The End of PageRank, The End of an Era

October 13, 2016
Aaron Polmeer

by On Yavin

After being one of the main staples of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for almost two decades, Google’s PageRank score has quietly slipped into oblivion. As announced to multiple sources back in March 2016, Google removed the Toolbar PageRank in April, basically marking the end of an era in the SEO world. Although the related calculations will still be running behind closed doors, the public can no longer see the numerical score that was once the most powerful indicator of a website’s SEO power.

How PageRank Came to Be

To better understand the magnitude of this change and the importance that PageRank once had, we need to go back through time, starting all the way back in 1996 when Google was still BackRub, an unknown research project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Back then, their main goal was to create a search engine which performed better than their main competitor, Yahoo. Until Google came to the scene, search engines mainly looked at on-page SEO elements when trying to determine where to rank a site for certain keywords and phrases. While a great idea in theory, in practice this meant that you could bring your site towards the top of search engine results simply by spamming it with the words you wanted to rank for.

In their attempt to create a better algorithm for determining the search engine positions of numerous websites, one which would be harder to manipulate by knowledgeable webmasters, Larry and Sergey came upon a drastically different idea. Instead of websites “voting” for themselves by mentioning their targeted keywords, other websites could “vote” for them by pointing links towards them and basically saying, “By linking to this site, I’m stating that I find it to be a valuable resource for this topic.” They turned their idea into reality and thus PageRank and Google, the new search engine it was powering, were born. Soon afterwards, on-page optimization took a backseat and links became site owner and SEO experts’ main weapon in their battle to outdo their competition and reach higher positions in the powerful new search engine.

The Golden Years

When Google first appeared, it was a far cry from the IT giant we know today. Not only was it not an overnight success, but even its founders couldn’t imagine how far the company would go, as shown by the multiple attempts to sell it in the first few years of its existence. In a famous story which is almost hard to believe from today’s perspective, George Bell, the CEO of Excite (one of the biggest search engines in the late nineties) refused to buy Google for $1 million and didn’t change his mind even when the offer was brought down to $750,000. Obviously, back then no one could have foreseen that Google was going to be worth over $500 billion by the end of 2015.

After that, Google acquired over $25 million in funding and continued to grow into the biggest search engine in the world. And, as more and more eyes continued to turn towards Google, the most important factor that every serious SEO expert started religiously paying attention to was PageRank. In the SEO world, that little green bar with a number in it was the single most powerful indicator of how well a website was doing and it was used to track progress, find suitable link exchange partners and even determine the value of websites.

Naturally, as always eventually happens, crafty SEO practitioners found ways to manipulate PageRank as well. Despite the fact that it was only one of many cogs in the complex Google machine, the SEO world turned the majority of its attention towards PageRank because it was the most prominent factor, as well as the only one that precisely and explicitly told you what Google thought of any particular site.

So, although it was an improvement over the established search engine algorithms of its day, PageRank also brought us shady link exchanges, comment spam and numerous other black hat tricks and tactics designed to increase a website’s perceived value and improve its position among the Google search results. Google reacted publicly to some of these trends, worked silently against others and even let some continue for years and years, seemingly without doing anything to decrease their effectiveness. But the company was always watching and paying attention to what was happening. Which brings us back to present time.

The Old King is Gone, the New Ones are Coming

The Internet of today is very different from what it was 20 years ago. Many trends have come and gone, many new technologies have emerged and the way people interact with each other and behave online has changed drastically. After gradually decreasing both it’s real and perceived power throughout the years, Google finally put an end to the publicly visible PageRank, sending a clear message to the SEO community that their focus should shift to other ranking factors.

Once – already a long time ago in “Internet years” – you had to make sure your site had a decent PageRank if you wanted it to reach top positions in Google. There were many other factors you needed to pay attention to as well, but PageRank was the single most important one. Today, you can forget about the green toolbar altogether and start paying closer attention to how RankBrain, Google’s artificial intelligence system, decides how to process and sort search results . Outside links are still of major importance, as is the content, but as the times and circumstances keep changing, the rules of the SEO game similarly change with them.

Out of many different terms and concepts, a few have found their way to the top, basically replacing PageRank as the new most important factors in the SEO arena. And while none of them has the power, influence and notoriety that PageRank once had, they’re nevertheless able to show an experienced SEO practitioner where a particular website stands in terms of its SEO strength.

The Majestic Metrics

As a provider of some of the most popular and reliable SEO tools in the world, England-based Majestic has been an influential voice in the industry for many years and their position only solidified when the two terms they coined became the new industry standards.

Citation Flow

The first of them, Citation Flow, is a score between 1 and 100 which is awarded to a website based on the number of sites that link to it. While Majestic does evaluate individual links and assigns more weight to the ones it perceives as the more valuable ones, it still goes by the old “more is better” adage, so as the number of domains linking to a site grows, so too does its Citation Flow score.

Trust Flow

If time and experience have taught as anything about SEO throughout the years, it’s that you cannot expect to successfully predict the SEO value of a website by simply counting the links pointing to it. With that in mind, Majestic brought in the second piece of their SEO power prediction puzzle, the Trust Flow.

Just like its cousin, Trust Flow is a website’s score shown as a number between 1 and 100, but unlike Citation Flow, it values quality over quantity. As its name suggests, Trust Flow is concerned with the reputation and trustworthiness of the sites providing the links, so while you can raise your site’s Citation Flow by getting more sites to link to it, you’ll have to get links from valuable, powerful sites in order to significantly raise your Trust Flow as well.

Trust Ratio

When combined, Citation Flow and Trust Flow form the Trust Ratio, which tries to predict how valuable your site should be in the eyes of search engines – if you have a high Trust Flow and a low Citation Flow, then your site must be of decent value, since you’ve obviously gotten a lot of trust from a relatively small number of powerful sites. Conversely, a high Citation Flow combined with a low Trust Flow shows that, while you may have many sites linking to your site, most of them are not of high quality themselves, indicating that the bigger, more popular sites are not the ones “voting” for you and therefore your site is not as valuable as the number of links pointing to it might imply.

The SEO Wizards of Moz

If you thought that the world of PageRank’s unofficial descendants was already complicated enough, think again, as another SEO powerhouse also invented their own metric in an attempt to replace PageRank. Moz – once known as SEOmoz and lead by the “Wizard of Moz”, Rand Fishkin – has grown into one of the most respected online marketing and SaaS (software as a service) companies mainly by providing quality tools and guides for the SEO community, so when they introduced their Domain Authority metric in 2010, the SEO world listened.

Domain Authority

Similar to its Majestic relatives, Moz’s Domain Authority attempts to determine the SEO value of a website and therefore predict how good its position among the search engine results will be. By their own admission, Moz uses upwards of 40 SEO-related factors and combines all of their other link metrics such as MozRank and MozTrust (basically their own versions of previously mentioned Citation Flow and Trust Flow) to calculate Domain Authority, which is then displayed as a score on a logarithmic, 100-point scale.

Depending on who you ask, Domain Authority might be a more or less reliable alternative to Majestic’s Citation Flow and Trust Flow, but neither of them is a decisive winner in a quest to become an ultimate SEO metric. However, even without a clear winner, both companies’ metrics and their accompanying tools are still of enormous value to SEO experts, as they provide a quick way to get a relatively reliable prediction of how well a website will rank.

And so today, in 2016, as the old ranking factors become obsolete and the new ones gain importance, the need to either deeply understand the SEO world or hire professionals who do is as important as ever, especially if you want to ensure that your site will do well in the ever-important battle for valuable search engine positions.

 

On Yavin is the Founder and CEO of Online Performance, a company specialized in providing SEO services. He is an expert in search engine optimization (SEO) with years of experience in web and mobile marketing. 

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