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Possible Explanations for the PageRank Penalty Sweep

By Yaro Starak
32 Comments

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).

More Casualties

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.

Initial Explanations

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)

Possible Explanations

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.

That’s Enough

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.

Yaro Starak
Search Engine Speculator

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32 Comments

  • Interesting take on it Yaro, I wonder if Google will release any clarification on what they are trying to achieve. Also it will be interesting to see how the likes of payperpost, TLA and co react to what could be a massive hit for them.

  • Apple.com is only a PR9. I think that says a lot about how “accurate” PageRank is.

  • I disagree with all of these reasons.

    Matt from Google asked for human submitted sites for paid links. There is no way for those human submitted sites to confirm if they are paid or not.

    I think someone submitted all these sites and now we are seeing the results of that.

    Welcome to today’s eWitch Hunt!

  • You missed one scenario…

    Perhaps Google reevaulated the actual scale of page rank, and it takes more to be a PR 7, and people moved down as a result.

    Personally, I don’t really care. I moved down a while ago and figured that even though my site traffic has been increasing by quite a bit my “ranks” have been going down, so I would not worry about them unless I really needed to broker an advertising sale. Most of my ads tend to be not-for-profit promotions anyway so it doesn’t matter.

  • Great explanation of what is up with PR these days!

    Having said that, we totally agree with you that we should all stop worrying about PR and stop talking about it.

    We just started our blog and we would love to never have to worry about what our PR was. Wouldn’t that be a nice world to live in? :)

  • Meh.

    TBPR has been slagged for so long now, it’s hard to take it seriously.

    For anyone not trying to game the search engines, the approach doesn’t vary: (i) build quality content that people, not search engines, want to read; (ii) meta it correctly, so the search engines can at least try to understand what each page is about; and (iii) build links to (and from) others within your marketspace who don’t compete with you.

    If you do want to game them, there are much better ways to generate quality one-way links than buying them.

  • Hey Yaro,

    Great explanations and postulations. Extremely enjoyable read with some history and what’s possibly going on with PR.

    Thank You,
    James

  • the point about bad neighborhoods and site exists was interesting and to my mind that certainly seems to be the case more than anything else.. especially considering the kind of people that have been dropped…

  • Hi Yaro,

    I haven’t been hit by a pagrank slap, I made it a point not to add text links to monetizing my blog for the time being.

    What do you teach your students when things like this happen to a lot of bloggers and authority sites?

    Awesome post again Yaro.

    Cheers,
    Carlo Selorio

  • Sitting at unranked it’s easy for me to sit back and watch. One thing I have pulled out from this article is that it is not Google that gives power to PageRank – it is the people that care about it as a metric. All those companies that have built pricing structures around PR and all those rankings lists that use PR in their algorithms and all those people who worry about it – they are the people who give power to it.

    Of course, it’s just easier for everyone to blame Google isn’t it. I’m in a somewhat cosy position of having such a new blog that it is unranked so I’ve nevr had to care so I dont have any bad habits to unlearn.

  • Great explanation of what is up with PR these days!

    I totally agree with your statement. stop to talking about it, and stop worrying about it too.

    bytheway, could anyone tell me what’s problems with paid links?

  • What about those blog networks that link to every blog in their network in the footer of each blog, with the latest articles and all? Doesn’t that ring “irrelevant content”??! Ding ding ding.. I notice some of the blogs getting PR kickass are doing that?

  • How ironic that Google exports PageRank today, less than 3 days after all the slappage.

  • How about a different explanation. What if simply PR is being recalculated and the scale changes because too many pages had a high PR. Maby now to have PR7 you require much more links than before and this is done for all the web. This cannot be manual. I cannot imagine Google emploees reading 50 million blogs to check if there are any paid reviews, because after all your blogs are just ones of many.

  • You know, Google has just crossed the line in their jihad against paid links. I mean, come on, selling text links and selling reviews can be one of the biggest money makers for a blog.

  • [...] handed out. For the sake of discussion only, Yaro of Entrepreneur Journey had thought up a few possible explanations that could possibly be the cause for the recent PageRank sweep hitting the blogosphere and [...]

  • Just now i see that John Chow PR dropped again to PR 4 i thought that PR algorithm was automatically done without human intervention. I was wrong i guess :-)
    By the way how’s Google knows that some websites buy links ?

  • Nick

    I don’t think anyone is on a witch hunt, every site I know of got a new pagerank. But, I think it is done by a robot. Otherwise I wouldn’t have single articles with a higher page rank than my main page. Shouldn’t all be acumulative? A few of my articles were ran on USA Today and ESPN with a link back to my blog artile. These single posts have a rank of 8 and 7, but my main page is a 5.

  • [...] All your questions answered in one single post from Yaro at entrepreneurs-journey.com. [...]

  • [...] Starak wrote about some possible explanations for PageRank slamming. Great points, but I have an alternative. Instead of penalising the text-link selling bloggers and [...]

  • My home improvement blog was dropped from a 5 to a 4 over a year ago. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but looking back it was shortly after I became a Text Link Ads publisher. With the recent PR fiasco I decided to drop the program (it was only making me about $150 a month anyway), and just today (less than two weeks later), I noticed my site was back up to a 5.

    I sincerely doubt Google is following my site specifically (as in with a human being) since it’s in such a non-techy industry that doesn’t relate to SEO, internet marketing, or anything like that, so I believe they have some kind of automation in place to penalize people using TLA code or perhaps just the term “sponsored links.”

    I would like to add that in the whole year, my traffic from Google was never affected (in fact increased as I worked to grow the site), so for now at least it seems the PR ding is just about PR and trying to make your site less attractive to people who buy links for PR.

    I’ve decided, however, to just stay away from paid links for the time being. If I do take money for a link in the future, I’ll probably do it “under the table” so to speak. This seems dishonest to my readers, however, so I’m unlikely to do it at all.

    It is a shame that Google has so much power to influence but at the same time, too much of my money comes from Google for me to risk losing it.

    ~Annie

  • My site actually gained ranking. I wish i knew what the criteria is for the PR.

  • I saw the same thing on Hacked Gadgets. We went from a 5 to a 3 recently. And yes we sell TLA’s on the site…

  • [...] Exchange Just like many bloggers, I too was pissed about the last Google Page Rank Update… even though I was not affected at all since Piggy Bank Pie was relatively new. So I decided [...]

  • [...] Exchange Just like many bloggers, I too was pissed about the last Google Page Rank Update… even though I was not affected at all since Piggy Bank Pie was relatively new. So I decided [...]

  • [...] Starak wrote about some possible explanations for PageRank slamming. Great points, but I have an alternative. Instead of penalising the text-link selling bloggers and [...]

  • [...] This article sums up my speculation during the event and lists some of the other blogs hit at the time – Possible Explanations for the PageRank Penalty Sweep. [...]

  • [...] I making money from text links still? Yes I am. Do I make as much as I did before the Google PR slap? No I do not. Will I continue to sell text links? Yes, as long as their are [...]

  • I think it is mostly the fact that someone has treated your weblog or website as an website which is selling sponsored links.

  • EDIT: the 2nd reason could be that people are wasting their time to complain by google that you are selling links. If that is, you have a big problem. but i see you got your pagerank back by describing it to google, that’s the best way to get it back.

  • this thing was happen to me since the last google pr update on new year. i’m agree with your explanation above about selling links. i think it’s the main reason why my pr down… :(

  • Any sort of PR drop is very tough to take :(

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