Speaking at PageRank's Funeral


I came back last week from a relaxing vacation and found an email in my inbox sporting the following title: “PageRank is Dead.”

Upon reading the title, my mind went blank, closing up in an effort to prevent shock. Was this possible? The Death of PageRank? I tried to remember the predetermined events of the SEO Ragnarok: Facebook devours Odin; Twitter falls to the venom of the colossal snake, J√∂rmungandr; Google annihilates PageRank; the giant, Surt, sets the SEO world on fire…

I came slightly to my senses, and realized I don’t need to jump to eschatological conclusions. SEO can continue with, or without, PageRank. This was not the fiery end of linkbuilding or SEO.

Certainly it is true that, for many, PageRank acts as the guiding star for the value of any inbound link. The human mind naturally gravitates toward concrete numbers over the more abstract sentiments existing in a good link.

I consigned to fate. I would navigate my linkbuilding solely by the oft-overlooked principles of RELEVANCE, LINK ENVIRONMENT, and ANCHOR TEXT. Come walk with me while I explain…

Relevance is a principle frequently neglected in the frenzied piranha link building-style adopted by some. This explains why, on any given medical professional’s website, you are just as likely to find links to “Mexico Vacations!” as you are to truly helpful medical sites. But linking in relevant ways is better. (1) It strengthens user experience, (2) it looks natural, and (3) it makes you look more relevant to your industry in the eyes of the search engines. Want to know whether it’s worthwhile to try to put a link on a site? Ask yourself if the site is related to your own site, and/or links out to your competitors. And remember that this is not the 7 Degrees of Kevin Bacon. You need to be slapped by Common and Sense if your logic looks anything like this: My site is about doctors, doctors are typically wealthy, wealthy people like to vacation, Mexico is a great place to vacation, so clearly my doctor site is relevant to “Mexico Vacations!”

Link Environment is another principle by which to judge link potential. At this point we’ve determined relevance. But now we must ask where the link will be. While links on a link page are good, a link from a body of text is better. Imagine how someone would feel about your link were it lost in a gorilla-infested jungle of more links. You can only carry so many bananas in your hands, before some gorilla picks you up and carries you off to a more readable site. Imagine now that your link is highlighted amongst a bevy of text, all talking about your topic, and pointing to you as an authority on the subject, or an entertaining take. I guarantee the gorilla population is lower on those pages. But seriously, gorillas aside, your link is better off showing up in the body of a blog post or other content, than it is becoming just another body in a sea of link lists. The search engines think so too.

It is no secret that Anchor Text is the bread and butter of any link building effort. It is the crux, the golden child, the guitar solo. And yet many forget the power of anchor text. For a quick demonstration, type the word “here” into Google. At spot 3 you’ll find Adobe Reader, followed by Apple Quicktime, Windows Media Player, and so on. Nearly all the sites that require you to download Adobe Reader, or a Flash plug-in, or Quicktime to view their contents use the phrase “download here” with “here” almost always being the anchor text for the link. If you want to influence the search engines in what terms you should be showing up for, you better be paying attention to the anchor text of the links pointing to your site. Get too large a ratio of links with the anchor text “website” and you’ll find that your link campaign is a sad sorry affair. Your family will send you emails offering condolences. Your friends will stop returning your calls.

It is almost not worth mentioning to you that the email title “PageRank is Dead” was spurious. Upon opening the email, I learned that PageRank had faked its own death in a publicity stunt.

Further reading revealed that it had, in fact, NOT faked its death, but that we were having a network problem involving a browser plug-in. PageRank is alive and well. And yet… it’s worth keeping the above Triumvirate of principles at the forefront when linkbuilding. They are far more likely to outlive PageRank, an arbitrary numbering system that is bound to be tweaked and changed. These three principles are solid. Allow me to conclude with this quote from a slideshow presentation about the History of SEO given by Greg Boser of 3dogmedia.com and Marshall Simmonds of NYTimes.com:

“The PageRank that is displayed in the Google Toolbar is for entertainment purposes only. Due to repeated attempts by hackers to access this data, Google updates the PageRank data very infrequently because it is not secure. On average, the PR that is displayed in the Google Toolbar is several months old.”

And just because you asked, were I to speak at PageRank’s funeral, I imagine my remarks would be something like this: “PageRank, we obsessed about ye far too much. So we’ve buried you upside-down in case ye decide to come back.”

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  1. Dan Schulz says

    Jeff, I’d go on to say that it’s not just anchor text, but targeted relevant keyword-rich anchor text. Other than that, this blog entry is worth bookmarking – and slapping people with when they say that PageRank is the key to ranking well in Google.

    (If anything, as I told Aaron11 on Digital Point recently, PageRank is like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man before Gozer turned it into a 100 foot tall walking instrument of mayhem and world destruction in the movie “Ghostbusters” — in other words, nothing to be feared or even worried about since it’s just little more than a cute toy.)

  2. Jeffrey Smith says

    Great post Jeff:

    Indeed the quagmire of PageRank and ranking factor is often found lurking as a question from clients…when reporting time rolls around and they are perusing through the links you built.

    My favorite play on words was definitely “eschatological conclusions”, there is no shortage when it comes to explaining why 4 PR2 links with trust from a relevant site are worth an off topic PR5 any day.

    Let’s face it, search engines can read too, and context, quite simply is currency when link building enters the equation.

    Good read, love the writing style.

    All the best

    Jeffrey Smith

  3. Ann Julie says

    I really don’t like this page rank at all as all the webmasters have mentally become slaves of GOOGLE. SEO without pagerank can go ahead and I would like this to happen. Every search engine can read back links whether they are good or not, only Google does not have this ability.

  4. Jeff Call says

    Dan, Thanks for your comment. I whole-heartedly agree with “targeted relevant keyword-rich” being the key for anchor text. Thanks for that. Additionally, PageRank as Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is a priceless metaphor. I would love to see someone write a blog post titled, “Keeping Your Client from Turning into Zule, Opening a Gateway, and Summoning Gozer, the Destroyer”. Aside from a long title, I see a fantastic SEO/ Ghostbusters parallel forming.

    Jeffrey, Thanks for the feedback. I love the phrase “context is currency”. You should probably copyright that before someone steals it.

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