What Price PageRank?

I spent last week in London, speaking at a Direct Marketing Association (DMA) conference and holding an SEO (define) workshop on behalf of “Marketing Week” magazine.

Right now, I’m on a plane heading back to company HQ in North Carolina. I spend a great deal of time on airplanes and hanging around airports. And to be honest, that’s usually where my ClickZ columns get written as I’m always on the move.

There’s nothing quite like being stuck on a plane for eight hours or more, or getting delayed in an airport lounge for hours, to provide a little time for reflection. What I’m currently reflecting on as I sit here (once again) is the misplaced and inappropriate importance some still attach to PageRank (PR).

I have to say my current PR moment was largely prompted by the Q and A sessions at both London gigs. You see, both audiences were made up of “general” online marketers, rather than full-time search marketers, as is frequently the case.

It’s actually a little amusing to hear people talk about PR in the same fashion many used to talk about meta tags back in the old days. “Get yer meta tags right, and you’ll rocket to the top!”

Yep. Back then, that was the (very open) secret ingredient for top ranking pages. Not!

When the amusement wears off, reality kicks in.

I get asked often how to improve PR. It happened many times last week. My stock answer, “PageRank isn’t so important, so just forget about it,” draws some very confused looks from people who somehow are convinced it’s vital for ranking.

What’s more, one question I was asked last week had me slightly dumbfounded for a moment: “If you’re saying I can’t value links that I buy based on PageRank, how do I value how much I’d be prepared to pay for them?”

This is the stark reality: People still actually buy and sell links valued against Google’s PR score. Which is ridiculous. It’s just buying into the myth.

Once I realized the guy was serious, my answer was simple. “A link from a popular and well visited Web site can be invaluable if it sends you qualified traffic that converts. The true value of a link has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with PageRank.”

Jim Boykin of We Build Pages is an SEO veteran and old hand in the U.S. link buying and selling game. I asked him for his perspective on buying links and the relative value (or lack thereof) in PR.

“We’re unlike most people who buy links in that we try to buy from the source, as opposed to buying from an auction or broker (though we do occasionally do that, too),” said Boykin. “When we’re approaching the source, we usually try to feel them out and get ad space as opposed to buying a link. We might be able to put lots of ads in a space.”

Boykin pointed me to an example of where he’d used the ad-space method, but he didn’t want me to publish the URL. The most interesting thing I discovered about his page choice was he’d done his homework. It has 125 .edu domains and two .gov domains among those linking back to it.

I’ve long said Google very much approves of links from .edu and .gov sites due to their “authority.” Boykin’s heard me say it many times before.

As he himself says: “To me, that was the selling point. Personally, I could care less about PageRank.”

“It’s the neighborhood, which means the most to me,” he continued. “I’ll normally try to find the authority sites in an industry and approach them to see what they’re offering. I’ll try to bargain anything, from buying their office pizza to giving them free products from the site I’m seeking advertising for, or will outright pay them.”

Thomas Bindl, of OpTop, is a leading search engine optimizer based in Germany. He’s also well versed in the link buying and selling game. I asked him to give me the European perspective.

Previously, on the PR scale he would buy a PR 6 link for $30-60 per month. At the higher end, he’d spend up to $2,000 for a PR 9.

These days he has a more refined view of link buying. “The price varies due to different quality of sites,” he said. “If you buy an on-topic link from a high quality site that is very clean, I’m sometimes even willing to pay double the above prices. And yes, I agree, PageRank is no longer important these days.”

Earlier this year, I had the honor of speaking with Apostolis Gerouslis, one of the foremost scientists in information retrieval on the Web and founder of Teoma. He was quite happy to go further than anyone on this side of the SEM fence by openly stating he doesn’t believe Google had ever actually implemented PR as a ranking mechanism.

I wrote a white paper more than three years ago that’s been downloaded over 30,000 times to date, and counting. It helps explain some of the underlying principles and concepts of how search engines can use connectivity data to help find authoritative sites in specific Web communities and use that information as part of the ranking formula. The paper spends little to no time covering PR.

What price PageRank? The price is actually based more on your own wasted time and effort if you honestly believe that little green meter on the Google toolbar counts for anything more than novelty value.

Meet Mike at Search Engine Strategies August 8-11 in San Jose, CA.

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