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What is PageRank?

Guest post submitted by Leah Fink of Charlotte Works the Web

pagerank imageIf you own or manage a website, it is likely you are familiar with the little green bar that indicates Google’s measure of the PageRank of your website. It can be tempting to obsess over the stubborn refusal of that little green worm to move forward, and there is much misinformation out there on the topic of PageRank in general. Let’s explore some facts and debunk some misconceptions concerning the topic of PageRank.

What PageRank Is

PageRank (PR) was named after one of the founders of Google, Larry Page. It is a rough indicator of the link popularity of your website (relative to the rest of the web), and the authority of the websites linking to you. For example, a website with lots of very low-quality incoming links from spammy, low-authority websites will have a lower PR than a website with a few very high-quality incoming links from authoritative, highly-esteemed websites.

Google’s view of the PageRank of your website changes daily, but they only update visible PR (i.e., the number you see in the PR indicator on your toolbar or plugin) periodically. These updates are occasional, sporadic, and inconsistent in timing. They might update once a year or once every three months. There is no way to know when the next update to visible PR will happen. If it has been a while since the last visible PR update, there is a good chance your rank has changed and you don’t even realize it.

PageRank is determined by a log scale. My inner math geek might not be as sharp as she once was, but let me try to explain. It takes a certain amount of incoming link juice to reach a PR of 1. However much link juice that is (and Google isn’t telling) it might be five times harder to reach a PR of 2 than it was to reach PR 1. And then, it will be five times harder than that to reach a PR of 3. So, if we imagine that link juice is measured in gallons, it might take a gallon of good strong link juice to reach PR 1, but it will take 5 gallons more link juice to reach PR 2, and then it will take another 25 gallons to reach PR 3, and so on. (That gives you an idea of how critical good quality link building really is.) Bottom line: as your PageRank increases, it gets harder to increase your PageRank!

Google uses the PageRank score of a website to help determine how often its spiders will return to the website to crawl it. Higher ranking sites will be revisited and crawled more often, because Google considers them more important. PR is only one factor among many that determine how often a site is crawled.

Since PageRank is a factor relative to the entire internet it is possible for your PR to decrease even if your incoming links stay the same. As large sites like Amazon and Facebook increase their incoming links by leaps and bounds each day, they “raise the ceiling” (so to speak) and increase the number of links that it takes to be considered a PR 10 site. Therefore, the logarithm adjusts and lower-ranking sites may decrease slightly in PR, although they have made no changes. There is no reason to be alarmed if your PR drops from 4 to 3, for example.

What PageRank Is Not

PageRank does not necessarily equate with higher placement in Google’s organic search results. It is a common but erroneous misconception that higher PR equals higher search result placement, largely because PR (as I mentioned) is a rough indicator of the strength of a page’s incoming link profile, and pages with stronger link profiles tend to rank higher in the search results. So when searching for, say, children’s backpacks…it would be natural to find pages with higher PR near the top of the search results, with PR scores decreasing as one looks at the web pages that rank further down the search results. While a page’s incoming link profile is a very strong indicator of how well it will perform in the search results, it is far from the ONLY factor that Google considers when ranking pages in the SERPs (that’s Search Engine Results Pages.) So although you will tend to see higher PR pages higher in the SERPs, you might also see a PR 2 page outranking a PR 4 page in the SERPs for the same query. Building strong incoming links is far more important overall than focusing on PageRank. It is the incoming links that make your web pages more worthy in Google’s eyes – not the PageRank itself.

While PageRank is not always a reliable indicator of whether or not a website has been misbehaving by violating Google’s best practices, it can be a valuable warning sign to a site owner that something is amiss. If your website has consistently ranked in the PR 3 or 4 range for years, then suddenly drops to PR 0 one day, you can be reasonably certain that your rank has been stripped as a penalty of some sort (likely for improprietous linking activity of some sort, like buying or selling links that pass PageRank.) It is important to note that just because a web page has a PR of 0, that doesn’t necessarily equate with having been penalized. That site may have been recently moved from another domain, or may be too new to have had their PR updated from 0. Remember, visible PR is only updated once in a blue moon.

PageRank is not an indicator of domain-wide authority. As its name implies, it rates the authority of only one webpage at a time. While the homepage of a website might rank a 6, many of its deeper pages might rank 1 or even 0. Conversely, the homepage of a website might rank a 6 while a deeper page on that same site might rank a 7 or an 8. PageRank is calculated separately for each page.

Finally, higher PageRank is not an end in and of itself. Higher PR doesn’t increase traffic, win new readers or boost sales. Most people who visit your site won’t ever be aware of your PR one way or the other – and those people are your customers, your readers or your clients. There is no reason to tear your hair out trying to increase your score, when it has virtually no impact on or importance to the users of your website.

What has your experience been with PageRank? Does your PageRank keep you up at night? Do you obsess over it, or ignore it?

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Author Bio:

Leah is the owner of Charlotte Works the Web, offering a full spectrum of SEO services and consulting. She is also the mother of three small daughters and a raging espressoholic. Find her on Google+ and Facebook.

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4 Responses to “What is PageRank?”

  1. Shara says:

    I learned a lot from this. I knew pagerank was based on links but you sure make a strong point for quality link building (caring more about that over the pagerank itself). No wonder I get so many emails every week from people asking me to post a link to their site. LOL.

    I’ll be more careful now, though, as I’m learning and understanding more about the QUALITY link building part! Quality over Quantity…

  2. Leah Fink says:

    Yes – quality over quantity can’t be overemphasized, ESPECIALLY if a site is brand new and just starting to build links. It is so tempting to go for a bunch of low quality links at the outset, but with no trust signals to offset that, you are in real danger of being penalized or worse, banned from the index.

    ALWAYS start your link building efforts off with the best quality links. And even better, avoid spammy low quality link building altogether!

  3. Wow, very helpful, Leah! I just learned about page rank over the last year…and didn’t really understand it all that much. There is so much to learn about links, SEO, PR, and how they all combine, in addition to the things NOT to do. The other thing that strikes me is that there is SO MUCH misinformation, w/ people saying, “Don’t EVER do this, or make sure you ALWAYS do that!” I like the message of this article…which to me is….BE WHO YOU ARE…and engage your audience/readership and continue to provide quality content that means something to THEM. Google is not my audience/reader!

    Wendy =)

  4. Leah Fink says:

    You are so right Wendy, if you are providing quality content that your readers love then you will do always do better than the website that is trying to eek by with crappy content and fool the search engines into ranking them better by obsessing over their SEO.

    And you are also correct that there is a TON of misinformation out there and SEO can be a complex and sometimes confusing animal. That is why God created SEO consultants. =)

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