With no PageRank update since February, SEO experts are speculating that Google’s PageRank may be gone for good. In October, Google’s head of Webspam, Matt Cutts, announced that the Toolbar PageRank won’t be updated again this year–- despite the fact that many people still use PageRank as a crude measurement of a website’s performance. If PageRank really is gone, what measurements can businesses use instead?
PageRank: Does it Still Matter?
Google PageRank is one of the many factors that Google has used to determine the importance of a web page and where this page ranks in search engine results. Originally developed by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, PageRank was the first clear measurement of a page’s importance, based primarily on the number of links leading to a specific page. Each link leading to a page is treated as a “vote” for that specific page; in theory, the more backlinks that a page has, then the more relevant that page is – hence the page ranked higher in search results. To find a website’s PageRank, you can install the Google Toolbar on your browser or use a PageRank checking tool. Sites are ranked on a scale of 1 to 10; with 10 being the highest. Very few sites have been able to achieve a PR10.
Old-school SEO tactics, including link farms, tried to manipulate backlinks and artificially enhance PageRank results. Google’s Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird algorithm updates cracked down on these “blackhat” tactics, penalizing pages with a high number of meaningless backlinks. At the same time, Google’s algorithm updates placed increased importance on quality content and page interactivity/sociability scores for determining search engine results, somewhat diminishing the value of backlinks.
While many webmasters still obsess over PageRank, the fact that this tool has not been updated since earlier this year means that PageRank is becoming less important. However, many SEO tools still utilize and display PageRank information for sites along with other SEO metrics. And while PageRank is a crude measurement for a site’s prominence, translating PageRank data into actionable SEO improvements has been difficult. In general, a site with a ranking of 7 or higher is in good shape and it’s reasonable to assume that Google will list the site highly in search results. On the flip side, a site with a low ranking (3 or below) is in bad shape. However, for sites that fell in the middle, it was difficult to know why they were scoring lower than desired – and what specific changes needed to be made to improve PageRank.
Last month, Matt Cutts announced at PubCon in Las Vegas that PageRank won’t be updated this year – if ever again. According to Cutts, the pipeline for pushing out PageRank data to users broke earlier this year, and it’s unlikely to be fixed any time in the near future. While PageRank continues to update internally at Google, there’s not way for webmasters to see the latest data. At PubCon, Cutts revealed that Google does not have anyone currently working on updating the broken pipeline, and it’s unclear when – if ever – Google will task people with this job. Thanks to Cutts’ announcement, speculation continues to grow that Google will retire PageRank altogether.
In order to see PageRank, the “Google Toolbar” must be turned on. With fewer users activating this feature in web browsers, fewer people are seeing any data at all. And while many SEO tools continue to utilize and display PageRank data, there’s a growing trend amongst SEO experts to downplay this data or put less stock in the numbers.
The introduction of Hummingbird – a complete search algorithm overhaul – is diminishing the importance of PageRank, as well as traditional SEO tactics like keyword optimization and backlinks. Hummingbird places greater emphasis on semantic and conversational search.
Semantic search relies heavily on the contextualization of information, rather than a few keywords or phrases. This reflects Google’s improved ability to index web documents and relationally link search queries to these documents, delivering better results. Hummingbird powers complex search queries, including Google’s Knowledge Graph.
While SEO is far from dead, Google’s reluctance to update PageRank, along with the continued push towards semantic and conversational search, means that webmasters must shift their optimization strategies. Now, more than ever, content marketing and organic backlinks earned via social media matter for search engine results. At the end of the day, quality content will continue to dominate Google’s search results.