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The vast majority of website owners seem to be obsessed with PageRank. It was one of the heaviest ranking factors in the original Google algorithm, and the fame persists. I must admit that I also find it hard to ignore the single most visible feedback figure presented by Google.

Google has been worried about all the unnatural link spam that results from this. They emphasized that they used about 200 ranking factors, and that webmasters were better off focusing on creating valuable content and improving their conversion rates.

Yet no-one seemed to listen much. PageRank was bought, stolen and begged for in every possible way. So now Google seems to work extra factors into PageRank value itself. This is very logical: if webmasters are so focused on achieving high PageRank, why not make link quality a part of  the formula?

New Google’s patent hints at a new PageRank formula

On May 11, 2010 a patent was granted to Google for “Ranking documents based on user behavior and/or feature data”. Bill Slawski wrote a great post about it, so I won’t go into too much detail here, just give you a brief summary.

There is one key difference the new patent suggests. Previously, each link on a page passed the same amount of authority to the target page. Now, every link is weighted according to how likely a “reasonable surfer” would be to click on that link. To estimate that, Google considers a number of factors, which boil down to 2 main categories:

  • link visibility (placement and appearance)
  • link relevance

So, you can say goodbye to small text links in page footers, forum and blog comments, stuffed sidebars, link exchange pages and other similar link spammer paradise areas. They didn’t bring much PageRank juice before, now they will hardly bring any at all. To pass PageRank, the link now has to achieve the same thing as to get the click: stand out prominently from the rest of the page, and be relevant.

Why I believe PageRank formula is really changing?

I have recently launched a new blog on web tracking. Having some experience with online promotion, I started building links for it. Here is what I did:

  • submitted the blog to several directories
  • submitted about 10 articles to article directories
  • used signature links in a few forums and blogs
  • submitted links to several social bookmarking sites

I also have a small personal site, danylchuk.com, which I don’t promote in any meaningful way. It has PageRank 2, with 5 links visible in Yahoo tool and 14 links in Google Webmaster Tools. So I added a few links from that one too, as it had some relevant content.

Overall, in a month I was able to get about 130 links indexed in Yahoo Site Explorer and 240 links indexed in Google Webmaster Tools for my new blog. I was generally pleased with the result, watching the site starting to rank on a few keywords, and waiting to see the toolbar PageRank update, just for the fun of it. I was expecting to see a PageRank 2 or 3 with those links.

How surprised I was when finally a few pages got their PageRank, and it turned out to be… Zero! Not even one. Nevermind that I saw a few sites with similar or worse link profiles have a better rank, take that small personal site that I mentioned for example.

I started digging around for a possible explanation. I noticed other webmasters observing similar effects. And then, I found the post by Bill Slawski and this new Google patent. Now this all seems to fit together perfectly.

The link building techniques that I used worked well several years ago. And they still produce some results, just not as good as they used to. Now I figure this could be because of the change in PageRank formula.

What does this mean for you and your blog?

With this possible change in PageRank algorithm, is it time to change your link building habits? Google tries to follow the real user behavior and real traffic patterns, so you should focus on these even more. In a way, Google has just made your job easier. Now you can focus on live visitors and assume that Google will try to use the same hints.

As an added bonus, you will decrease your dependency on Google. There is no way to be wrong here – if you build great click-through traffic sources with natural linking, you win regardless of Google’s policies.

So I suggest you to scale down these link building methods in favor of others:

  • Forum posting and blog commenting. It has plenty of benefits, but don’t do that in hopes of increasing your PageRank.
  • Social bookmarking. Same as above, share what you think is valuable. You can get some click-through traffic, but don’t expect any PageRank.
  • Article submission. Don’t go for the numbers, submit to top directories to get traffic, syndication and recognition.
  • Bulk directory submission. It’s probably not worth your time and money any more.
  • Bulk link exchange. This is explicitly discouraged by Google now, and can get you banned from their search results.

I don’t mean you should stop doing all of the above. Remember about link diversity, both for SEO and traffic building reasons. Get some extra links if that’s easy, but focus on high quality links in your strategy. I believe any extra one-way links can’t hurt you, otherwise it would be too easy for competitors to bomb each other with bad links.

Now, some quality link building methods to scale up:

  • Guest blogging. It’s the most reliable way to get a quality context link on a reputable, relevant blog.
  • Link baiting. While it is hard to create a successful link bait, one success can pay for several failures.
  • Press releases. With some effort and some luck, you can get a quality link from big media.
  • Joint ventures. Get to know people and discuss how you can do business together. Be creative.
  • Building communities. Create a resource that attracts a targeted community, and they will link to you.

As you may notice, the methods that bring the highest quality links are also the ones which are widely used by the bloggers, and which can benefit a lot from their already high social activity. So as a blogger, you should probably welcome the change, and hope that the Internet will become a better place for everyone, with less spam and clutter.

And listen to the advice from Google. Pay less attention to PageRank and more attention to your content, traffic and conversion rates.

As someone who took a start in Internet marketing back in 2002, I have some nostalgia for the days of easy SEO. But I welcome the new world of quality links and fair rankings (well, Google, good luck with that!) If everyone has to play by the same fair rules, I am happy to join and take the extra effort.

There may be no new PageRank formula in reality. Maybe the data in my case study can be explained by pages with too many links per page, or temporary glitches when ranking new pages. Still, even if the PageRank value itself will not change, the new Google patent clearly outlines their priorities in ranking. You should seriously consider introducing the suggested changes to your link building strategy. Especially considering that it will bring you more traffic regardless of Google, possibly reducing your dependency on their free search results.

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