Why I’ve lost faith in Google
If you're reading this, I'm sure you've probably stumbled across countless other blog posts by people complaining that Google has slapped their blog with a Page Rank penalty. I'm also sure you've read countless rants on the increasingly irrelevant position Page Rank occupies in the world wide web. I'm not really sure that is actually true. We can write about it, or we can ignore it, but the fact of the matter is that so long as this thing called Page Rank exists, site owners will continue to be slave to the Google machine, in one way or another.
What does PageRank represent?
Let's refer to that fountain of wisdom that Google apparently values quite highly, Wikipedia:
PageRank is a link analysis algorithm that assigns a numerical weighting to each element of a hyperlinked set of documents, such as the World Wide Web, with the purpose of "measuring" its relative importance within the set.
Google's own definition of what PageRank represents is a little simpler to follow:
PageRank reflects our view of the importance of web pages by considering more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms. Pages that we believe are important pages receive a higher PageRank and are more likely to appear at the top of the search results.
The most interesting thing I found while searching for the formal PageRank definition was that the Wikipedia explanation (when I ran a Google search for "Google PageRank") was the number 1 search result, while Google's definition on their own corporate site was second. What does this mean? Is Wikipedia a 'more important' source than the organisation in which the information originally came from? You can run a Google search for pretty much anything and there's a good chance that a Wikipedia entry will turn up in the top spot, or at least rank very highly. Take 'quantum physics' as an example. The Wikipedia entry currently appears at the number one spot, does that mean that Wikipedia is the most important, most credible and most reliable source of information on the topic of quantum physics? Wikipedia? A website that anyone can edit content, no matter what their qualifications, is the most trusted source of information on a topic like Quantum Physics? That seems a little dodgy to me, but I've gone way off track...
So basically we are led to believe that PageRank represents the worth of a web page in the eyes of Google. The worth of a web page in the eyes of Google then becomes the worth of a web page in the eyes of other web masters.
Actually the most succinct overview of what PageRank is does not appear in Wikipedia, and was not even written by Google.
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 Googleâ€™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 opinionsâ€“opinions of the significance of particular Web sites as they correspond to a search queryâ€¦.the court concludes Googleâ€™s PageRanks are entitled to full constitutional protection.)
Source: Search Engine Land
The PageRank penalty
So why do Google dish out the now infamous PageRank penalty? Sites are most commonly penalised for selling text links without adding the 'nofollow' attribute. Chances are if you take any paid post opportunities or sell text link ads then, sooner or later you'll cop a PageRank penalty. In other words, you could wake up one morning to find that your PR4 site is now a PR0. Need an example, I recommend www.SwollenPickles.com
Most people associate PageRank with the little green bar, aka. Tool Bar PageRank (nifty name huh?). There's also Internal PageRank, which is updated far more frequently and this is the PageRank that forms part of the calculation that determines where a site sits in the search engine results. Internal PageRank isn't visible to the public, whilst Tool Bar PageRank is.
Why don't Google want webmasters selling text links without the 'nofollow' attribute attached? Theoretically, linking to a site without the 'nofollow' attribute will pass on some PageRank to the site that it is linked to. Therefore selling a link that may still pass on some PageRank benefits is seen, by Google, as an attempt by people to manipulate the search engine results. Google don't like it when other people try and manipulate the search results, but that's not to say that they don't mind doing it themselves.
When Google suspects someone of selling links, they are all too happy to get in there and start manipulating the PageRank of the suspected offenders. Keyword here is 'suspected'. If the selling of text links is a monster, then it's a monster of Google's own creation. Obviously Google's search algorithm places an extremely high level of importance upon links, and clearly this is a major flaw in the way in which their search engine is structured. For Google, their solution to a problem is to go and repeat the problem in their own way.
Here's an example, Ron Burgundy is the worlds number expert on jazz flute. He tours the world to deliver presentations on jazz flute, he's written books that are core texts in universities world wide. Ron also runs a website on jazz flute which features the most reliable, accurate, relevant and comprehensive information that could be found on the web. Unfortunately for Ron, it's hard to make a living from his jazz flute presentations alone, so he decides to sell some text links on his website.
At this point, ask yourself, does Ron's decision to sell text links on his site, have any impact upon how relevance, credibility or reliability of the information on his website? Does his decision to sell links make him any less of a jazz flute expert?
The Google monster stumbles across Ron's jazz flute site one day, and subsequently penalizes it due to Ron's link selling. As a result of this, Ron's PageRank is dropped to zero, he loses his advertisers, and his site slides down the search results. Ron's jazz flute web site drops from the first page of the Google search results and therefore less people are exposed to his site, while at the same time, less reliable sources of information move up the search results.
Now I come along, and do a Google search for jazz flute, and because Ron sold a couple of text links, I'm now presented with second rate information at the top of the search results, rather than Ron's expert material.
In penalizing Ron's site, how have Google made my search experience better?
As long as Google use incoming links as a core component of their 'relevancy' formula there will be a market for text links. Is penalizing the seller really the answer? If anyone was to be penalized, wouldn't it be easier to penalize the buyer?
Another example of Google's just plain silly approach to search result manipulation, is the Google slapping of John Chow, in which his site was removed him from the index completely. If I did a search for "John Chow" I would expect to see his web site, www.JohnChow.com as the number one search result. Who could possibly be more of an authority on "John Chow" than the man himself? But since his sites slapping he's very hard to find in the Google search results. Run a search today, and rather than finding John Chow's website, you'll be presented with a host of imitators or people blogging about him. In this case, is displaying me a pile of imitators and wannabes enriching my search experience?
So they don't want there search results 'polluted'. They don't want poor quality sites manipulating there way to the top... unless those sites are willing to pay them for the privilege.
The main issue I have with the penalty situation is the lack of transparency and inconsistency of its application. If you are going to penalise one site for selling text links, then you need to penalise them all. If Google are serious, they'll start at the top, by reviewing the 10,000 top ranked sites as ranked by Alexa. I'm sure you could go through that list and find a few that aren't squeaky clean.
Tech Crunch is one blog that has taken a fairly strong stance toward paid posts, with PayPerPost copping its fair share of the flak, although to be fair, a lot of their focus was on the moral issues associated with being paid to write something... now there's a slippery slope and another story altogether... Now here's a site with a PageRank of 8. That's a lot of PageRank. Now TechCrunch accept money from sponsors. TechCrunch also like to 'thank' their sponsors, which is a lovely sentiment. It also appears that TechCrunch overlook adding the nofollow attribute to their sponsors links. Let's be blunt, the only way you'll be 'thanked' as a sponsor, is if you pay TechCrunch. So TechCrunch can sell links and retain their PageRank 8. So it's ok for TechCrunch to sell text links but not the average Joe? I'm confused.
Yes, you could go snitch on TechCrunch, but I don't think you'd be the first. I wonder how successful that was?
What can you do to avoid a PageRank penalty?
Your best chance of avoiding a PageRank penalty is for you to play by Google's rules. The problem there is that even that is no guarantee (see the example). Some sites have reported receiving PageRank penalties, even though they have played by the rules. There's that inconsistency thing again. There have even been suggestions that blogs where penalised for using the words "Pay Per Post" and "Text Link Ads" in posts, without money changing hands. Aussie Blogger Snoskred is a prime example. Of course, that's only speculation, but until Google begins communicating people, speculation is the best we can go with.
So you don't sell links but you've still seen a drop in PageRank. Perhaps sites that are linking to you have had their PageRank reduced, and are therefore their reduction is having an impact upon your site?
Here's another thing to consider, I have a few different websites running at the moment. Each of them has basically sprung out of this one. For example, I found I was talking a lot about comics here, so I shifted all that stuff off over to my comics blog, I used to write a lot about cars, so I decided to start a dedicated car blog, and the lost goes on. All these sites form a little network, of sorts, and since I own them all, I decided I may as well link to them from one another. Does Google view this as a bad thing? Can it tell that I own them, or do those links trigger their "link seller" alarm and cause me to receive a penalty? Who knows?
Here's another question, if I link to other sites I own, or even just other sites that I like, as I do, without any money changing hands, is that frowned upon as well? Is it the act of placing the link, or the act of taking money for that link the bad thing?
Quality guidelines - basic principles
Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as "cloaking." Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you'd feel comfortable explaining what you've done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?" Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or "bad neighborhoods" on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.
If you can tick all those boxes then you have a good chance of getting through a PageRank update unscathed, but nothing's guaranteed.
I personally like this guideline: "Another useful test is to ask, "Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn't exist?"" So, would I sell text links if search engines didn't exist? Heck yes. Does that mean I can have my little green bar back?
What have I established?
Here's an important point to remember. Google is not the police or a regulatory board, they are a 'for profit' company. Don't rely on Google for anything. Their behaviour is evidence enough that they cannot be relied upon to provide an accurate, unbiased, rating system.
What purpose Page Rank actually serves, I'm not too sure, it's part of Google's Colonel Sanders style recipe, and like the Colonel's fried chicken, Google doesn't appear to be doing anyone any good in the long run either.
In closing, this whole PageRank fiasco is a bit of a cluster f**k.