I’m not entirely sure I want to write this article. I think one of the best ways to reduce the impact of Google’s PageRank is to talk less about it. If you ignore something it loses all power.
However, people still seem to care about PageRank. Webmasters care, bloggers care, search engine optimizers care. Even bloggers who are writing articles telling us not to care about PageRank are somewhat contradicting their own advice by contributing to the conversation. I’m about to do the same.
Given the PageRank changes in the last day or two, in particular the penalties handed out to some sites and blogs that even the best search engine optimizers are dumbfounded attempting to determine an explanation for, I felt I should throw in my two cents about what I think Google is doing.
A Brief History
To put this into context I’ll quickly recount what I’ve watched happen and experienced myself over the past few weeks and over the course of my time caring about PageRank (about five or six years now).
Webmasters have been expecting a PageRank update for several months. They generally occur quarterly, with clear fluctuations in the Google datacenters indicating a mass change affecting many sites at once. The update due around July-August never happened and since then people have been speculating what Google is up to.
Some said PageRank was being phased out. Other’s thought maybe Google are making changes or setting up a new system. Of course no one knows except Google and they are certainly being very hushed about it all for obvious reasons – knowledge is power when it comes to search engine algorithms.
None of this would really matter, except for the fact that Google drives a heap of traffic and PageRank, despite it’s well reported weaknesses as a gauge for a site’s value, is widely used by many online advertising services as a key metric for determining price structures.
It’s not a good thing when one company controls both the traffic and the metric people use to assess site worth, but as long as people continue to care and choose to value sites using PageRank, this situation will remain. Google’s not to blame, we are, if we choose to give credence to their metric.
John Chow Takes A Fall
A few months ago JohnChow.com was hit with a PageRank penalty, dropping from 6 to 5. I expect other sites were also changed at the same time, but in the blogging world John Chow was the first high profile site to drop in PageRank that I noticed from our industry.
The penalty appeared to be manually applied and many speculated that Google was slapping John for his link exchange program, rewarding his readers with links for writing reviews on their blogs that linked to his site with the phrase “make money online”.
For a while John was rising to the top of the Google results for the phrase he was chasing, but then he disappeared from search results.
At first it seemed like a mistake by John was the reason and a quick Google webmaster tools change prompted by some advice from Aaron Wall of SEOBook fame fixed it temporarily, but John was soon again shot down. So far down in fact, that a search for his own name no longer picks up his blog within the first few search engine page results (given the domain is JohnChow.com confirmed for many people, including John himself, that Google was definitely applying some specific penalty to his site).
A few weeks ago, my blog, along with a couple of other well known Internet marketing bloggers like Andy Beard, were hit with what appeared as more manual penalties. Entrepreneurs-Journey.com fell from PageRank 6 to 5, although without any noticeable drop in search engine traffic so far.
Most bloggers who dropped in PageRank during this penalty sweep were not reporting any decrease in traffic coming from Google, although it is still too early to tell. So far it appears only John Chow has been hit with a drop in PageRank AND a resulting decrease to SERPs (search engine results pages) placement too.
At first when I received my penalty, I posted thinking a full PageRank update was taking effect when I noticed not just my blog change, but also the PageRank on some of the other sites I own. At around this time I noticed quite a bit of PageRank discussion beginning in the forums, which is usually the first sign of a PageRank update, but so far, it appears I got it wrong.
Until a few days ago most of the sites that were taking PageRank penalties all had some possible incriminating factor. The culprits blamed were paid links and sponsored reviews. If your blog or website sells links without using the nofollow tag, which could artificially inflate search engine rankings, Google takes issue and attempts to discourage the practice by reducing your PageRank. At least that’s the theory (and I’ll present a few more theories in a moment).
Although Google is being typically coy about the specifics of its actions, there is one known fact – they do not like the practice of selling links to help boost search engine rankings and are prepared to do something about it. Many Google reps have stated openly that Google is cracking down on the practice, we just don’t know exactly why they are applying the PageRank penalties, which makes it very difficult to react even if you want to appease Google.
The Big Boys Take A Dive
Over the last few days some of the big boys in the blogging world and also outside the blogging world have taken a dive, and other bloggers already hit with one penalty received another (me included). This time Google hit hard, dropping some sites as many as three points downward, even taking formerly PageRank 7 sites all the way down to PageRank 4.
Until this point it was possible to apply the assumptions concluded previously – that paid links and sponsored reviews were to blame. However with this round of penalties, some of the sites taking a hit have no history of selling links or completing paid reviews.
People might be comfortable that John Chow’s blog takes a hit because they can see the justification, but when guys with relatively clean slates when it comes to paid links and sponsored reviews also drop significantly, guys like Darren Rowse of Problogger.net (dropping from PR 6 to 4) and Brian Clark of Copyblogger (down from PR 6 to 4), you start to wonder what’s really going on.
Here is a list of the PageRank changes to some major sites (courtesy of Daniel)
- Statcounter (from 10 to 6)
- Engadget (from 7 to 5)
- AutoBlog (from 6 to 4)
- Problogger (from 6 to 4)
- Copyblogger (from 6 to 4)
- AdesBlog (from 7 to 5)
- Search Engine Journal (from 7 to 4)
- Quick Online Tips (from 6 to 3)
- Search Engine Roundtable (from 7 to 4)
- Blog Herald (from 6 to 4)
- Weblog Tools Collection (from 6 to 4)
- JohnTP (from 6 to 4)
- Coolest Gadgets (from 5 to 3)
- CyberNet News (from 6 to 4)
- Washington Post (from 7 to 5)
- Washington Times (from 6 to 4)
- Charlotte Observer (from 6 to 4)
- Forbes.com (from 7 to 5)
- SFGate.com (from 7 to 5)
- Sun Times (from 7 to 5)
- New Scientist (from 7 to 5)
- Seattle Times (from 6 to 4)
For the sake of discussion only – I have absolutely no way to back these ideas up – here are a few possible explanations I’ve thought of that could possibly be the cause for the recent PageRank sweep hitting the blogosphere and beyond.
1. Bad Neighborhoods
Websites exist in neighborhoods. As I outlined in my article about how to optimize e-commerce sites for top search engine rankings, it is possible to group sites roughly into neighborhoods. By simply following sites from link to link, search engines can determine what sites belong to what neighborhoods.
Taking this principle, if some blogs are linking to or linked from (or both) other sites that are known paid link sellers, a blog or website could become guilty by association. This could especially be true it if is a robot handing out the the Google penalties and not humans doing it, since there would be no discrimination. You trigger enough red flags because of how you link and what keywords you use in articles and you’re penalized.
2. Penalized Link “Parents”
You’ve probably noticed that when you get a link from a high PageRank site, it can jump your own ranking very quickly. Sometimes just one link from a PageRank 7 site is enough to make your site a 6. It’s because of this that people take issue with the “worth” of PageRank, and rightly so. If your own rank is generated not because of great content and a natural link building growth curve, but because you get one, two or a handful of high PageRank sites to link to you, then clearly it’s not a smart idea to trust PageRank.
Taking the reverse of this situation. If your main parent link sources suddenly drop because of a PageRank penalty, then all the sites it links out to subsequently drop too. So when Problogger.net drops from PR6 to 4, then all the sites it was “propping up” with PageRank will consequently drop as well.
3. You Write About Selling Links or Sponsored Reviews
Let’s say Google decided to take offense with the entire text link selling industry, especially sites that don’t employ it’s nofollow markup. Most text link brokering services, in fact I think every service I know of, do not use nofollow tags on links and it’s pretty clear one of the main selling points is the boost that buying links could have on your search engine rankings.
If Google blacklisted Text-Link-Ads.com, ReviewMe.com, PayPerPost.com, TNX.com, Linkworth.com and all the other link and review brokering sites, then simply writing and recommending these services, or even denouncing them, let alone using them, could be enough to get you in trouble. Again, guilt by association.
One more, this could especially be true if it is a robot and not a human that is looking for certain keyword combinations and links, and then subsequently applying penalties.
4. Revaluation of Link Value
Perhaps none of this has to do with paid links or network structure and it’s simply a change to how Google values links.
I’m inclined to think this is not the case because so far PageRank changes have all been downwards and selective. If the core valuation of a link and the entire PageRank system was changing, I believe Google would roll out a system-wide update, not target sites specifically as they have done so far, and some sites would increase in PageRank too – so far all reports are for decreases to PageRank.
It’s fun to speculate on these things, but as I’ve said before and many other bloggers have reiterated too – we really should stop caring about PageRank.
I expect Google has good intentions, but for whatever reason, they can’t fully disclose why they do what they do, so there will always be a sense of uncertainty, which is not pleasant for the small time webmaster or blogger who relies on PageRank for important things like revenue. If that’s you, it’s time to look for income streams that don’t depend on PageRank.
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