Think Google PageRank Is Dead? Think Again

The PageRank toolbar is NOT the same thing as PageRank itself. Google simply closed the curtains so we couldn’t see into their measurement.

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Last updated on March 4, 2024

Google PageRank is alive and kicking no matter what your neighborhood SEO “guru” says.

Seriously. I can’t believe the number of professional SEOs who basically put on all black and had a funeral for PageRank.

Especially because you only have to pay attention for a minute to see PageRank’s influence on Google’s modern-day algorithm.

PageRank is not dead. Not even close. It’s just different; understanding that difference can set your SEO efforts apart from the competition.

Let’s dive in, or if you prefer, click this link to learn more about our Link Building Service.

Looking Back: The Early Days of PageRank

PageRank was born in 1997. That’s when the founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, came up with the calculation as part of a Stanford University research project.

The purpose of PageRank? To calculate the value of a webpage relative to all the other pages on the internet.

And that value was meant to inform how search engines serve results, emphasizing high-quality pages over low-quality pages.

The calculation, at its core, is all about the number of OTHER pages that link to the page in question (as well as the quality of those linking pages, also determined by PageRank).

If you’re into science, you may recognize the basic pillars of PageRank.

That’s because Brin and Page were inspired by the way scientific researchers assess the relative importance of various scientific studies.

That is, they look at how many times other studies have referenced the study in question.

It was a good idea. So good, in fact, that it became the backbone of the algorithm that drove Google — the backbone that quickly separated Google from its contemporary competitors like Yahoo and Altavista.

You can boil how PageRank works down into three factors:

  1. The sheer number and relative quality of the pages linking to your page
  2. The number of other links (pointing to other sites) on the pages that link to yours
  3. The PageRank of each page that links to yours

Those factors, combined with the estimated likelihood of a random internet user clicking on the various links used to assess this calculation, makes up what we know about PageRank.

Using PageRank and associated technologies, Google skyrocketed to the top of the search engine game. And the rest was all set to be history, but then PageRank “died.”

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The Day the PageRank Toolbar ‘Died’

One of the best parts about PageRank in the early days? You could see it. More specifically, you could see it in the PageRank toolbar. Which looked like this:

For those doing SEO in the early days, this was the coolest thing ever. You could see pretty much exactly what Google thought about your webpages.

Google introduced the PageRank toolbar just a couple of years after it filed for the PageRank patent, in 2000. For 16 glorious years, we all had access to it. Then, Google announced that it was doing away with it.

Everyone was sad about that. And many made the mistake of believing that meant PageRank was dead altogether.

But while Google hadn’t updated its PageRank toolbar since 2014, the PageRank patent wasn’t set to expire until 2018. And nothing Google said at the time (or since) suggests that PageRank itself has been deprecated.

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why Google killed the PageRank toolbar:

Google Gets Sick of ‘PageRank Sculpting’

The problem with the PageRank toolbar, as much as everyone loved it, was that it was so unique. It was the only public-facing Google tool that measured a confirmed ranking factor.

So, many SEOs and website owners became obsessed with it. They believed it was the only thing that mattered for SEO. And they started to find ways to manipulate the score.

Most of those methods of manipulation had to do with one thing: link spam. That is, low-quality links in huge numbers generated by link farms.

It worked. It was called PageRank sculpting. And Google didn’t like it.

Why? Because Google didn’t want its algorithm to be so transparent. And other factors DID matter, so it wasn’t a good thing that rankings could be gamed so easily by artificially pumping up PageRank.

Those factors almost certainly contributed to the demise of the PageRank toolbar.

Nofollow Enters the Scene

Google and other search engines introduced the nofollow link attribute in 2005. It is still used today — it tells search engines not to pass any authority through a given link.

It was a good development meant to cut down on spammy blog comment and forum links. It worked well. But it created another problem that contributed to the death of the public-facing PageRank toolbar.

Remember — PageRank measures the number of outbound links on a page when calculating how much PageRank a given page passes.

Armed with the brand new nofollow attribute, SEOs quickly saw a way to manipulate this part of PageRank to artificially inflate PageRank scores even more:

They nofollowed links like crazy. They would leave one or two follow links on a page to point a HUGE amount of link juice at a particular page.

That also worked, and it was another problem for Google — one they would eventually partially solve by removing the PageRank toolbar.

Public PageRank Scores Begin to Disappear

A few years after introducing the nofollow attribute, Google removed PageRank data from its Webmaster Tools in 2009.

A few years after that, in 2014, Google’s John Mueller publicly said PageRank wasn’t going to be updated anymore. And that SEOs and website owners should stop paying attention to it.

Just two years later, the PageRank toolbar was gone.

What happened? The PageRank toolbar died a slow death. Anyone paying attention could have guessed that Google was preparing us for its demise.

But not everyone — probably not even Google itself — could have guessed that the death of the TOOLBAR would cause so many people to shout from the rooftops that PageRank was dead. But that’s what happened.

Separating the Toolbar from the Algorithm

Here’s the thing:

The PageRank toolbar is NOT the same thing as PageRank itself. The toolbar was a window into PageRank. Google simply closed the curtains so we couldn’t see through it anymore.

And if you think about it, it makes sense:

The ENTIRE concept of Google sprung forth from the idea of PageRank. The concept was the backbone of the original algorithm.

Google wouldn’t make a fundamental change like killing PageRank altogether lightly. And if they did, backlinks wouldn’t work anymore.

But they DO work. They work wonders. That’s the biggest way we know PageRank isn’t dead. But it’s not the only way.

Signs of Life: PageRank in the Modern-Day Google Algo

We’ve established what killed the PageRank toolbar. But how can I prove that PageRank is still a major part of Google’s algorithm? A few ways, it turns out.

From the Horse’s Mouth

In this case, the horse is Gary Illyes, a major player at Google. He tweeted in 2017 that PageRank was still a part of Google’s search algorithm (along with various other factors):

If a high-ranking Google employee is saying it publicly (and not being corrected by other Google bigwigs), we can assume it’s probably true.

But that’s not even the only time that has happened. Illyes, who routinely speaks at the SEO conferences I like to attend, is pretty liberal about invoking PageRank and its role in the modern Google search algorithm.

He’s always quick to point out that the PUBLIC PageRank score is dead. But PageRank itself is very much the opposite.

Evidence at Scale

As if that weren’t enough confirmation, any professional SEO who has been at this a while can see living, breathing evidence of PageRank in Google’s search algorithm.

How? By watching the ways in which backlinks affect clients’ rankings in search.

Obviously, good backlinks improve clients’ rankings. Pretty much the whole SEO industry agrees on that.

But where we REALLY see evidence of PageRank is in the different impacts links from particular websites will have.

For example, a link from any webpage on The New York Times — a website with ostensibly incredible PageRank across the board — is going to have a HUGE impact on your rankings.

Meanwhile, a link from a brand new website with a couple of pages and no organic traffic — no PageRank to speak of, in other words — isn’t going to make much of a difference.

Ask any SEO if what I said above is true, and they’ll tell you that it is. If that’s not evidence of PageRank at work behind the scenes of Google’s search algorithm, then what is it?

Has Anything Really Replaced Public PageRank?

I hope you’re still following me:

PageRank is NOT dead. But PUBLIC PageRank scores are.

So, has anything replaced public PageRank scores since the death of the toolbar?

It’s not a one-for-one direct replacement, but a new metric that assesses the probable authority of a domain and/or page in the eyes of Google has popped up.

Let’s take a closer look.

Proprietary Metrics

After the death of the PageRank toolbar, some popular SEO tool companies started working on a replacement. Moz was the first to the punch, first with Domain Authority )DA) and then with Page Authority (PA).

DA measures the probable authority of an entire domain. PA measures the probable authority of a particular URL.

Bingo — PA is pretty similar to PageRank.

It’s based mostly on backlinks — how many links are pointing to the page or domain being measured, and how powerful are those links?

That should sound familiar to anyone who knows how PageRank works.

Other SEO tool companies — like Ahrefs, Majestic and Semrush — followed Moz with their own versions of DA and PA.

And they all work in a pretty similar way to each other, which means they’re all fairly similar to PageRank.

Mind you, these metrics are not an EXACT copy of PageRank. (Nobody could copy it exactly because nobody outside of Google knows precisely how every part of it works.) But they’re similar and give you the same basic takeaways:

  • How powerful or authoritative Google probably thinks a page is
  • How helpful it would be to get a backlink from a particular page or domain

It’s not perfect, but it’s better than what we had immediately after the public-facing PageRank score went away: nothing at all.

And they’re simple to use. You just pop the URL you want to analyze into the SEO tool of your choice, and voila — you get a score. Here’s what it looks like in Semrush:

Should You Trust Domain and Page Rating Metrics from Third-Party SEO Tools?

Great — DA and PA are pretty similar to PageRank. But can you trust them enough to make major decisions about your SEO based on them?
Yes, in part.

What I mean by that is that you SHOULD use these third-party metrics to make SEO decisions. But you shouldn’t use ONLY these metrics.

Why? Because they’re imperfect. They’re easily manipulated (much like PageRank itself).

Here’s a real-world example:

Let’s say you’re doing a little field research to find good websites to target with your backlink outreach campaign. You stumble upon a site in your niche that has a DA of 80.

That’s really high. It looks great. And the site even has some relevant blog posts (with high PA scores) that would provide PERFECT linking opportunities.

You think you’ve found the perfect backlink opportunity. But you’re wrong.

Here’s why:

You didn’t check whether the site had any traffic. Or whether it’s even in Google’s index. Or what it actually looks like.

As it turns out in this fictional scenario (which is often a reality for link builders), the owner of this website artificially pumped up the site’s scores in SEO tools by building terrible backlinks.

Those backlinks were so bad that they recently led to a manual action from Google.

But the SEO tools don’t know that. And they still display those tempting high authority scores.

And THAT is why you can’t trust third-party authority metrics in a vacuum. And really, that was also the case back when we could all rely on the public PageRank toolbar score.

How Proprietary Metrics May Differ from PageRank

As we established earlier, there is no perfect replacement for being able to see Google’s own PageRank measurements.

But proprietary metrics from various SEO tool companies have done a pretty good job of approximating the most important bits about PageRank (or what we think we know about it, at least).

Does that mean DA, DR and the like are perfect, one-to-one replacements for PageRank scores? Absolutely not.

Each third-party metric is calculated slightly differently, but in general, they probably differ from PageRank in the following ways:

Link Placement

One patent Google filed in concurrence with PageRank was called the “reasonable surfer” model. It discussed the probability that a reasonable internet user would click on a particular link based on various attributes.

Those attributes included everything from color and size of the link to the anchor text used. But what we’re focusing on here is link placement.

More specifically, the reasonable surfer model took into account the placement of a link on a page to measure the probability that the average internet user would actually click it.

The more likely it appeared that a link would be clicked, the more powerful that link would likely be in calculations of PageRank and the link juice the link passes.

For example, a link in the top navigation menu of a website is MUCH more likely to be clicked than an in-text link 3,000 words into a 4,000-word article. So, that top navigation menu link would be more powerful under the reasonable surfer model.

As far as I can tell, third-party metrics meant to replace PageRank don’t take link placement into account.

In other words, the impact of a link in the first paragraph of an article is going to have as much effect on page authority as a link 47 paragraphs in.

That’s one way in which PageRank was likely much more detailed than the available third-party metrics.

Link Counting

Google counts backlinks in your favor when the pages that contain those backlinks enter Google’s index.

That’s part of why you need to care about the quality of the pages linking to yours. They need to be at least good enough for Google to index them.

It’s also a way in which third-party authority-measuring metrics may differ from PageRank.

Most well-known SEO tools use their own bots to crawl websites and gather data.

That means they may not depend on the Google search index to find particular pages. So they may count backlinks from content that isn’t indexed by Google.

Put simply, the third-party metrics may not see the same thing Google is seeing. And that can affect their scoring in either direction — higher or lower than what PageRank would say.

There’s probably no feasible way to avoid this issue with a third-party tool. Nothing is as good as data straight from Google. But it’s worth pointing out here anyway.

Referring Domains vs. Number of Links

In the most recent PageRank patent, there was some evidence that Google would ignore multiple links from the same domain when calculating PageRank.

To put that in simpler terms:

A Google patent filing suggested — but didn’t confirm — that getting, for example, TWO backlinks from The New York Times wouldn’t boost your PageRank more than ONE backlink would.

This quickly became a well-known way to assess backlinks: number of referring domains vs. total number of links.

It’s not that having multiple backlinks from the same website is bad. It’s just that it MIGHT be better to have two backlinks from two domains than to have two backlinks from one domain.

Again, this isn’t confirmed. Google adds a lot of stuff to its patent filings and documentation that doesn’t make it into the real-world search algorithm. But it has long been a piece of common SEO wisdom.

But what about those third-party metrics? Are they counting referring domains, total backlinks or both?

It’s going to vary by the tool you’re using. And that means some of them are going to do it differently than PageRank.

Go with What You’ve Got

To boil it all down to one statement:

Third-party metrics are definitely going to work in a different way than PageRank works. For lots of reasons. There’s no way around that.

But there’s also no alternative anymore. We simply don’t have access to public-facing PageRank data like we used to.

So, we’re left to go with the next best thing. And that’s the third-party SEO authority metrics.

They’re not perfect, as we’ve discussed. But they DO provide some good information.

And you can make them more accurate on average by combining them. Get the scores from Ahrefs, Moz and Semrush if you can. Then, average out the scores.

That’s likely to be as close as we can get to a replacement for PageRank. And for most use cases, it’s more than enough to help you make informed SEO decisions.

How to Improve Your PageRank Today

PageRank still exists. We just can’t see it anymore. But does the fact that we can’t see it mean we should stop caring about it?

Of course not. You still need to care about PageRank. And you need to work to improve it if you hope to improve your Google rankings.

But how do you improve PageRank? It’s not easy, but there are some tried and true methods. Here’s what you need to do.

Build Backlinks

You probably should have seen this one coming. Backlinks are THE way to improve PageRank.

That has been the case from the very beginning. And I don’t see a scenario where that ever really changes.

But please — I’m begging you — don’t just start building backlinks at random to try to improve your PageRank. It won’t work.

Instead, keep the following directives in mind as you build backlinks to improve your PageRank:

Aim for Authoritative

Use those third-party authority metrics to choose your backlink targets. They’re not perfect, but they can tell you A LOT about how authoritative a site probably is (in conjunction with other metrics, like organic traffic).

Why does authority matter here? Because more authoritative sites give more authoritative backlinks. That means they pass more and stronger link juice, and that’s what moves the needle for PageRank.

So, don’t just build backlinks for the sake of it. Build backlinks in a way that targets links from truly authoritative websites.

Don’t Waste Link Juice

Building NEW backlinks is important to increasing your PageRank. But what about the backlinks you already have?

If they’re pointing to a live page with proper internal linking, they’re working for you. But there are several scenarios in which you could be wasting link juice, which, in turn, is a wasted opportunity to improve your PageRank.

Here’s what I mean by that:

Do you have any backlinks pointing to a page that no longer exists? If so, that link juice is completely wasted.

Alternatively, what if you have a backlink pointing to a page on your site that has ZERO internal links on it (meaning the page on your site links to no other pages on your site)?

You’re not wasting ALL of the link juice, but you’re definitely not taking advantage of it.

Let’s solve the first problem first: If you have backlinks pointing to pages that now 404, you need to set up a 301 redirect to point that page that no longer exists to a page that DOES exist.

And the new destination page needs to be related to the original page that has now disappeared.

(There are lots of ways to set up 301 redirects, but the easiest is with an SEO plugin like Yoast or Rank Math.)

By redirecting the broken page, you’re also redirecting some of that link juice. And that is going to help your PageRank.

Now, let’s solve the second problem: no internal links on your page that has a backlink pointing to it.

This one’s simple: Add some internal links.

Do it strategically, though. Point a couple of internal links to your money pages (that is, the ones that make you money by selling your service or product).

And pay attention to the anchor text. This is your chance to completely control it, so choose something keyword-rich and relevant.

Remember the Context, Not Just the Authority

It’s easy to get blinded by the sheer authority score of a particular website when you’re building backlinks. You see a DR 80 site and start salivating — we’ve all been there.

But don’t be blinded by that third-party metric. Yes, it’s meant to approximate PageRank, but it’s not perfect.

And, more importantly, the context of the link matters just as much as — or potentially more than — the authority of the page linking to you.

Let’s illustrate this with a real-world scenario:

If you were building backlinks for a personal injury law firm’s website and you could choose between these two backlinks, which would you choose?

  1. A link from a local bar association website with a DR of 25
  2. A link from a national website about tennis with a DR of 90

Obviously, you want the relevant link — the first one. Despite the much lower authority it has. Because Google is going to be suspicious if you get a link from a tennis website.

It may not count the link at all, or it may even start examining all of your backlinks more closely and consider issuing a manual penalty.

In even the best-case scenario where Google doesn’t think anything strange is going on with the link from the tennis website, you still have this problem: Google now thinks your website has something to do with tennis, and it doesn’t.

So, remember the context when you’re building backlinks. It’ll take you far in SEO.

Optimize Internal Links

I’m a big fan of backlinks, but I’m an even bigger fan of making backlinks and internal links work together. That’s the type of holistic SEO that really works.

The best part about internal links, though, is the fact that they have a huge effect on your PageRank. PageRank passes through your site via internal links. It may reach your site via backlinks, but it flows through your site via internal links.

Let’s look at ways to take advantage of that.

Avoid Orphan Pages

Orphan pages are pages on your site that aren’t linked to by any other page on your website. In theory, a sitemap will help you avoid this issue, but it isn’t perfect (and it’s really not ideal, either).

You can use pretty much any mainstream SEO tool to audit your website for orphan pages. And when you find them, you can do one of two things to them:

  1. Delete and redirect them
  2. Link to them from some other page on your site

You’d do the first option if the page was completely unimportant to you or your business. That way, that page isn’t soaking up any of that previous PageRank and wasting it.

You’d do the second option if the page WAS important to you. And you’d link to it from a related page using relevant anchor text. BAM — the page is no longer an orphan and can take advantage of the PageRank you’re generating.

Keep Your Important Content Close to Home(page)

Your homepage is naturally going to generate the majority of your PageRank-boosting backlinks. So, take advantage of that by linking to your most important pages DIRECTLY from your homepage.

In other words, keep just one degree of separation between your Page-Rank-heavy homepage and your most important pages to get as much PageRank to those important pages as possible.

Link Out to Authoritative Sites

Let’s not forget external links. They may be a relatively minor SEO factor in the long run, but for PageRank, they can be kind of a big deal.

Stop Nofollowing Your External Links

Some SEOs nofollow all external links — links pointing to another site from your own site — because they think that will keep all the PageRank power on their page and not someone else’s.

Stop doing that. It looks completely unnatural, and Google doesn’t like it.

And, in my experience, the SEO difference between nofollowing external links and not has been minimal at most.

Just link to other sites naturally, but keep this next point in mind …

Pick Your External Links Wisely

Don’t link out to just anyone. Link only to authoritative, relevant sources.

Picking only sites with .gov, .edu or .org domains is a good start. But also examine the sites to make sure they’re legitimate, relevant and high-quality. Only then can you externally link to them.

PageRank Is Alive and Well. But Is It Working in Your Favor?

PageRank is most certainly not dead. You know that now. And now that you know that, are you worried?

If you’re been operating as if PageRank doesn’t matter anymore, you should be worried. PageRank is still an essential part of Google’s search algorithm, so you NEED to care about it if you want to rank.

Hopefully, this guide has helped you with that.

Further reading: Follow Vs NoFollow Links – What’s the Deal?

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