PageRank: Its Part in its Own Downfall

The end of an era as PageRank fades from public view

For nearly 16 years, Google’s PageRank has been, simultaneously, a help and a hindrance. It has created a cottage industry in its own right with search engine consultancies working on improving PageRank figures. This meant emphasising on link building and aiming to link with higher ranking pages. Sometimes at the expense of high-quality content and creating an audience for your website.

This week, Google has written PageRank out of the script. Though it may no longer be seen in public (within a toolbar for example), it will be used as a secret metric. PageRank, as stated in Danny Sullivan’s post on the subject, was never meant to be a sole metric for Google’s ranking criteria, though sales pitches in the early noughties seemed to have suggested otherwise.

Google PageRank was introduced in 2000 with ‘Page’ being derived from the co-founder Larry Page. It shortly became a source for link-building campaigns with companies jumping on the bandwagon to link others to higher ranked sites. Anyone with a PR3 or above directory site would cajole other webmasters to link to them, with the PR juice allegedly having a ‘trickle down’ effect. Spam emails would be sent to webmasters, typically asking for links.

As a consequence, this led to a glut of inane comments on forums like Webmaster World. Usually something along the lines of “Dude, Where’s My PageRank?” Companies were obsessed with getting a PR4 or upwards, to the point where investment in quality content was sacrificed. Then came the Nofollow Meta Tag. This enables webmasters to choose which pages should be indexed.

By 2004, probably the height of its ubiquity, Google could have dropped PageRank. Instead, its fade from public view began nine years ago, with little outcry. 2007 saw the launch of Google’s Chrome browser. It did away with the traditional web browser layout, and it lacked the Google toolbar. PR scores were no longer reported on the Google Search Console (2009), with the Google Directory closing down the following year. Firefox ceased to support PageRank in 2011, and the last PageRank update was made in 2013. This was on the Internet Explorer user toolbar.

In the way we saw Billy Peltzer scalded for his carelessness in Gremlins, Google appears to have done the same with PageRank (if you substitute Gizmo for the toolbar).  It became a source of penis envy among business clients.  The mathematics involved were immense though the cottage industry it created was quite a monster.

Today, we have moved on from an era where arbitrary ranking scores measured the true worth of a website. Ultimately, content was, is, and remains central to the value of a website. An active social media presence helps a lot, enabling you to build an online customer relationship. PageRank served its purpose in the early noughties. Like Billy with Gizmo in Gremlins, some webmasters elected to feed the beast after midnight, expose it to bright light, and immerse the thing in water.

Will we miss the one-upmanship of yesteryear? That’ll be a ‘no’ then. This is partly why Google, who launched PageRank with good intentions, has elected to hide its results from public view. Right, back to getting our web presence in tip-top condition.