The PageRank Debate
Google has altered its algorithms with a negative affect on the search rankings of many high profile sites. Google has confirmed that it is is downgrading the PageRank (PR) of any sites that seeks to improve its site ranking through mass link purchase. This has caused many rumblings in the blogosphere - with some questioning the worth of PR. Tim Hoang examines the debate.
For the uninitiated, PR is the measurement used by Google to determine the importance (at least in Google’s eyes) of a particular webpage. Developed in 1995 by Larry Page, and later by Sergey Brin, PR provides the basis for all of Google’s web search tools. PR uses the vast link structure of the web as an indicator of an individual webpage’s value, a link from page A to page B is seen as a vote, by page A, for page B. This, combined with Google’s weighting on the importance of each site that votes forms the basis of its search engine and determines the PR of a specific webpage.
With around 3 in 4 searches in the UK being made on Google achieving a high PR can drive traffic to an organisation’s website. The benefits of this are obvious which is why, for many a high PR is viewed as a priority.
Last week a series high profile sites had their PR downgraded by Google after they were found to be embedding ‘paid for’ links on their site. The online portals of The Times, The Washington Post and Forbes were among the sites that were penalised by the popular search engine.
Nihan Jayasinghe, head of search at digital marketing specialists Spannerworks believes that, "in the short term this action may have a negative effect, where clean sites are falling prey to collateral damage. It is impossible for Google to determine with complete accuracy if a site is actually selling links."
Although Google has not accused the sites of taking ‘cash for links’, Matt Cutts, Google’s resident Webspam team leader, pointed out that the recent update was related to selling and buying links.: "The partial update to visible PR that went out a few days ago was primarily regarding PR selling and the forward links of sites. So paid links that pass PR would affect our opinion of a site. Going forward, I expect that Google will be looking at additional sites that appear to be buying or selling PR.
This has particularly concerned bloggers who attempt to build influence through cross-linking and this group has been most vocal about the updates. Many smaller blogs, especially those that heavily rely of text link ads and whose sales depend on strong PR are most affected by this update. There has already been backlash from the blogosphere with various bloggers describing PR as the ‘Joke of the Blogosphere’ and running competitions to see who can ‘create a slogan for Bloggers hit by Page Rank Slam of October 07′.
Aaron Brazell, Technical Director of new media company, b5media and prominent blogger, questioned Google’s right to influence content on his site: "At b5media, we are weighing how we want to respond to this. Either we give in to Google and let them dictate what we do and have the unenviable position of losing PR and possibly advertising dollars, or we take the stand that quality content is quality content regardless of Google and that our content will speak for itself."
However, despite this initial negative response, there are those that view this update to be beneficial to the general public, enabling more accurate searches for search engine users. Robert Scoble, writer of the highly influential tech blog, Scobleizer does not look at his PR and believes that its influence has declined for many years already. Scoble cites how his site had been wrongly given prominence as an expert in offshoring by search engines as a reason for Google’s changes being a positive step. "Back when Google started Page Rank was a pretty global thing. If you had a PR of 6 or 7, it’d apply equally to everything. That’s why, back in 2004, if you did a search for "offshoring" you’d find my blog in #3 position because I had a lot of inbound links so Google just assumed I was relevant for offshoring too."
There are many that would agree with the notion that PR does not have the influence and emphasis placed on it by Google as it once did. Many search engine optimisation (SEO) practitioners realised years ago that PR is no longer indicative of a site’s search engine rankings and have placed less emphasis on attaining high PR. For many, PR is seen as an indicator of how Google rates the overall importance of the site, though not necessarily its position in search results for specific terms.
This is scant consolation for the many sites that rely on high PR to sell advertising and paid for links. These sites will have to rethink their business model in order to cope with Google’s update.
The problem with Google’s automated approach is that it appears to be unreliable and fails to detect intent. Larger organisations should be less concerned about achieving high PR and more concerned with creating accurate and relevant content in order to keep traffic coming to their site. However, until Google formally announces that PR no longer has the influence it once did, organisations will continue to do whatever it takes to achieve a higher PR.