Is PageRank the Ultimate Measure of Online Influence?

From the archives…

[2015 update: The Steve Rubel blog post is no longer live on his site. Also, this post is mostly obsolete now and Google no longer provides a toolbar PageRank number. But I think this information is still useful as I am still asked about PageRank and run into people who are confused about it.]

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.

29 thoughts on “Is PageRank the Ultimate Measure of Online Influence?

  • Richard McLaughlin

    the funny thing is if you do a link:http… on google you never have a correct list of sites that link to you.
    Yahoo has a better backlink list than google, yet google bases PR on link (and likes).
    Google can (often does) decide they just don’t like your site and refuse to give a PR. I have a .info site that has information on a niche. I paid for the domain for 5 years, one of the things google likes to show the domain is serious, but they didn’t give it any PR for 3 of the sporadic PR changes. I think it is only a PR1 now, but alexa is 100k and I have more comments than posts.

    Go figger.

  • qwerty

    I agree that PR doesn’t really matter (I only dig into what it might mean when I see a white or grey bar), but I wouldn’t say (despite the fact that you’d know this better than I would) that the two things we call PageRank are “entirely different.”

    Isn’t toolbar PageRank based on “real” PageRank, and the difference between the two is that what we see in the toolbar is rounded to the nearest integer and updated far less often? If so, TBPR would be a fairly inaccurate estimate of real PR, wouldn’t it?

  • Matt Keegan

    Excellent points. It has taken me awhile to “devalue” the worth of PageRank in my own eyes as it was something we were all trained to accept as the Holy Grail for several years.

    Instead, the number of visitors to your site, comments left on the blog, and additional action taken by visitors (convert to a sale, for example) are better measurements of how a site is doing.

  • Vanessa

    Richard, the link: count you see isn’t the same as the list Google has internally. That’s just a sample list. You can get a more comprehensive (although still not complete) list of backlinks from Google Webmaster Tools.

    But rest assured Google knows about more links than either of these measures show.

  • Michael D

    Glad you took the time to go into detail on this. I’m guilty of viewing the green on the bar and when I watched a pr6 go to pr5 I got that knee jerk reaction that google no longer loved me. Oddly (and likely noticeable by only me) nothing else has changed. It’s been a reminder not to be so obsessed with the green bar and instead focus on serving the community.

  • Benj Arriola

    Excellent post. Just what we need for PR addicted SEO clients.

  • JohnMu

    I guess that’s a “no” then, right? 🙂

    Thanks for putting together such a great & detailed post!

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  • amymstewart

    Great post, Vanessa!

    I agree. Page Rank, though not utterly meaningless, is hardly a summation of overall value in terms of online influence. At best, it would hope to indicate a website’s value to Google (which is a search engine, and NOT the internet itself, as some people seem to think) and it doesn’t even do that.

    I think the human mind is just apt to find “rank number” appealing as a measure. We all live by comparison. Maybe if they called that number something else, people wouldn’t take it so seriously?

  • Federico Munoa

    Hi Vanessa,

    I get your point and I agree with you, but what Steve means I think is that PageRank has some influence on SEOs and Link Builders. Of course as you said, it’s a matter authority and quality but most people will ask for a link in any page with a PageRank 7, even without seeing any other factors. In my opinion what he said is not entirely false, but he forgot to mention that it will only work for people that does not know much about SEO, or do not know what an Authority site means or an editorial link is worth.

    Good Read. 🙂

  • Michael Martinez

    Since Yahoo! Site Explorer reports non-existent links (and links from Javascript ads), I would not say it’s a better, more accurate tool for link research.

    There are currently no accurate tools for link research (including SEOmoz’s Linkscape) — not that link research provides much benefit for most people anyway.

  • John Sullivan

    thanks for such an excellent post.
    I caught it off friendfeed and glad
    I stopped by thanks

  • Heini van Bergen

    Great post Vanessa and I completely share your point of view on this. I’m still amazed by the value people attach to PageRank. I’ve got to explain over and over again what the real meaning behind the toolbar PageRank and to interpret it.

    I guess this is a spinn-off of the mystique that’s still hanging around the organic search results. PageRank is the one sure thing some people can “rely” on…

  • Yura

    Sounds like Rubel simply baited you and attempted to bait others.

    To anyone who knows more than 1 factor of website promotion would know that PR isn’t the only factor and would not label one factor as the most important, because without others done right it doesn’t make sense.

    Maybe you should stop paying attn to pagerank posts and write some posts on what you’d do if you had to promote a new website or what you have already done to help market Zillow online?

  • Robert

    Well the only thing that PR can be good for is to check for penalties. If you have some PR then it’s unlikely that Google has penalized the website.

    I’ve got about 100 websites, some I’ve been actively promoting and they only have a PR2… then I go and launch a new site and 4 weeks later it’s a PR4.

    The PR2 site still ranks better though! PR… it’s a load of bollocks I say 🙂 But, if it changes Google is in the news. I don’t know about it being a measure of a website, but it certainly is a measure of how Google market themselves.

  • Jonathan Dingman


    I’m still confused. You’re talking about pagerank…but I’m here for nude photos…

    *scratches head* 😉

    (for the record, I’m being completely sarcastic)

  • Damon

    I wish people would stop telling me that PageRank doesn’t matter and start telling me what does matter. It would also be nice if Google would stop promoting something that “doesn’t matter” by putting it in it’s toolbar.

    Tell me what I can do, not what I can’t.

  • Paul Lee

    Excellent post and I very much agree PR is one of those factors people are having a hard time loosening their grip from especially from clients.

  • Nick Gerner

    It’s pretty terrifying to think about how easy it is to game PR. I’ve seen some scary examples.

    I agree that there’s a lot of important factors webmasters need to consider to get a feel for “quality”, regardless of how many or how few factors, or what specifically Google is using in the algo. Who cares! They probably change it all the time anyway.

    Of course I think algorithms like PR can be a good measure of editorial endorsement, by and large. But it’s pretty tricky to to filter out isolated islands of link farms. Sadly in the SEO industry bad links are too often interspersed with good links.

    It’s pretty easy to see examples of gaming the system. Just check out link counts (from any source you like) for some of the SERPs. You might see a few hundred links for the top players and a few thousand links from the bottom players. I’ve seen those few thousand being worthless on more than one occasion.

    I’m always glad to see someone stand up for true quality, which Google, et al. are really trying to model.

  • Devin

    Great post, I understand now more clearly the term page rank and the context in which it is used.

  • guardian

    Hey Vanessa

    I was expecting pictures, lol. This post is an eye opener for SEOs who are obsessed with page rank. There are many more factors to consider other than page rank for your website.

  • Riza Berkan

    Good Points. The most disturbing fact is that PageRank is a black-box that can be manipulated by its designers. They can turn the lights off of many businesses overnight. When the semantic technologies take over, the dominance of Google’s black-box ranking will become obselete. The Web search will then grow out of its toddler level intelligence, and will shed its reliance on single-point decision makers. SEOs should be looking forward to this transition if they want to transform their profession from witchcraft (i.e. guessing what Google will do next) to something more scientific and durable.

  • Michael Martinez

    Very few links express any sort of editorial endorsement, so PageRank is an inappropriate measure for sentiment.

    Google would do everyone a great service by getting rid of the little green bar in all forms.

  • Terry

    I agree with you on all your points. Page Rank is not the end all when it comes to Google, but it can show a website progress with the search engines. It is possible to have a higher Page Ranking than a more relevant website by building there links. But what are Links? Hopefully future traffic.

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    If you check out eBay and do a search on text links you will find a huge list of people selling page rank for domains that are total junk. They managed to get an inflated page rank from linking in to high pr sites – but managed to not have any content at all. One can conclude from this that page rank and page popularity are not necessarily the same thing. Take page rank with a grain of salt. Nothing is a substitute for a good web site with a great need where people will want to link to it.

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