If you worked in marketing in the 2000s and 2010s, then you know Google’s PageRank metric was a hot topic. If you wanted to grow your audience through search engines, this was the way to do it. Fast-forward to 2023, and most people think PageRank is dead. It’s not. You just think it’s dead because Google moved its PageRank data behind the scenes. Some form of PageRank still affects how Google views and ranks your site in its search results. Today, we’re looking at the ins and outs of PageRank and how it relates to website authority:
PageRank is one of Google’s ranking algorithms for web pages. It uses a formula to calculate the authority of a web page based on the number and quality of links associated with it. The higher the PageRank of a web page, the more authoritative it is to Google. The more authoritative links associated with your web page, the better the ranking potential in search.
PageRank isn’t dead. It’s just not a public metric anymore, so it doesn’t get the attention it once did. The metric is still very much alive to Google. And if you’re not working to improve your page rankings (even if you don’t know their numerical scores), it can negatively impact your organic search potential.
Those who don’t know their history (of Google updates and programs) are destined to repeat it (by failing to update their SEO strategies) ~ The SEO gods
You can’t understand where PageRank is today, or why it matters, without understanding its past. Here’s a brief look at the history of Google’s PageRank metric:
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed PageRank at Stanford University. It was the original algorithm used to calculate and rank the importance of a web page. Though the internet for public consumption was still a new concept, PageRank made Google unique. Brin believed their program could rank information on the web based on its popularity. The more times other websites linked to that page, the more popular it was. Therefore, it should rank higher than others with fewer links.
Image via HubSpot
Back before Google got more secretive about its updates and changes, web developers and SEOs had “the toolbar.” It showed the PageRank of any web page on the internet. Today, it’s crazy to think you could download a toolbar and check this information instead of paying for programs and services to gain access. The upside of the toolbar was that everyone had the data at their fingertips. The downside was everyone’s fixation on improving the numbers.
In 2000, getting a better PageRank score was easier to do. More links gave you a better PageRank. Link quality mattered less. And like any diligent marketer looking for a loophole, the easy data accessibility led to many metric manipulation techniques. If you think the term “link building” has a shady connotation (it doesn’t if you do it right), you can thank the PageRank toolbar era for that.
In 2004, Google introduced another patent based on what it called the “Reasonable Surfer model.” This patent introduced the concept that all links weren’t created equal. They could have different values based on how likely it was a user would click the link. After this patent, Google started to rethink how it viewed and scored links for PageRank.
Google stopped updating the public PageRank Toolbar in Dec. 2013. The company first phased it out before officially retiring it in 2016. The driving force behind retiring the toolbar was to get SEOs to focus less on link-building “hacks” and put their efforts into creating quality content. The company decided that if people couldn’t officially and tangibly see how much authority they had with the service, they wouldn’t care about it as much.
The plan worked, to a degree. With less access to those numbers, SEOs had to come up with new tactics to try to increase their search engine positioning. They couldn’t just check the toolbar after a quick fix to see if things worked. With the toolbar gone, most people assumed Google ditched the entire concept of PageRank. Wrong. Just because the data wasn’t public anymore didn’t mean it disappeared. Google still used the metric internally to categorize and rank content for search.
In 2018, 20 years after Page and Brin filed the initial PageRank patent, the company chose not to renew it. At that time, a Google employee even confirmed that the team hadn’t used the original algorithm since 2006. Instead, the company filed a new patent that aimed to fix some of the problems and loopholes of the original.
Without getting too technical, the most important changes came in analyzing the quality of links and the intent of the information when assigning PageRank. Instead of focusing on just the quantity of links a page receives, the source and content also matter and affect the score. The idea that quality matters just as quantity made it harder to manipulate the system. It also shifted the spotlight to other metrics and ranking influences like E-A-T.
PageRank is a complex algorithm that scores the importance of every page on the internet. We’ll share the original and current formulas with you for the math curious among us. But if you feel your eyes glazing over, scroll ahead to see what the average SEO needs to know:
Both iterations of PageRank (patents 1.0 and 2.0) use a mathematical formula to run the algorithm that analyzes and ranks web page content. The original PageRank equation was:
Image via SEO PowerSuite
Each variable stands for:
The Reasonable Surfer patent was a direct influence on the new PageRank patent in 2018. And with that came a slightly updated formula. It cuts down on the potential for metric manipulations. The formula looks like this:
Image via SE Ranking
Each variable stands for:
Though these are long, complicated equations, Google looks at three factors for calculating PageRank:
For the less-technical SEO professional, here’s how PageRank worked in the toolbar era. Every web page on the internet earned a PageRank score between zero and 10. A page with a score of zero was low-quality and often spammy. A page that scored a 10 was one of the most authoritative and top-quality pages on the internet. It’s probably no surprise that Google’s homepage had a score of 9 or 10.
PageRank used a logarithmic scale, meaning that the better your PageRank score, the harder it was to improve it. You may have been able to make small, easy changes to boost your rank score from zero to five. But climbing from five to 10 took more time, effort, and resources.
Even with the logarithmic scale, Google used to count and measure links more equally than it does today. The damping factor helped eliminate the one-to-one “vote” for some links, but it didn’t account for all the factors that the updated formula does.
Today, PageRank doesn’t weigh every link the same. Other factors come into play like the authority of the linking page. The amount of “link juice” a page passes to another also isn’t one-to-one. The introduction of seed pages and weight in the new formula allows PageRank to better account for link quality and not just quantity. The new calculation also accounts for the number of pages from the same domain that link to the content under this factor.
The algorithm becomes even more complicated when a page receives backlinks from multiple domains. Though the actual calculations behind PageRank are more complex than these descriptions, the entire metric still reflects Brin’s original concept. The better a web page or website is, the more quality sources link to it. By analyzing those links, Google makes educated guesses about which pages are most helpful and relevant to searcher queries.
PageRank is all about the links. And since the algorithm no longer weighs and calculates the authority of all links the same, you need to know how different types of link situations affect your ranking. Here are the types of links and link features that factor into how Google calculates PageRank and passes authority from one page to another:
Anchor text is the information that tells your audience what’s on the other side of the hyperlink. Take a look at the related link in this section. The anchor text is the name of the linked article. It tells you what you’ll find when you follow the link to another page. Anchor links matter for PageRank because they give both Google and your audience an accurate description of where the link goes. It’s been a key PageRank influence since the beginning.
The difference between old PageRank and current PageRank is that the number of exact match anchor text links matters less. This cuts down on the potential of manipulating the metric. If you get caught trying to manipulate anchor text, you can earn your pages a manual penalty from Google.
Backlinks are the inbound links your website receives from other domains. They’re the backbone (yes, pun intended) of PageRank and most link authority practices. Monitoring your backlink profile helps you learn a lot about your potential PageRank. Even now that all backlinks aren’t equal in Google’s eyes. Look at both the quantity and quality of the links you receive. Don’t hesitate to disavow any that could mess with your rankings.
The web pages you link out to also affect your PageRank. It’s a misconception to think that linking away from your own content hurts your ranking potential. While you don’t want to link to your competitors multiple times in every piece, well-placed external links build your site’s credibility and authority. Think of it like building credit. To get better credit you have to spend and pay back the money. To get more authority and credibility online, you have to link to other reputable sources.
Just be aware of how you’re using external links. Remember to set a nofollow for any spammy or questionable links. You can also nofollow your direct competitors’ content if you have to link to it. Overall, though, you should choose external links that come from trustworthy sites and that all the links are working. Broken links don’t pass “link juice.”
Google also looks at how likely someone is to click the links on your page to influence the metric. This factor comes from the Reasonable Surfer patent. It determined that some links were less likely to get clicks. Banner ads, privacy policies, and terms of service are several of these links.
Measuring link clickability was also a way to cut down on spammy link practices. Would you be more likely to click a link that reads “cHeAp gAs hErE!!!” or one that reads “Save 10 cents with fuel perks”? Now, which one do you think holds more weight with PageRank? If you picked option two, give yourself a slow clap.
Internal links affect your PageRank score just like external links. These links help Google understand the layout of your website. They also help you pass “link juice” from one area of your site to another. This factor is especially important when you have orphan pages on your site or those that don’t link to anywhere else.
If you leverage PageRank and “link juice” to share authority from one page on your site to another, you increase its chances of appearing in search for the right keywords. Other internal linking situations to address to protect your PageRank include broken 404 links that lead nowhere and redirect chains.
Nofollow links essentially block “link juice” from passing from one page to another. You use nofollow links most often when you link out to an authoritative but competitor website. You can also use nofollow links when you have to link to a spammy website that you don’t want to associate with your domain.
Nofollow links matter to PageRank because of their relationship to follow links. Though link quality is a top priority, link quantity still matters. And the number of links, both follow and nofollow, factor into the average and distribution of PageRank and “link juice.” While you may only get the weighted quality “juice” from the follow links, the fact that you’ve received nofollow links still counts toward your PageRank.
Image via Ahrefs
Related: Nofollow Links: The Complete Guide
Even though PageRank still exists, not knowing your “number” is a frustration for the data-driven SEO professional. With the retirement of the PageRank toolbar, authority metrics took center stage. Most SEO software programs use some form of authority ranking to give you an idea of what your search engine ranking potential could be. Most of these still use a logarithmic scale but they rank your pages and domains from one to 100 rather than one to 10.
Like PageRank, most authority scores rely heavily on link data when determining how well your site could do in search. But they also account for Google’s other ranking factors and influencers like keyword positioning, organic search traffic, competitor data, and website traffic, among others. These additional insights and calculations make authority metrics more comprehensive, and likely more accurate than PageRank alone when trying to predict your ranking potential.
While authority metrics aren’t direct ranking factors the same way PageRank is, it’s still useful to track your authority scores with the services you use. Some of the most popular include:
Links are one of Google’s most important ranking factors. But they’re not the only things you need to focus on when taking your SEO to the next level. Join us for our next webinar with Search Engine Journal to find out why keyword clustering is a must for your SEO strategy and how it supports your brand’s content marketing goals.
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