Is PageRank the Ultimate Measure of Online Influence?
Steve Rubel recently wrote a blog post about measuring online influence. He concluded that Google PageRank is the ultimate way to measure online influence.
I completely disagree.
I agree with him that we need better measures and the ones that we have are looking through a glass darkly (at best), but PageRank is probably one of the worst measures around. John Mueller asked me if I ever worried about PageRank, so I can answer that question while I explain why I disagree so much with Rubel.
What is PageRank anyway?
First, a bit of explanation about PageRank. Two entirely different things are called “PageRank”. There’s the Google toolbar PageRank, which is represented by integers 1 through 10, and then there’s the internal PageRank number that Google uses as one of its many (hundreds of) ranking factors. When I say PageRank doesn’t matter (and I say it a lot), I’m talking about the toolbar PageRank. The internal PageRank that Google uses does matter, but it’s far from only thing that matters.
At the simplest level, PageRank (both toolbar and internal) is a measure of a page’s link popularity. How many links does a page have and how authoritative are those links?
Why do I think PageRank doesn’t matter?
Rubel is talking about the toolbar PageRank in his post. So why do I say it doesn’t matter while he says it’s the “ultimate measure”?
- It’s updated infrequently. As Matt Cutts has said, it’s updated every “few months”. So, it’s generally pretty stale data. When you see a 5, there’s really no way of knowing if the site is currently a 5 or was a 5 two months ago but is now a 7. Or a 2. (“Real” PageRank is computed continually.)
- It’s not very accurate. The internal PageRank is not an integer number 1 – 10. It’s something much more precise. So even without the staleness problem, there’s still an accuracy problem.
- It can easily be gamed. Link schemes, link exchanges, and paid links have been around for a long time. Google is always working to be one step ahead, but these techniques can work for a time.
- Link builders have an advantage. Certainly savvy SEOs and link builders know how to get quality links. One site could have more online influence and engagement but just not have an owner who knows about link building.
- The toolbar number may be obfuscated. Google has to maintain a delicate balance of giving as much information as possible to web site owners, while not giving away enough to let spammers impact the quality of search results. This was one of the hardest parts of my job when I ran Google Webmaster Central. I talked to B&B owners who just wanted people to know their inns existed. And I talked to black hats who used every loophole to get their viagra sites on the first page.The Official Google Webmaster Central blog talked about obfuscation that Google did late last year. In this particular case, sites were selling text links that weren’t marked as advertising and their major selling point was the high PageRank of the site. By reducing the visible PageRank, those sites could not as easily sell links.
- PageRank doesn’t necessarily correlate to ranking. Matt mentioned this recently on Sphinn, when he said “Even if you don’t show much PageRank, Google still has 200+ other signals we use in our ranking. It’s definitely common to see lower-PageRank sites ranking above higher-PageRank sites–which tends confuses the people who obsess too much about PageRank and who don’t focus on other factors that search engines might use to rank pages”.
Why does Rubel think PageRank is the “ultimate”?
Rubel sees things a little differently. He said:
- “Page Rank is something you earn by producing high quality content that people link to” – Unfortunately, that’s not entirely correct. An average piece of content might get lots of links via a link builder, or if the person writing the content is popular, or even if the person writing the content is universally hated and lots of people link to the content to trash it. A piece high quality content may be very engaging and may influence a lot of people, but those people may not be linkers by default. And really, if what you’re really looking to do is measure what content gets the most links based on the argument that something with a lot of links has a lot of influence because the links themselves raise awareness about that content, then use Yahoo! Site Explorer, which will give you up-to-date and accurate link counts. Don’t use a rounded, out of date number that approximates link counts.
- “It enables you to influence people on the Internet’s biggest stage – Google – and just as people are searching for the topics you are knowledgeable about. This means it amplifies your influence because the press start at search engines when researching stories” – As noted above, PageRank is one of more than a hundred factors in determining ranking. It happens all the time that a site with a lower toolbar PageRank will rank above high PageRank sites. Ranking isn’t just about link quantity. It’s about crawlability, extractability, quality content, link quality, anchor text…. Well, a lot of things.
- “Page Rank is channel agnostic and takes the entire online ecosystem into account. It judges you based on links from all kinds of sources, not just people who live in the same fish tank. In other words, it goes beyond people who hang out on Twitter who love people who Tweet or bloggers who link to other bloggers, etc. It eschews the echo chamber”- Again, not exactly. It may eschew the echo chamber but it rewards a savvy link builder. And some audiences are more likely to link than others. For instance, marketing blogs link out all the time. Recipe blogs are getting better at linking. But some newspapers don’t link at all, or provide the link as text. Some audiences aren’t the type to have sites from which they can link, so you can only see their involvement through things like comments and subscriber numbers. And for some audiences that do control sites, linking just doesn’t cross their minds. It’s not something they think about doing.
I’m not the first person to disagree with Rubel on this. Michael Gray mentioned it on Twitter and Rubel replied “I know Page Rank is not perfect. But it determines your footprint on Google and that’s why it’s the ultimate influence metric.”
If there’s one thing that PageRank is not, it’s the determination of your Google footprint. The internal “real” PageRank isn’t even that. Lots of things go into determining your Google footprint. His discussion in the comments goes further down this path of misunderstanding what PageRank is. He agrees with someone in the comments who says that “PageRank is the sum of all other measurements.” It’s not. It’s one measurement added in with a whole bunch of others.
Others in the comments do point this out. In fact, James Joyner said “My site has gone from PR7 to PR4 for no apparent reason. At the same time, my visitors, commenters, and social media followers have gone up. My content gets syndicated at Newsweek. It’s included in Google News, for goodness sakes. But my PR has plummeted. Oddly, however, my Google traffic has not.”
So how do you measure online influence?
But what of Rubel’s actual question? How do you measure online influence? I would ask why you want to measure it. I spoke at the eMetrics summit a few months ago and the big discussion was around measuring engagement. But what is actionable about that measure, even if you are able to track it down?
It could be that the measure is different depending on your goal. If you’re coke and you want to sell more soft drinks, then the only measure you care about may be increased sales.
Rubel mentions that unique visitor counts are largely empty numbers as hordes of visitors might come from search but then leave immediately. Well, sure. That’s why you have to measure bounce rate. And conversion. And understand that the goal isn’t to rank #1 in Google and get a lot of traffic, it’s to rank highly for search queries that your customers who want to buy your products are doing. But I’ve talked about that before.
If you’re a blogger and you don’t sell anything, then you might care about getting more readers. Or you might make money from advertising. Or maybe you want to get famous so a big time magazine wants you to write for them. “Online influence” is a nebulous term, at best.
I do agree that we need better measures. That we’re overwhelmed with numbers and we don’t know what’s actionable or useful. And I think you can measure the impact and value of things like social media that don’t correlate directly to sales. These are the things I spend a lot of my time thinking about these days. But I’m pretty sure toolbar PageRank is not that magic measure.