Thursday, January 8, 2009

PageRank is Dead, Long Live Page Rank

Go to Google and enter "find Chuck Norris" then press I'm feeling lucky. It's a Google Bomb.

The number one result for "find Chuck Norris" beats out about 8,750,000 other pages, but only has about 136 sites linking to it. What's notable is that these sites that link to the number one result do not have particularly high PageRank. One linking site has PageRank 5, and there are a bunch of PageRank 1, 2 and 3s; most seem to have no PageRank at all.

This does suggest that many links from high PageRank sites are not needed to be a number one result on a fairly competitive keyword. Google returns results we [Google] believe are the most relevant to the user. Relevancy is determined by over 200 factors, one of which is the PageRank for a given page (from Google's support page about how they crawl, index, and serve the web).

PageRank is not the be all end all of high search rankings it may have once been. It is still one factor Google uses, even if only 0.5% of the factors used. However, Google has also publicly said that the PageRank publicly displayed by Google's systems is not current (usually 3 months old) and is not the private one their systems use to decide rankings.

Is PageRank dead? Or useless? No. PageRank is convenient. When discussing Google rankings with people who aren't focused on or don't have knowledge of search marketing, PageRank is a deceptively concise number that is often used to express success and value regardless of whether either actually exist. It suggests a page is good if the PageRank is high, and bad if it is low. But PageRank does not tell you how successful a site will be at ranking highly.

More important than ranking, PageRank has no relationship with whether a site will be successful; A page's purpose (selling things, engaging visitors, entertaining with Chuck Norris references, etc.) can be fulfilled with no PageRank at all. Also, a page with high PageRank can fail utterly to accomplish anything constructive for anyone (at least short term).

Success online, as in life, is about success itself, as one defines it (e.g., sales, sign-ups, informed visitors, improving the world, happiness). If your page is hugely successful and has high PageRank, wonderful; if it's hugely successful with low or no PageRank, that's wonderful too. PageRank is only one metric among many, and it's tempting to put more value on PageRank than actually exists.

Many times PageRank has been discussed with clients, or other "stake holders," with regards to a site or page's value, and while this easily graspable shorthand may make us feel good, it also can keep us from addressing real value. At the same time, given the secrecy of Google and other search engines' algorithms, many feel utterly in the dark about search rankings that can vastly effect success, income and job security. PageRank is the promise of seeing inside the black box of how search rankings are decided, a promise often broken.

In the absence of clear objectives and metrics, PageRank can be an appealing substitute, but in reality PageRank is only one of many, many elements that need considering. When PageRank is used as the only gauge of a page's value, success or health it leads to bad conclusions, just as using a child's height as the only gauge of the child's health, success or value would lead to bad conclusions.

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