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PageRank, We Hardly Knew Ye

Marianne Sweeny
PageRank, We Hardly Knew Ye

PageRank, where did you go? When did you stop being that innovative and simple ranking algorithm to become the sullen and withholding force behind the morning newspaper? What have you become?

That seems to be the question of the millennia. It seems clear that the SEO community has no industry standard understanding of what PR is today … exactly. How did that happen?

Ask any SEO about PageRank and they will tell you that PageRank is Google’s ranking algorithm. BUZZ. Wrong answer. Thank you for playing. We have lovely parting gifts for you.

It WAS Google’s ranking algorithm (as in, a single algorithm that uses the number of links pointing to a page as an indicator of relevance further influenced by a Random Surfer component as introduced in the late 1990s).

In the golden oldie days when keyword stuffing and link rinks worked, Google could actually calculate a numeric value for each page on the Web. We enjoyed the quaint, month-end Google Dance where search results would bounce up and down with the airiness of a Disney cartoon princess. As our PageRank went up and down, it became a convenient indicator of the value of our work.

Counting the Grains of Sand

That was when the Web was a trip 15 million pages. Now we don’t know how big it is. Google funded a World Wide Web Foundation project, the World Wide Web Index that is supposed to find out for us. In 2013, they released Web Index Report, great information and no numbers.

The best we can come up with is trillions of pages with mere tens of billions that get a seat on the search engine index bus. The rest are standing in the aisle hoping that one of the seated sites gets delisted by a Penguin inquisition. Even Matt Cutts, Google Sr Engineer of FUD, has clued us in that Google is not updating PageRank values. On this single point, I believe him wholeheartedly.

So Long, PageRank, and Thanks for All the Fish

So, what is PageRank? It has become a catch-all term used by the SEO industry to represent the abstract concept of how search engines decide who gets where in search result. It is HITS (first introduction of authorities and hubs) and Hilltop (expert documents) and Topic-Sensitive (finally, ontology). It is social signals, brand favoritism, Pandas, Penguins and Hummingbirds. It’s the Semantic Web, the personalized Web, the mobile Web and the privacy invasive Web. It is user experience, whatever that means to the machines.

What is PageRank not? It is not juicy. It is not static. It is not infallible.

In 1948, Claude Shannon introduced Information Theory lately. Shannon built on the work of Hartley and Nyquist to produce the signal-to-noise ratio for efficient transmission of information using the Noisy Channel Coding Theorem. For me, the signal is the current focus user experience as a dominant ranking factor for search engines. It is out need to set aside what we don’t know and embrace what we do know in order to provide effective SEO. The noise is the fear, uncertainty and doubt disseminated by the search engines to keep us off balance.

Once we let go of meaningless numbers, we can embrace the ones that have meaning: goal conversions, time on page, conversion rate analysis, average pages per visit, bounce rate, visitor flow and search behavior trends. We need to bury link juice and the overly simplistic PageRank in the back yard, shake off our cognitive lethargy and start analyzing our fellow Web-izens as thought processing bipeds, not Kool-Aid drinking number-that-we-cannot-explain keyword pushers.

Let’s fool the search engines. Let’s make up our own Google dance.

Photo credit: Wiki Commons

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Marianne Sweeny is VP of Internet Marketing for Strategic Edge Partners, a medical marketing agency. She is passionate about optimizing the user search experience on the Web or inside the enterprise firewall. Marianne’s most recent article for SEMrush was entitled: "SEOs, Guns & Religion."
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