PR4 site with 100 other links.
Now I am greatly simplifying the whole PageRank transference formula, but I did it this way so you could understand the ways PageRank can be manipulated.
Final thoughts on PageRank
Remember that PageRank is fluid – the value you see on the toolbar or web service now may not be the same in 3 or 6 months. Sometimes it goes up and sometimes it goes down. So if you are using it for link building purposes for example, you may want to revisit sites you disqualified in the past to see if their value went up.
Also keep in mind that sites you got links from in the past may see their PageRank drop as time goes on, therefore that link becomes less valuable to you as time goes on. That means your link building has to be on-going to be effective. One cannot simply build links for a few months then stop because as time goes on your sites rankings will begin to suffer.
Remember that PageRank is only one of hundreds of indicators used by Google. And while it isn’t as important in rankings as it used to be, it can still be a very helpful tool for other areas of your online marketing strategy.