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PageRank: Caught in the paid-link crossfire

Last week the blogosphere was abuzz when Google decided to ‘update’ the PageRank numbers they display on the toolbar. It seems Google has made real on its threat to demote sites engaged in buying and selling links for search rankings. The problem is that they caught some innocent ones in the crossfire. A couple of days later, they corrected their mistake, and those sites are now back to where they were supposed to be.

The incident reveals that there is a lot of misunderstanding about PageRank, both inside and outside the SEO community. For example, Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg writes:

On Thursday, Web site administrators for major sites including the Washingtonpost.com, Techcrunch, and Engadget (as well as Forbes.com) found that their “pagerank”–a number that typically reflects the ranking of a site in Google

He also quotes Barry Schwartz saying:

But Schwartz says he knows better. “Typically what Google shows in the toolbar is not what they use behind the scenes,” he says. “For about two and a half years now this number has had very little to do with search results.”

There are two mistakes in these assertions:

  • The toolbar PageRank does not reflect the ranking of a site in Google. It reflects Google’s perceived ‘importance’ of the site.

  • The toolbar PageRank is an approximation of the real PageRank Google uses behind the scenes. Google doesn’t update the toolbar PageRank as often as they update the real thing, but saying that it has little to do with search results is a little farfetched.

Several sites lost PageRank, but they did not experience a drop in search referrals. Link buyers and sellers use toolbar PageRank as a measure of the value of a site’s links. By reducing this perceived value, Google is clearly sending a message about paid links. The drop is clearly intended to discourage such deals.

Some ask why Google doesn’t simply remove the toolbar PageRank altogether so that buyers and sellers won’t have a currency to trade with. At first glance it seems like a good idea, but here is the catch—the toolbar PageRank is just a means of enticing users to activate the surveillance component that Google uses to study online behavior. Google probably has several reasons for doing so, but at minimum it helps measure the quality of search results and improve its algorithms. If Google were to remove the toolbar PageRank users would have no incentive to let Google ‘spy’ on their online activities. Read more