PageRank: Caught in the paid-link crossfire

Last week the blogosphere was abuzz when Google decided to ‘update’ the PageRank numbers they display on the toolbar. It seems Google has made real on its threat to demote sites engaged in buying and selling links for search rankings. The problem is that they caught some innocent ones in the crossfire. A couple of days later, they corrected their mistake, and those sites are now back to where they were supposed to be.

The incident reveals that there is a lot of misunderstanding about PageRank, both inside and outside the SEO community. For example, Forbes reporter Andy Greenberg writes:

On Thursday, Web site administrators for major sites including the, Techcrunch, and Engadget (as well as found that their “pagerank”–a number that typically reflects the ranking of a site in Google

He also quotes Barry Schwartz saying:

But Schwartz says he knows better. “Typically what Google shows in the toolbar is not what they use behind the scenes,” he says. “For about two and a half years now this number has had very little to do with search results.”

There are two mistakes in these assertions:

  • The toolbar PageRank does not reflect the ranking of a site in Google. It reflects Google’s perceived ‘importance’ of the site.

  • The toolbar PageRank is an approximation of the real PageRank Google uses behind the scenes. Google doesn’t update the toolbar PageRank as often as they update the real thing, but saying that it has little to do with search results is a little farfetched.

Several sites lost PageRank, but they did not experience a drop in search referrals. Link buyers and sellers use toolbar PageRank as a measure of the value of a site’s links. By reducing this perceived value, Google is clearly sending a message about paid links. The drop is clearly intended to discourage such deals.

Some ask why Google doesn’t simply remove the toolbar PageRank altogether so that buyers and sellers won’t have a currency to trade with. At first glance it seems like a good idea, but here is the catch—the toolbar PageRank is just a means of enticing users to activate the surveillance component that Google uses to study online behavior. Google probably has several reasons for doing so, but at minimum it helps measure the quality of search results and improve its algorithms. If Google were to remove the toolbar PageRank users would have no incentive to let Google ‘spy’ on their online activities. Read more

Eyes Wide Shut — Don’t Outpace Yourself to Reach Your Goals

If you observe successful people you notice that success, both online and off, requires setting far-reaching goals and working hard enough and consistently enough to achieve them. What are less obvious to observe from these winners are the steps and pacing necessary to reach a goal. Let me illustrate this with a favorite allegory of mine.

A long time ago there lived a true martial arts master. He trained and had as his disciples only the best and most skillful fighters of the time. He put them through extremely grueling and challenging tests over the course of five years. It was certainly worthwhile, as upon completion they proved virtually unbeatable against all other opponents in every martial arts tournament they entered.

One day, a young apprentice came to the master. He was very talented and eager to learn, but wondered if there was a way he could learn everything in far less time. Five long years, he thought, was just too much.

“Suppose I practiced twice as long each day as the other students?” The master replied that it would take him 10 years to finish the training that way. “What if I practiced all day, every day, including weekends, and only slept for a couple of hours. How long would it take then?” The master replied that it would take him 20 years. Frustrated now, the disciple asked once more, “Why is it that each time I tell you I will double my efforts and dedicate more time to finishing the training you say it will take twice as long?”

The master chuckled. “The reason is obvious. If you do what you say, you will always have one eye fixed on your goal. But you need both eyes on the tasks at hand to reach your goal. Working with one eye alone, it will take you twice the time.”

Blogging and SEO with both eyes open

Let’s say you want to be the Darren Rowse or Rand Fishkin of the blogging/SEO world. Instinctively you would try to publish one or more high-quality posts each day, and do a massive amount of networking, guest posting, conference speaking, interviews, link baiting, and so on. The end result: you would burn out in less than a month (week?). However, if you take your time and write carefully researched posts and publish them when you feel they are truly ready, network and build your readership gradually, form lasting relationships with other bloggers, and try to learn as much as you can, you have a better chance of succeeding. And, most importantly, you will have both eyes open when you spend time with your family and friends. 🙂

Up Against the Walls — Using your head to succeed in marketing

I’m not sure where I saw this video, but it left a permanent impression in my memory. Two burglars are holding up a corner store at gunpoint. The clerk instinctively pushes a button and protective doors and screens fall swiftly to protect him and the cash machine. The alarm sound is unbearable. The burglars are caught completely off guard. One bangs against the door several times with no success; apparently, he assumed the door was locked from the outside. The other pauses to think and, coming to his senses, halts his partner’s futile thrashing and opens the door simply by pulling the handle. It was really funny. 🙂

As marketers we sometimes act like that burglar, banging against the door out of fear and habit. We don’t spend any time researching our target market or carefully preparing an offer that is appealing. We simply try the easiest and most annoying thing first: force out mediocre content on anybody we can get a hold of. As long as spamming yields some results and can be automated people will keep doing it. But I think it is far more beneficial (effort/reward) to just open the door by the handle; i.e. understand what people want and give it to them. (On the other hand, the more lazy marketers there are, the more rewards remain for us hard working ones. 😉 So maybe I shouldn’t be complaining!) Read more

Like Flies to Project Honeypot: Revisiting the CGI proxy hijack problem

CGI proxy hijacking appears to be getting worse. I am pretty sure that Google is well aware of it by now, but it seems they have other things higher on their priority list. If you are not familiar with the problem, take a look at these for some background information:

  1. Dan Thies take and proposed solutions

  2. My take and proposed solutions

Basically negative SEOs are causing good pages to drop from the search engine results by pointing CGI proxy servers’ URLs to a victim’s domain, and then linking to those URLs so that search engine bots find them and the duplicate content filters drop one of the pages—inevitably the one with the lowest PageRank, the victim’s page.

As I mentioned in a previous post, it is very likely that this would be an ongoing battle, but that doesn’t mean we have to lay down and do nothing. Existing solutions require the injection of a meta robots noindex tag on all web pages if the visitor is not a search engine. In this way search engines won’t index the proxy-hijacked page. Unfortunately, the proxies are already altering the content before passing it to the search engine. I am going to present a solution I think can drastically reduce the effectiveness of such attacks. Read more

Advanced Keyword Research — The power of understanding your visitors

As search marketers, I think sometimes we underestimate the power of understanding our visitors. One way we can do this most effectively is through keyword research. Essential keyword research not only helps determine the success or failure of your whole search marketing campaign, but it can also provide a way of understanding your visitors and their intentions. Together, these points help define a winning SEO strategy.

If you have read about traditional keyword research, you are already familiar with the basics: keyword suggestions, search counts, level of competition, misspellings, and so on. The focus of traditional KR is to find relevant keywords that are also good opportunities (i.e. have low competition and enough search demand).

In this post, as has been my practice on this blog, I am going to dive deeper and push the limits of current keyword research. Carefully tailoring your content to your target visitors will provide you an edge most search marketers are currently missing. Read more

Winning the (right) race

In every race there are winners and losers. Sometimes though, winning is about choosing the right race. Recently there was a Youmoz post asking if the A-list was closed. Apparently the author feels that he has written some great content but has not received any mention or “link love” from the big boys. I am sure many of my readers are also bloggers and would love to be on the A-list—I sure would like to. But are you doing what it takes to get there? Are you targeting the right A-list?

Read more

Are your paid links passing the test?

As Google continues its propaganda to discourage the buying and selling of text links for SEO purposes, many sites will lose their ability to pass PageRank and Anchor Text. Many sellers will still want to sell such links, and link buyers will need to find ways to determine if the links pass link juice or not.

The first obvious step would be to do a back link check on your site to see if the new links you purchased are showing up in the results. Unfortunately, Google’s link command is extremely limited and is not very useful for link analysis or link research. A better alternative is to use Yahoo Site Explorer’s link command. Of course, the fact that Yahoo counts some links doesn’t necessarily mean that Google does too.

Enter Google’s Webmaster Central, which can provide a comprehensive list of your incoming links. The list really is fresh and very accurate. The only problem is that it includes links with ‘no-follow,’ and if Google is including those it is safe to assume it includes all links whether they pass PageRank and Anchor Text or not. Clearly, this is not very useful for our purposes. Read more

A Google Allegory

When John Chow’s rankings dropped a few months ago, a lot of SEOs believed, and continue to believe, that Google banned him for selling links and wanted to set an example. It seems that many ignored his review for a link back campaign, which was clearly designed to game Google. It was also the main driver in his former top ranking for “make money online.”

Now it seems that something similar happened to graphic designer David Airey, and many started to advise him to remove the paid links from his blog. On the other hand, the site is still listed, only it’s on search engine result page (SERP) 6. John Chow is listed too, coincidently on the same SERP. Some say it might be a duplicate content issue. I have to agree with Jim Boykin, however, that there is no evidence that Google is dropping sites that are selling links, and I can say from experience that duplicate content filters tend to keep at least one version of the content—they don’t remove all of them!

One of the main problems I’ve seen in the SEO industry is that we formulate theories based on incomplete information. The fact that key information necessary to make our job easier remains closely guarded by the search engines (for obvious reasons) does not help either.

There is still some critical information missing here…

Will Google ever penalize sites for selling links? Read more