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The Myth of Google PageRank

I have seen numerous reports recently of sites seeing their Google PageRank dropping significantly, then a few days later returning to where it was. This happened with Google’s own .com website – it dropped to PR9 for a week or so and then bounced back to PR10. Twitter dropped all the way down to PR0 before returning to PR9.

It is now widely known that Google only update toolbar PageRank roughly every quarter, so this double update that has been happening indicates there has been some issue. Unfortunately there has been no further explanation from Google.

It also raises the question of why Google still have toolbar PageRank. All SEO’s worth their salary know that it is a useless metric (and every published PageRank figure is taken from the toolbar). It is impossible to judge the worth of something that can be 6 months out of date and not accurate even when freshly updated.

For those of you not well versed in PageRank, let me explain a bit further.

Back when Google was created, Larry Page devised a ranking metric that he called PageRank (Page as in his surname, not web page). It is a measure of how likely a person is to click on a particular page. PageRank is passed from one website to another via followed links – this is why link building became such a large part of an SEO’s job.

The actual formula for PageRank is a complicated one – Wikipedia has a good explanation if you are interested. It is constantly updated as Google finds new links, new sites, dead links etc and used as one of the 200+ ranking factors.

PageRank became a huge focus because it was one metric that Google gave webmasters a figure for – through the Google toolbar. Toolbar PageRank gave all site owners a tangible figure for how well their site was performing. It didn’t take long for companies to cash in and to start selling high PR links to manipulate rankings.

Google did not want to see their rankings being manipulated so they made (and still make) frequent changes to the algorithm and stopped updating toolbar PageRank as often. While toolbar PageRank had always varied from the PageRank Google actually used in ranking, this change made the difference more pronounced.

Unfortunately the damage was done and webmasters carried on fixating on what the little green Google toolbar told them their PageRank was. For their part, Google has worked hard trying to counteract the reliance on toolbar PageRank. On their FAQ’s they say the following:

“My site’s PageRank has gone up / gone down / not changed in months!
A: Don’t worry. In fact, don’t bother thinking about it. We only update the PageRank displayed in Google Toolbar a few times a year; this is our respectful hint for you to worry less about PageRank, which is just one of over 200 signals that can affect how your site is crawled, indexed and ranked. PageRank is an easy metric to focus on, but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s useful for you as a site owner. If you’re looking for metrics, we’d encourage you to check out Analytics, think about conversion rates, ROI (return on investment), relevancy, or other metrics that actually correlate to meaningful gains for your website or business.”

So, if you see your toolbar PageRank decrease, don’t panic. Take a look at the ranking of your keywords, the traffic to your site and see if that has changed. If it hasn’t, great news, you can carry on as normal. If it has, obviously something has gone wrong that you need to look into and fix. However it is the reduction in traffic you need to investigate, not the drop in PageRank.

Until Google stops playing with us and removes PageRank from the toolbar, people are still going to focus on it. However I hope that bit by bit, people will stop talking about it so much and start looking at real ranking factors and metrics that will influence their bottom line.

What do you think – does toolbar PageRank still play a role in your SEO strategy?

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