PageRank was once at the very core of search – and was what made Google the empire it is today. Even if you believe that search has moved on from PageRank, there’s no denying that it has long been a pervasive concept in the industry. Every SEO pro should have a good grasp of what PageRank was – and what it still is today. In this article, we’ll cover:
- What is PageRank?
- The history of how PageRank evolved.
- How PageRank revolutionized search.
- Toolbar PageRank vs. PageRank.
- How PageRank works.
- How PageRank flows between pages.
- Is PageRank still used?
Let’s dive in.
What Is PageRank?
Created by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, PageRank is an algorithm based on the combined relative strengths of all the hyperlinks on the Internet. Most people argue that the name was based on Larry Page’s surname, whilst others suggest “Page” refers to a web page. Both positions are likely true, and the overlap was probably intentional.
When Page and Brin were at Stanford University, they wrote a paper entitled: The PageRank Citation Ranking: Bringing Order to the Web. Published in January 1999, the paper demonstrates a relatively simple algorithm for evaluating the strength of web pages.
The paper went on to become a patent in the U.S. (but not in Europe, where mathematical formulas are not patentable). Stanford University owns the patent and has assigned it to Google. The patent is currently due to expire in 2027.
The History Of How PageRank Evolved
During their time at Stanford in the late 1990s, both Brin and Page were looking at information retrieval methods. At that time, using links to work out how “important” each page was relative to another was a revolutionary way to order pages. It was computationally difficult but by no means impossible. The idea quickly turned into Google, which at that time was a minnow in the world of search.
One of the challenges of PageRank was that the math, whilst simple, needed to be iteratively processed. The calculation runs multiple times, over every page and every link on the Internet. At the turn of the millennium, this math took several days to process. The Google SERPs moved up and down during that time. These changes were often erratic, as new PageRanks were being calculated for every page.
A later iteration of PageRank introduced the idea of a “trusted seed” set to start the algorithm rather than giving every page on the Internet the same initial value. Another iteration of the model introduced the idea of a “reasonable surfer.” This model suggests that the PageRank of a page might not be shared evenly with the pages it links out to – but could weight the relative value of each link based on how likely a user might be to click on it.
Google’s algorithm was initially believed to be “unspam-able” internally since the importance of a page was dictated not just by its content but also by a sort of “voting system” generated by links to the page. Google’s confidence did not last, however. PageRank started to become problematic as the backlink industry grew. So Google withdrew it from public view, but continued to rely on it for its ranking algorithms.
Toolbar PageRank Vs. PageRank
Google was initially so proud of its algorithm that it was happy to publicly share the result of its calculation to anyone who wanted to see it. The most notable representation was a toolbar extension for browsers like Firefox, which showed a score between 0 and 10 for every page on the Internet.
In truth, PageRank has a much wider range of scores, but 0-10 gave SEO pros and consumers an instant way to assess the importance of any page on the Internet.
Google’s PageRank algorithm, then, was revolutionary. Combined with a relatively simple concept of “nGrams” to help establish relevancy, Google found a winning formula. It soon overtook the main incumbents of the day, such as AltaVista and Inktomi (which powered MSN, amongst others). How PageRank Works
The formula for PageRank comes in a number of forms but can be explained in a few sentences. Initially, every page on the internet is given an estimated PageRank score. This could be any number. Historically, PageRank was presented to the public as a score between 0 and 10, but in practice, the estimates do not have to start in this range. The PageRank for that page is then divided by the number of links out of the page, resulting in a smaller fraction. The PageRank is then distributed out to the linked pages – and the same is done for every other page on the Internet. Then for the next iteration of the algorithm, the new estimate for PageRank for each page is the sum of all the fractions of pages that link into each given page. The formula also contains a “damping factor,” which was described as the chance that a person surfing the web might…
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