When Google PageRank debuted, SEOs and entrepreneurs working to find a tangible way to measure their site’s progress within Google focused on it as a metric of successful SEO. But a recent video from Google’s Matt Cutts suggests that Google PageRank is a fading metric. Here’s what you need to know about PageRank and how you can expect it to impact your optimization efforts moving forward.
What is PageRank?
If you’re unfamiliar with Google PageRank, it presents as a whole number that the search engine has assigned to sites ranging from zero to ten. Zero is the lowest rank, and usually means that your site is brand new or has very limited content and links. The higher that number climbs toward ten, the better your site is theoretically performing in Google’s eyes. A site with a PageRank of six or higher is a well-established, authority site.
In essence, many webmasters believe that it’s an easy way to understand how your site is doing in the aggregate on a number of points relative to Google’s algorithm. But actually, it’s a laser beam focused on a single point: your site’s “importance” as determined by the number and type of links you have pointing to your site. See the following description from Google: “PageRank works by counting the number and quality of links to a page to determine a rough estimate of how important the website is.”
So What’s the Problem?
Many webmasters find that their PageRank doesn’t change or improve very frequently. So people watching it for feedback on how their SEO campaigns are performing often feel stalled out: the results don’t show up for months after you’ve launched an initiative. In fact, if you watched Cutts’ video, his comments were prompted by a question from a frustrated webmaster who echoed many concerns in the broader SEO community. If you’re doing everything right, why isn’t your PageRank moving?
The answer is deceptively simple: Google doesn’t update PageRank that often. It’s updated just a few times a year. When it was initially launched, the updates were more frequent, but as things have settled down, it has become less of a focus. I say deceptively simple, though, because the answer is actually more complex. In part, the reason why Google isn’t updating PageRank as often is because it’s fading in terms of how useful it is as a metric. Let’s take a closer look at why.
How the SEO Landscape Evolved Past PageRank
PageRank isn’t dead, but it’s fair to say that it’s dying. Like everything in the fast-moving SEO world, by the time you’ve mastered something, its usefulness has started to wane. Part of the story with PageRank simply has to do with where it was designed to fit into the online ecosystem. The easiest way to check PageRank is to install a toolbar on your browser. As you surfed around, you simply had to consult the toolbar to get a quick read on the quality of a site. In theory, it’s really helpful – both as an SEO professional and as a web user looking to vet the quality of information you’re reading.
But as Cutts points out, the way that browsers work has largely changed. In fact:
- It’s much harder to install toolbars on the latest versions of Internet Explorer.
- Chrome isn’t really designed for toolbars at all.
A PageRank Myth Debunked
Many people (as outlined above) understand PageRank to be a sort of composite score from Google on a number of different factors. In fact, Cutts emphasized that it reflects one thing: the number and quality of links pointing to your site. While Google has recently rolled out updates looking at everything from the quality of the content you write to the frequency with which you post, these factors don’t appear to be what’s driving PageRank. If your PageRank isn’t moving, it could be a function of infrequent updates – or it could be a reflection of your overall strategy.
Your Content Marketing Strategy Won’t (Directly) Change Your PageRank
Right now, the major focus in the marketing world is on content marketing. Everyone is talking about creating great, high-quality content and adding it to your site with reasonable frequency. The typical wisdom is to stop writing for the search engines and start writing for people. Principally, it’s great advice. We can presume, in the face of both Google’s recent Penguin and Panda updates, that the ranking algorithm measures and accounts for these factors overall. But a great content strategy isn’t enough to move your PageRank.
A common mistake in the content marketing space is to focus on developing great content, and then wait for it to be found organically. That’s certainly one of the most compelling components of inbound marketing and the beauty of search engines. But dissemination is also critical. PageRank is the perfect example of why. Great content is inherently linkable. But you need to get it in front of people before the links, the social shares, and other valuable signals come.
Cutts makes another point that it’s important to look closely at your site’s architecture. The foundation of good SEO has always been a logical, well-built site and that’s as important as ever. Take a look and ask yourself:
- Is your overall architecture built for optimization?
- Do you have a static, linkable homepage?
- Are your URLs, titles, and other on-page factors fully optimized?
- Is your most important content within one or two clicks from your homepage?
If you haven’t focused on this aspect of your optimization while investing in increased content, it’s a great time to get back to basics. Everything you build relies on that solid foundation.
Testing Your Dissemination
If getting links is a weakness in your overall content strategy, the good news is that this is a relatively easy problem to fix. It helps to start by understanding what kind of link profile your site or company currently has, and how you can improve it. Here are some additional resources to help you think through your link building efforts:
- SEO Link Building Best Practices for 2013: Interview with Neil Patel
- The Ultimate, Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Business by Guest Blogging
- 8 Ways to Build Links When Guest Blogging Isn’t Possible
Once you’ve got a handle on your website’s link profile and ongoing link building campaign, it’s time to make sure that you’re integrating link building as a core practice with your content development. This needs to start before you begin writing, maybe before you begin brainstorming topics. Here are some relevant questions to ask yourself:
- What kinds of links do you need?
- What topics and keywords matter in terms of our overall link building strategy?
- Where do your customers and prospects go to get their information?
- What sites or experts are big, trusted players in the space that you’re trying to penetrate?
Bearing these issues in mind is critical, whether you’re launching a big guest blogging initiative or simply trying to get more eyes on content you post on your own site. Always build your content on the right frame, and you’ll generate the links needed to move your PageRank and boost your search results.
Practical Content Marketing
There are four things that every content marketer can do (or every SEO can do when placing content) to help ensure it attracts inbound links. Here’s my go-to list:
- Publish awesome content: It’s almost a cliché, but it still earns the top place on this list. You need to strategize so that your content is relevant, in-depth, and engaging. It has to be better than what your peers or colleagues are saying on the subject. It has to be so great that people can’t resist linking to it.
- Optimize your content for SEO and for the sales funnel: It’s terrific that you’ve written something brilliant, but it needs to connect topically and in terms of keyword strategy to your overall SEO campaign. It’s also helpful if it’s tied to your sales funnel – and potentially to a specific step in your customer’s buying journey. The more tightly content ties to these two things, the better it performs.
- Disseminate through your networks: Are you sharing your content on your social media profiles? Are you building your email list and using that as a channel for further exploration? Have you developed strategies that make it easier for your content to be shared on-page? Your content needs to be in front of your existing audience and simple for them to take viral.
- Get your material in front of new audiences: When you publish something noteworthy, are you making use of sites like BizSugar, Reddit, and Inbound.org? Are you regularly guest posting on new sites? Have you ever emailed an influencer about a post that you just published that would be of interest to their audience? The more widely your audience is seen by new audiences, the better chance you have for building distinct and high authority links.
Bringing it Back Around to PageRank
Ultimately, we’re left with the question: Does PageRank even matter anymore? I think the answer is yes, but that it’s something you need to keep a close eye on regarding how long it will continue to be relevant. It plays an unknown role, but one of decreasing influence, in how sites rank. It’s also useful to see how your link profile is growing, changing, and improving in quality.
But if you’re a webmaster or SEO professional that’s working to improve a site’s performance in Google or struggling to recover in the wake of the most recent updates, I’d argue that PageRank is the wrong metric to focus on. It’s a useful data point in a universe of data that’s most efficiently treated as a single input. Instead, commit yourself to creating tons of value for your readers with great content, to building high quality links, and to having an active social presence. Your ROI on your SEO will be better in the long-run.
Are you still using PageRank as an indicator in your work? Let me know your thoughts on Matt Cutts’ points in the comments below.