What is PageRank?

As promised in my earlier entry about the importance of incoming links, I want to go into a little more detail about PageRank and what it means for your site’s ranking in the search engine results, specifically Google’s.

PageRank is a means of assigning a value (in terms of perceived authority) to any page on the Web. This method is exclusive to the Google algorithm, and if you’re interested in the history of that, you can learn a lot more on the Wikipedia entry for PageRank. But if you’re ready to jump straight to what it means for us, then read on.

In essence, Google assigns each page on the Internet as having a PageRank (PR) value between 0 and 10. This number is determined by the value of the page’s incoming links. Your web page’s PR matters because Google is wired to give extra weight to pages with high PR when it comes to displaying search results to its users. If your web page and a competitor’s web page have the exact same information but his PR is 3 while yours is 0, you can bet that he is going to rank higher in the Google search results every time.

Take a look at some sample PageRanks (as of January 4, 2010):

target.com: PR 7
digg.com: PR 8
amazon.com: PR 9
google.com: PR 10 (were your surprised?)

To understand how PageRank works, let’s keep things simple at first and pretend that every link on the Internet has the exact same value (that is, a link from your little brother’s blog is worth the same as a link from time.com). In this world, you create a web page. On its first day of existence, no one knows about your page and therefore, no one is linking to it. Fair enough, your PR is 0.

But after a month, there are 10 pages out there in cyberspace linking to your page. 10 incoming links of equal value = 1 PR for your page. Several months later, let’s say you have accumulated 100 incoming links. 100 incoming links of equal value = 2 PR for your page. It’s important to note that in this world where all links are created equal, each step up in PR requires a ten-fold jump in the number of your incoming links. That is, a PR of 3 would require 1,000 incoming links, a PR of 4 would require 10,000, and so on. One quickly realizes how exponentially difficult it becomes to climb each rung of the PR ladder.

However, we don’t live in that world. We live in Google’s world, where all links are NOT created equal. A link from the homepage of time.com (PR 8) is NOT the same as a link from your little brother’s blog (PR 0). That’s because Google lets PR “bleed” across websites via outgoing links. In short, when outside web pages link to you, then YOUR PR goes up as a function of THEIR PR. A link from a high PR site like time.com can very well carry the weight of hundreds of links from blogs like your little brother’s.

In order to prevent the exploitation of PageRank by those who would falsely boost their own websites, the exact algorithm behind it is kept a close-guarded secret. We understand that other elements probably factor into PageRank (the placement of your incoming links on the linking pages, for example) but for the most part, simply think of PageRank as a function of the quality of your incoming links.

The biggest take-away from all of this is the understanding that the quality of your incoming links matters more than the quantity. When pursuing incoming links for your site, remember that obtaining just a handful of incoming links from content-relevant, high PR web pages can easily outweigh the value of gobs and gobs of links from PR-deficient web pages. These high-quality links will be more difficult to come by, but they will prove a much better long-term investment of your time.

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