On December 6, 2013, Google updated its PageRank results for the second time this year, a move that has surprised analysts and casual users alike. The PageRank algorithm, used since Google’s early days, is a tool used to measure the relative importance of links and websites throughout the Web. It has had enormous influence over websites, to say nothing of users’ experiences on the World Wide Web, over the years as Google has risen to prominence.
Google’s meteoric rise to the top of Internet search engines has been due in no small part to this algorithm. It was the first one devised by Google and, ultimately, the most successful. Thanks in part to this algorithm, Google’s search results are far more resistant to manipulations by companies and webmasters than most other search engines. Still, vulnerabilities exist. These vulnerabilities, in conjunction with the limitations of the PageRank system, has led to its decline in the past few years and given rise to a few different systems for ranking pages on the Web.
The process by which it works is fairly simple: it weighs the importance of a page based on not only the numbers of other pages linking to it, but also whether or not the page is considered an “authority hub,” such as cnn.com or whitehouse.gov. The more authoritative the web page is, and the more websites out there that link to the particular site, the higher the rating. Though it is not the only algorithm used by Google to track the importance of web pages, it is the first one the company designed, as well as the most well-known.
Decline of PageRank
What makes the update surprising is the widespread perception that Google’s PageRank is being phased out by the company. Google’s head of search spam, Matt Cutts, has stated publicly via Twitter that Google would not be updating PageRank again this year. Google has also removed it from its Webmasters Tool Interface, as well as its Google Chrome web browser. This seems to be at least partially due to an over-estimation of its usefulness. According to one Google employee, “We’ve been telling people for a long time that they shouldn’t focus on PageRank so much. Many site owners seem to think it’s the most important metric for them to track, which is simply not true.”
Indeed, Google’s PageRank algorithm can be viewed as a victim of its own success. As Google has gained dominance on the Web, with Google searches becoming increasingly essential to businesses operating online, undue emphasis has been placed on PageRank as a comprehensive, catch-all measure of Internet success. In a sense it has given rise to a sort of online cottage industry for web domains that have a high PageRank rating. Some companies have occasionally sold high-ranking domains to webmasters, who in turn sell “link space” to other companies at a premium rate. This manipulation of the World Wide Web has understandably annoyed Google, which has publicly threatened to devalue, or ignore, the links belonging to the webmaster if they were found to be manipulating the Web in this manner. Google claims that it degrades the authenticity of Internet search results, while proponents cite free-market principals in their defense. Buying and selling links still remains a hotly debated issue among webmasters, and a constant source of irritation for Google.
Google’s support for PageRank has declined steadily for the past several years. It has repeatedly downplayed the importance and utility of PageRank. In October of 2009, Google removed PageRank from Google Webmaster Tools; in 2011 Google dropped the Google Toolbar for Firefox; and Google never created a Google toolbar in Chrome, its own web browser, which means that PageRank never even had a chanve to be used in its own browser. Perhaps this is the most revealing of Google’s intentions: by refusing to implement it in its own web browsing software, Google is, in effect, sending a statement to the online community. Combined with the fact that Internet Explorer 10 does not allow add-ons (preventing the use of the Google toolbar), many Google employees have publicly stated that it may disappear on its own. Google has stated, however, that they will continue to support PageRank as long as users wish to use it.
Other Weaknesses of PageRank
There are a number of other factors that weaken PageRank’s utility on the web as well. Its simplification – i.e., the numerical rating attached to each web site the user would come across – is one of the features that also proves to weaken its usefulness. A numerical rating can only reveal so much about a website. The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details. Even the most well-designed algorithm must take a number of different, competing factors that makes a website “prominent” and reduce them to a single digit. This over-simplification is, perhaps, one of the main reasons that Google continues to stress that PageRank is overused and overrated as a measure of ranking pages on the Internet.
Another issue that has proven problematic is the ease with which PageRank can be manipulated by webmasters and website owners. A redirection from one page to another causes the source page to achieve the same rating as the destination page. This means, in effect, that the PageRank rating can be manipulated to confer a more favorable rating to another page. While these weaknesses may not be detrimental overall, or pose a serious threat to Google’s viability as the leading search engine, they are enough to warrant the company to look into other options for achieving its page-ranking goals.
What Does It Mean That PageRank is Being Updated
The issue of what this new update indicates is not entirely clear, though it has generated a buzz around the Web. Most technology experts have echoed the notion, however, that the rumors of PageRank’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. While other algorithms and services have arisen lately to supplement PageRank in determining Web prominence – most notably Google Panda, which takes into account the quality of each website, not just the quantity of links – PageRank still retains an enormous amount of clout. This is, in a sense, “Internet capital” that Google may be reluctant to give up, problematic though it may be.
Life After PageRank
The primary reason for Google’s declining support for PageRank is the fact that other algorithms have been designed to do its job more effectively. The aforementioned Google Panda, for example, ranks websites not only on the amount of links or the prominence of the linking website, but also the quality of the website itself. Launched in February of 2011, Google Panda aims to reduce lower-quality websites in the rankings and push higher-quality content towards the top of the results.
This is achieved by a sophisticated artificial intelligence that indexes and ranks websites according to established criteria determined by Google. Ultimately, this may be the real cause of PageRank’s decline: not necessarily a loss of utility but, rather, a new way of examining and ranking websites based on an improved set of criteria. While a new PageRank update is indeed excellent news for many companies and Internet users across the Web, the future of Google’s – and, ultimately, the Web’s – search engines may lie with Google Panda and whatever may lie beyond.