What Is Google PageRank? A Guide For Searchers & Webmasters
Several times in the past few months, I’ve written about new Google features
where PageRank was involved. Unfortunately, Google itself has very poor
information about PageRank that I could use for those wanting to learn more
about it. To solve that, here’s a guide to PageRank, designed for searchers and
site owners alike.
This is fairly long article. To help, you can jump to particular sections of
key interest, if you like:
- Google’s Definition: PageRank As Votes
- Recent Google Edits Emphasize PageRank Just One Of Many
- PageRank For Searchers: Google Toolbar
- PR Stands For PageRank, Not Public Relations
- PageRank In The Google Directory
- PageRank For SEOs
- Seeing PageRank In Search Rankings
- PageRank Versus “Toolbar” PageRank
- PageRank Tech Talk
- Conclusion (Especially For Those Thinking I Don’t
Have Time To Read)
Let’s start with what Google says. In a nutshell, it considers links to be
like votes. In addition, it considers that some votes are more important than
others. PageRank is Google’s system of counting link votes and determining which
pages are most important based on them. These scores are then used along with
many other things to determine if a page will rank well in a search.
Don’t like me speaking for Google? No worries. When Google talks about PageRank
at its site, it often
links to the Google Technology
page, which says:
The heart of our software is PageRank™, a system for ranking web pages
developed by our founders
Larry Page and
Sergey Brin at
Stanford University. And while we have dozens of engineers working to improve
every aspect of Google on a daily basis, PageRank continues to play a central
role in many of our web search tools.
PageRank relies on the uniquely democratic nature of the web by using its
vast link structure as an indicator of an individual page’s value. In essence,
Google interprets a link from page A to page B as a vote, by page A, for page
B. But, Google looks at considerably more than the sheer volume of votes, or
links a page receives; for example, it also analyzes the page that casts the
vote. Votes cast by pages that are themselves “important” weigh more heavily
and help to make other pages “important.” Using these and other factors,
Google provides its views on pages’ relative importance.
Important, high-quality sites receive a higher PageRank, which
Google remembers each time it conducts a search. Of course, important pages mean nothing to you if they don’t match your
query. So, Google combines PageRank with sophisticated text-matching
techniques to find pages that are both important and relevant to your search.
Google goes far beyond the number of times a term appears on a page and
examines all dozens of aspects of the page’s content (and the content of the pages
linking to it) to determine if it’s a good match for your query.
What’s with the bold and strikeout text? Between when I started this article
and when I finished it today, I noticed that this key page had been updated for
the first time in years. Bold shows what I found to be added. Strikeout shows
what was removed.
Another key PageRank reference was also updated on the Google
Google works because it relies on the millions of individuals
posting links on websites to help determine which other sites
offer content of value. Google assesses the importance of every web page using a
variety of techniques, including its patented PageRank™ algorithm which analyzes
which sites have been “voted” the best sources of information by other pages
across the web. Instead of relying on a group of editors or solely on
the frequency with which certain terms appear, Google ranks every web page using
a breakthrough technique called PageRank™. PageRank evaluates all of the sites
linking to a web page and assigns them a value, based in part on the sites
linking to them. By analyzing the full structure of the web, Google is able to
determine which sites have been “voted” the best sources of information by those
most interested in the information they offer. This technique actually
improves as the web gets bigger, as each new site is another point of
information and another vote to be counted.
The changes are interesting. Google is somewhat qualifying
that PageRank is important but not the sole factor in how pages are ranked.
That’s good, because as I’ll explain, too many people have fixated on PageRank
scores for too long.
Let’s start with how PageRank is used by Google for searchers. First and
foremost, it is one of many factors used for ranking pages. You can’t see
PageRank when you search (ordinarily, that is. further below I’ll explain how
you CAN see it), but behind the scenes, it helps in part to decide if a page
will show up in the top search results or not.
Most searchers encounter PageRank through the
Google Toolbar. The toolbar has a “PageRank
meter” that Google itself fails to fully explain in its online help files. For
example, when writing my
Google Search History
Expands, Becomes Web History article last week, I spent some time going through all
the Google Toolbar help files to find a good explanation to link to about the
This was the best I found, a short mention that says:
Wondering whether a new website is worth your time? Use the Toolbar’s
PageRank™ display to tell you how Google assesses the importance of the page
Here’s how it works. If you’ve installed the Google Toolbar, you MAY have the
PageRank meter installed. If so, you’ll see it as shown below:
See that big long green bar? That’s the PageRank meter. If you hover over it
with your mouse, it will actually show you the PageRank score for the page you
are visiting, like
Not bad — Google’s home page has a PageRank score of 10! See this part:
That’s Google telling you first the score of the page you’re looking at (10)
and the maximum value a page can have overall (10). Google is perfect!
Showing both numbers makes more sense when you get to less perfect pages.
Here’s Search Engine Land:
See how we are a 7/10? That means we have a PageRank of 7 out of 10 possible
points. Less than perfect. Sniff, sniff. It’s OK. That’s a great score for the
home page of a web site that’s only four months old.
Notice how the bar also isn’t all green, in the way it was completely “full” with Google?
Instead, like a thermometer, it is only partially filled 7/10ths of the way, to
visually represent the page’s PageRank score.
Here’s another page:
Ouch! Zero! This is a terrible page! Actually, no. In this case, I tried to
reach a page that doesn’t exist at Search Engine Land. That gave me an error.
Since the page doesn’t exist, Google has no PageRank score to report back.
That’s why you get a 0 out of 10 score for it. Notice also how the meter has no
green, to show no PageRank for the page.
Many searchers may have never seen the PageRank meter. That’s because by
default, until last week, it was never switched on. You had to manually choose
to do it, and it was mostly search engine optimization people that did
[Postscript: Google's Matt Cutts, after reading this,
"A lot of regular people choose to opt-in to PageRank as well. I believe
the quantity of people that opt-in to see PageRank is much larger than the set
of active SEOs."]
Google Search History
Expands, Becomes Web History explains how many more searchers will soon begin seeing PageRank scores. This is because in some cases, the Google Toolbar will get
downloaded with it enabled. In other cases, Google will encourage you to switch
the meter on. Read the article to understand more.
Don’t have the PageRank meter switched on and you do want it? Happy with the privacy issues
my article explains (as does Google
itself)? Click on the Settings menu item in the
toolbar, then choose Options, then the More tab, then in the “Even more buttons”
area, tick the “PageRank and Page Info” button. Now the meter is enabled.
Speaking of search engine optimization people, those SEOs are the group that created the acronym you might occasionally hear: PR, for PageRank.
For example, the Google’s home page that was PageRank 10 out of 10 would be
shorted to PR10. Search Engine Land, with 7 out of 10, is PR7. That error page?
Did you know there’s a place in Google where pages are listed because human
editors have selected them, rather than Google’s crawling of the web? It’s
called the Google Directory, and it’s
based on work done by editors at the Open Directory
added the Open Directory’s information to its site back in March 2000, the
key difference was that the Google Directory edition sorted listings according to PageRank score.
These are exactly the same categories, Google on the left, the Open Directory
on the right. The should be nearly identical. They aren’t for two key reasons.
First, Google is WAY out of date. You can see the Open Directory has many
more listings than Google shows. Google probably hasn’t bothered to grab the
most recent listings from the Open Directory for months. That’s not surprising.
Once a key part of Google, the Google Directory was dropped from the Google home
page and relegated to the More
Google Products page back in March 2004. It’s not a priority. In addition,
the Open Directory itself has been down or not making new information available
for download on occasion.
The other key difference is that the listings in the Google Directory are sorted by PageRank. See how under the “Web Pages” bar
in the Google Directory, each site has a PageRank meter image next to it? For searchers, that shows the page’s PageRank
score. As explained
in the Google Directory’s help pages:
The green ratings bars are a measure of the
importance Google’s assessment of the importance of a web
page, as determined by Google’s patented PageRank technology and other
factors. These PageRank bars tell you at a glance whether
other people on the web consider Google considers a
page to be a high-quality site worth checking out.
Google itself does not evaluate or endorse websites. Rather, we measure what
others on the web feel is important enough to deserve a link. And because
Google does not accept payment for placement within our results, the
information you see when you conduct a search is based on totally objective
(Like the other help pages above, I found the Google PageRank information for
the Google Directory has recently been updated, so bold shows what’s new,
strikeout what was removed).
I’ve covered the two main ways that PageRank is visible to searchers plus
mentioned that behind the scenes, it is one of many factors that helps rank web
pages. How pages are ranked is, of course, of keen interest to SEOs.
so, so sadly — far too many SEOs fixated on the PageRank meter when it came out
first through the Google Directory and then later in December 2000 via the Google
Toolbar. They focused on getting links from high PR pages without realizing that PageRank alone wasn’t enough.
As I wrote
back in 2002:
The issue of links and search
engines, in particular the perception of Google’s use of links, has gotten out
of hand. For many, the original reason of linking has been lost out of the
desire to simply do whatever they believe Google might like.
All major crawler-based search
engines leverage links from across of the web, but none of them report a
static “importance” score in the way Google does via its Google Toolbar. That
score, while a great resource for surfers, has also provided one of the few
windows into how Google ranks web pages. Some webmasters, desperate to get
inside Google, keep flying into that window like confused birds, smacking
their heads and losing their orientation….
Site owners are using the
toolbar to find “good” sites that they should get links from, regardless of
the fact that link context is also important, not to mention many, many other
factors that are used by Google to rank a web page. Other site owners, getting
a gray PR0 toolbar for their site, immediate assume the worst, that they’ve
Enough, please, enough. Forget
the Google Toolbar meter. Forget about worrying over “good” links and “bad”
links according to Google. Just forget Google, when it comes to link building.
PageRank is only a score that represents the importance of a page, as Google
estimates it (By the way, that estimate of importance is considered to be
Google’s opinion and protected in the US by the First Amendment. When Google was
once sued over altering PageRank scores for some sites, a US court
ruled: “PageRanks are
opinions–opinions of the significance of particular Web sites as they
correspond to a search query….the court concludes Google’s PageRanks are
entitled to full constitutional protection.)
Get a link
to your pages from an high PR page and yes, some of that PageRank importance is transmitted to
your page. But that’s doesn’t take into account the context of the link — the words
in the link — the anchor text. If you don’t understand anchor text,
Google Now Reporting
Anchor Text Phrases from me last month will take you by the hand and explain it more.
Here’s a fast overview. Say you’re Nike and want to rank for the word
“shoes.” You get hundreds of PR9 pages to link to you this way:
Excellent! All those pages are going to send tons and tons of PageRank your
way! You’ll be seen as important! But important for what? Google’s going to look at the word in the link itself as a key signal to
determine that. The word says “Nike,” so happy day, Nike ranks for its name!
Now let’s say you’re Zappos. Not being as big as Nike, you don’t get links
from all those PR9 sites. You get them instead from a mix of PR4, PR5 and PR6 sites.
They all link to you like this:
The importance of the links is less, true. But they do have some importance.
They carry some weight. Plus, what they say — the relevancy
of the words — is key. They’re pointing at you and saying the word “shoes” in
the links. That’s going to help you rank better for the word “shoes,” almost
certainly much better than all those links Nike has.
Don’t believe me?
Google Declares Stephen Colbert As Greatest Living American explains how the
words in the links to Colbert Nation (rather than the PageRank
from those links) recently shot that site up in the ranking
for “greatest living american,” while
Google Kills Bush’s
Miserable Failure Search & Other Google Bombs and
George W. Bush: A
Failure Once Again, According To Google explain how the words in links used
to have an impact for George W. Bush ranking on “miserable failure.”
Still don’t believe me, that PageRank isn’t the most important thing when it
comes to ranking well on Google? Here’s a way I’ve been proving it for years. Search
for something, then see if anything below the top ranked page has a PageRank
score higher than the top listing. If so (and it is so), that shows PageRank is not the
most important factor.
Let’s illustrate it. Here’s a
search for movies:
See how the search results have PageRank meters in them? I used the
tool at SEO Chat to make that happen. See how Movies.com — listed first — has
a PR8 score while the Internet Movie Database has a PR9? The page with a lower
PageRank still got the higher search rank!
Like seeing these scores in your results? Google
doesn’t make that an option for searchers. Seem odd? It makes sense and
underscores my key point.
PageRank is one of many, many factors used to produce
search rankings. Highlighting PageRank in search results doesn’t help the
searcher. That’s because Google uses another system to show the most important
pages for a particular search you do. It lists them in order of importance for
what you searched on. Adding PageRank scores to search results would just confuse
people. They’d wonder why pages with lower scores were outranking higher scored
In contrast, if you’re looking at a single page, such as when you are
surfing the web, you no longer want the search ranking but rather an idea of
how important or reputable that page might be. This is where PageRank makes more
Of course, SEOs and others may want PageRank in search results. The tool above is
just one of many that does this (got a favorite? written a favorite? add them to
the comments below). For a browser-based tool, try
SEO For Firefox
from SEO Book.
Those PageRank scores that you can see? Those are often referred to as
“toolbar” PageRank. This is different from what’s often called “internal”
Internal PageRank are the PageRank scores that Google uses as part of its
ranking algorithm. Those scores are constantly being updated. In contrast, the
PageRank scores that Google allows the world to see — Toolbar PageRank — is a
snapshot of internal PageRank taken every few months.
What’s important here? If you’re a brand new site, you’ll likely have a low
or no PageRank score reported in the Google Toolbar. That might concern you, even though it will
mostly impact whether you get crawled regularly (the higher your PageRank, the
more likely Google will regularly revisit your pages). It does also have an
impact on your ranking ability, of course.
It’s likely that after a few weeks, you’ll have gained some internal PageRank. You might see more traffic, as a result. But outwardly, the Google
Toolbar PageRank meter will still show your same old depressing score. Then a
snapshot will be made, and the better score you get will reflect what’s already
been happening behind the scenes.
More info on PageRank from Google’s Matt Cutts explain more about this and
other aspects of PageRank. You can also try the
tool if you hear from various sources that a PageRank update is in progress for the toolbar. It might give you an early glimpse at your score to come.
PageRank gets its name from Google cofounder Larry Page. You can read the
original ranking system to calculate PageRank
here, if you want.
Check out the original paper about how Google worked
here, while you’re
at it. But for dissecting how Google works today, these documents from 1998 and 2000
won’t help you much. Still, they’ve been pored over, analyzed and unfortunately sometimes
spouted as the gospel of how Google operates now.
If you still feel compelled to know more about PageRank — at least how it used to work, certainly check out Phil
Google’s PageRank Explained article, as well as
The Google Pagerank Algorithm
and How It Works from Ian Rogers.
Wikipedia, naturally, has
an entry about PageRank with
more resources you might be interested in. It also covers how some sites using
redirection can fake a higher PageRank score than they really have. And since
we’re getting all technical — PageRank really isn’t an actual 0 to 10 scale,
not behind the scenes.
Internal scores are greatly simplified to match up to that system used for
How does Google collect and rank results? from Matt Cutts, which he wrote
for Google Librarian Central,
is also a good read on the basics of how Google ranks pages, using PageRank as
one part of that process.
There much more I could write about PageRank, but I hope this gives you a
good introduction and some clarity about it. The key points to remember:
- PageRank tells how important a page is, relatively speaking, compared to
- PageRank is just one of MANY ranking factors used to determine ranking in
- High PageRank does NOT guarantee a high search ranking for any particular
term. If it did, then PR10 sites like Adobe would always show up for any
search you do. They don’t.
- The anchor text of a link is often far more important than whether it’s on
a high PageRank page.
- If you really want to know what are the most important, relevant pages to get links
from, forget PageRank. Think search rank. Search for the words you’d like to
rank for. See what pages come up tops in Google. Those are the most important
and relevant pages you want to seek links from. That’s because Google is
explicitly telling you that on the topic you searched for, these are the best.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)
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