PageRank has been with us for awhile now and it seems the years have bred a host of stories: some true, some urban legend and others a mix of the two. This doesn't surprise us – anything that has to do with Google and SEO is bound to be misunderstood or misinterpreted simply because Google guards its results formula with a zeal normally reserved for queens and presidents, and hence the rise in 'making stuff up'.
The problem with so-called experts making stuff up about PageRank is that a lot of people actually start to believe it, either through their own inexperience, or because the ‘expert’ makes a compelling case. These people then go away and start making decisions based on false assumptions, often with unpleasant results (just ask any kid who thought they could fly!).
So let's clear the air about PageRank. Understanding exactly what it is and, just as importantly, what it isn't, will help you conquer your fear of PageRank and see its place in SEO more clearly.
What is PageRank?
PageRank is an arbitrary rank given to a website by Google based on what it determines to be site authority, which appears to be improved by a site's age, traffic, inbound links from other authority sites and site quality.
Ok, so that was a dictionary definition, but does this mean Google simply plucks numbers out of the air and scores different websites based on a gut feeling? Anyone who knows how Google operates knows that maths and science are at the core of everything they do, including assigning PageRank. In fact, the PageRank formula packs a lot of science into a small green bar on the Google Toolbar (just as an aside, the PR you see on the Google Toolbar is not exact). You can also use the Affilorama PageRank Calculator to find out the PR for any site.
One of the great minds behind the Google search engine, Sergey Brin, helped write a whitepaper on the subject that explains the intent behind PageRank. It uses the illustration of a random surfer who visits random pages by clicking links and never clicking the back button. The probability that the random surfer visits any particular page is its PageRank.
If this isn't making much sense then it might help to compare PageRank with social networks. Social networks work in a similar way to the World Wide Web, with a series of links connecting different individuals (think 'six degrees of separation'). You sometimes hear an individual being described as 'well-connected'; Other individuals are described as ‘reclusive’ when they have very few connections. Most of us, however, lie in the middle somewhere. When we compare how everyone on the planet is connected to how websites are linked, we can better understand what PageRank is.
PageRank is basically Google's way of saying how 'well connected' it thinks a website is.
What PageRank is not
So now that we've established that PageRank is essentially the probability of a random surfer clicking links and landing on your website, we now need to make sure we're clear on what PageRank isn't.
PageRank isn't the same as ranking. Sure it's confusing because it has rank in the name, but the two are quite different. That's not to say that PageRank won't influence a site's ranking, but it is not the primary factor.
Google say that PageRank is used to prioritize search results, but this isn't at the expense of the relevancy of the results. This is because Google wants to create the best user experience, not just return a list of popular websites. PageRank may well be an indicator of how well connected a website is, and how many citations (backlinks) it has, but that does not mean it's what the user is looking for. And Google knows this.
What does this mean for you?
So is this casual wander through the ins and outs of PageRank merely an intellectual exercise? Is there anything you can take away from it and apply to your own online marketing?
Happily yes, there are a number of points you can take away from having a clear understanding of PageRank.
- Compete with high PR sites – A site with a high PR does have an advantage in the search rankings but it's not everything. In fact there are lots of other factors that Google takes into account to determine who appears at the top of the search results. This means that, even if you are a relatively new site, you can confidently compete with high PR sites in the SERPs (Search Engine Result Page).
- Focus on other attributes – An important element of backlinking is relevancy. While getting a backlink from a high PR site can boost your ranking (just like if Tiger Woods mentions your name to the staff at that country club you just can't seem to get a membership to!) it is often more important that you have a highly targeted and relevant backlink. That should be just as much a consideration when planning your link building campaign.
- Build your niche – Large, popular sites with high PageRank may have a lot of pages and a lot of information, but often it's generalized. You have the opportunity to develop a specialist website, with expertise that users will seek out. Going back to the analogy of a social network, I might not be the most well-connected person amongst my associates but if they need help with their website, they seem to find me quite easily!
So don't be intimidated by that little green bar the next time you visit a competitor's site. Sure it means they're popular but your website might be what the searcher is looking for, and Google knows that.
Stay focused on your niche and delivering value to your visitors and you'll enjoy good rankings in the search results, regardless of your PageRank!