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What Is PageRank? A Quick History Lesson

PageRank is a rarely-used term in digital marketing today. More commonly used as a metric for assessing the quality of a web page is Page Authority (a score created and updated by Moz). To assess the quality of a site as a whole, Domain Authority (also a Moz score) is used.

However, while PageRank is invisible to all but Google itself, it still plays an important role in the search engine’s algorithms and SEO as a whole, having a significant impact on how well a site will (or won’t) rank.

Intrigued?

Stick with us and we’ll fill you in on some of the key details behind PageRank, including the ins and outs of link juice, how PageRank works, and, of course, what PageRank actually is.

Alternatively you can use the jump links below to skip to an area of interest.

Let’s dive in! 

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What Is PageRank?

PageRank is a mathematical formula that judges the “value” of a page by looking at the quantity and quality of the pages that link to it.

Created by the team at Google and named after ex-Googler Larry Page, the PageRank algorithm is used to assess the quality of web pages and, in turn, serve up the best search results for Google’s users. 

Google themselves describes PageRank like so

“PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is. The underlying assumption is that more important websites are likely to receive more links from other websites.”

This (at that time, at least) was a revolutionary way of managing links between websites. It assigned them numerical values and was a significant factor in Google becoming the search engine giant it is today. 

In other words, PageRank helped Google get way ahead of the competition and unlocked the secret to a search engine that delivered legitimately useful and (largely) accurate results. 

Here’s a direct quote from the original paper by Brin and Page:

“Anyone who has used a search engine recently can readily testify that the completeness of the index is not the only factor in the quality of search results. ‘Junk results’ often wash out any results that a user is interested in.”

In simple terms, PageRank measures the relative value of each and every page that Googlebot finds while crawling the web. Each page is given a PageRank score between 1 and 10. One is the lowest value, and 10, the highest. When one page on the web links to another page, it’s counted as – in essence – a vote. The more “votes” you have from high PageRank sites, the better your site is likely to perform in Google’s search results. 

The History of PageRank

PageRank was created way back in 1996 by Sergey Brin and — as mentioned earlier — Larry Page. It would be a few years before the first prototype was rolled out, but they did so in 1998 — with great success. 

At least for a while.

PageRank was cutting-edge technology until savvy SEOs and webmasters realized they could game the search results by getting hundreds — or even thousands — of websites to link back to their sites. You could even argue that PageRank is the main reason the SEO industry exists at all. 

Links were bought and sold based on their PageScore, which was visible in Google’s PageRank toolbar. Check out this Google Toolbar (talk about a blast from the past!):

Old screenshot of Google PageRank bar.
Image Credit

Links on higher PageRank sites held more value and could be sold for vast amounts of cash. 

However, as the market for paid links became increasingly saturated, Google started to reduce how frequently it referenced PageRank. 

In 2009, they removed all references to PageRank from their PR material, and information about it disappeared from Webmaster Tools (now Google Search Console).

In 2013, Matt Cutts announced that Google would no longer be updating the public version of PageRank. In other words, no one (outside of Google) would be able to view other sites’ PageRank. 

In 2016, Google officially removed support for Toolbar PageRank.

Google’s made it clear that they will never again publicly update PageRank — but they admit they still use some form of PageRank behind the scenes. 

Is PageRank Still Important? 

In short, yes. While we can no longer see PageRank scores, that doesn’t mean they’re not important. 

PageRank was all about links — the same inbound links that still hold the biggest influence on how you move up (or down) the search results. 

While Google is way more sophisticated than it was when PageRank was introduced, the formula and links as a whole remain at the heart of its algorithms. As such they are arguably as vital as ever for SEO and digital marketing as a whole. 

Why Should You Still Care About PageRank?

Why, despite being hidden from your prying eyes, should you still care about PageRank? Because even though Google removed all support for it and started to downplay its importance, they themselves have admitted to still using it

In 2017, Gary Illyes tweeted: “DYK that after 18 years we’re still using PageRank (and 100s of other signals) in ranking?”

So there you go — straight from the horse’s mouth; a prominent Googler, stating as clear as day, that Google is still reliant on PageRank.

A year later, Gary mentioned PageRank once again at a conference in Singapore

In the talk, Illyes told the audience that PageRank is still a part of the Google algorithm, and the only thing that actually disappeared was its Toolbar PageRank. 

In other words, PageRank is still at the heart of today’s best SEO practices.

How Does PageRank Work?

Fancy getting all technical? Then this is how PageRank was described in Brin and Page’s original paper:

“We assume page A has pages T1…Tn which point to it (i.e., are citations). The parameter d is a damping factor which can be set between 0 and 1. We usually set d to 0.85. There are more details about d in the next section. Also C(A) is defined as the number of links going out of page A. The PageRank of a page A is given as follows:

PR(A) = (1‑d) + d (PR(T1)/C(T1) + … + PR(Tn)/C(Tn))

Note that the PageRanks form a probability distribution over web pages, so the sum of all web pages’ PageRanks will be one.”

That’s a real mouthful, right? Let’s simplify it. 

Here are the three main factors that Google looks at for PageRank:

  • The quantity and quality of inbound linking pages
  • The number of outbound links on each linking page
  • The PageRank of each linking page

When these three factors work in tandem, PageRank becomes (and remains) vital.  

What Is ‘Link Juice’? 

“Link juice” was coined back in the early days of SEO. Today it’s rarely mentioned and is more commonly referred to as link equity. 

Link juice was used to describe how links passed value from one web page to another. The better the site, and the better the web page, the more link juice would be passed. 

How Is Link Juice Determined?

We really ought to ask a few questions when thinking about how link juice — or link equity — is calculated. 

  • Is the link relevant? It’s thought that links on websites that are more closely relevant in subject matter to your site are more important than links on sites that are less (or not at all) relevant. 
  • Is the link on an awesome site? Relevancy is critical, but the authority of a given site plays a big part too. The more authoritative or respected a site, the more equity incoming links from that site are likely to pass. 
  • Can Google see the link? If Google can’t see it, the value of a link is nothing. Nada. Worthless. So make sure it’s on a site that can be crawled. If a site’s blocking Google via robots.txt or the page itself is set to Noindex, equity won’t get passed on. 
  • Is the link follow or nofollow? While Google has started to adjust how they use followed and nofollow links, it’s still fair to say that a followed link is worth more than a nofollow link. Followed links can pass on link equity, whereas nofollow links don’t pass on any equity at all. 
  • Where is the link on the page? Again the impact of this is up for debate, but links higher up on a page are generally considered to pass more equity than links lower down the page. 

Going one step further, links in footers and blogrolls are thought to hold less weight than they did previously. This is totally understandable when we consider the abuse that resided (and still does reside, to an extent) around paid links.

How to Preserve and Boost Your PageRank

The goal is not to boost PageRank via optimization. It’s to make sure you’re not wasting your existing PageRank. Here’s how you can retain it.

1. Internal Linking

Keep important content close to your homepage.

It’s time to identify which pages of your site are the most important (if you haven’t already). You can then implement an internal linking strategy that ensures those important pages live as close to the home page as possible (again, if you’re not doing this already.) 

While there are no hard and fast rules on how close to the home page your key pages should be, it’s often cited that all-important pages should be no more than four steps away from the home page. 

Why?

It helps your most important pages retain maximum link equity, and it also helps from a UX perspective. This is simply because users want to find the content they need as fast as possible. 

Fix orphan pages

An orphaned page is a page on your site that has no internal links pointing at it. Google may discover it via your XML sitemap, but if it’s not linked to internally, it will have no real value in Google’s eyes. 

You can discover orphaned pages using a site crawler like Screaming Frog or Sitebulb. Once you’ve identified these pages, you can add links from other pages to that orphaned page. Not only are you letting Google know you deem these pages to be of significant value, but you are also passing link equity to those pages from within your site. 

What Is PageRank sculpting? 

Back in the day, there was a method for retaining PageRank on your site’s key pages. It was called PageRank sculpting. SEOs would nofollow links from one page of their site to another in order to retain PageRank within certain areas of the domain. 

Mat Cutts essentially laid this to bed many years ago, telling SEOs that it just doesn’t work

2. Backlinks

If you’re this far through our little history lesson, you undoubtedly know how important links are to Google when it comes to how the search engine ranks pages and serves its results. 

Without a decent profile of quality, relevant backlinks, your site is unlikely to rank well — if at all. While Google has said that sites can rank without links, this is questionable. 

Unless you’re in a very niche niche — you’re going to need links. 

So, how do you go about getting links

Going back a few years, you could just throw some money at an SEO agency. They would build or pay for links, and you might, in a way, win the internet.

Today, Google’s much smarter, and that “strategy” just doesn’t really work.

Here are some of the most common ways to get backlinks, in the here and now: 

  • Create quality content for backlink acquisition. This is one of the most popular ways to get backlinks. Create content that people will love, share, and link to. This could be an infographic, some interesting data, or just an awesome blog post. As long as what you create is unique and worth sharing, it can form part of your strategy. 
  • Work with a tech-savvy PR company. Ensure any PR company you work with understands the importance of inbound links and makes a concerted effort to seek them out.
  • Unlinked brand mentions. This is where you look for unlinked mentions of your brand online and ask them to link to you. Not all sites automatically link out, so scour the search results to find unlinked brand mentions and reach out to the webmasters and ask for a link. 
  • Competitor research. Using a tool like Moz or Semrush, you can find out who links to your competitors and replicate their strategy. Sneaky? A little. But potentially very effective.
  • Niche directories. While most directories are not worth their weight on the web, there are niche and topic-specific directories worth getting onto. 
  • Guest blogging. Guest blogging can be a great way of generating links. It can also help promote your brand and drive quality traffic to your site. Choose the right sites, and it’s a win-win.

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Want Help with Your PageRank?

While PageRank isn’t something that any of us can actually see, the fact remains that it still plays an important part in Google’s algorithms.

The PageRank formula is judging your site based on the number and quality of links pointing at it, whether you like it or not. Consequently, preserving or better yet, boosting your PageRank, is something every website owner should be taking into consideration.

Still wondering how PageRank affects your site and its ability to rank? 

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