A lot of people are clamoring about drops in Google's PR (PageRank) system this week, and I have heard and read many different takes on the subject. Let me share a couple.
Clearly, people who pay to boost their links are trying to beat the PageRank system, which is Google's way of calculating the site's reputation, or its relevance to a query based on the number of links that it has to it. It's well within Google's right, as a company trying to maintain a true reflection of relevancy, to do something to prevent this.
The way Google does this is through its search algorithm, which is constantly being improved or adjusted to prevent people from "gaming the system," a popular term in SEO (search engine optimization) for finding ways to boost PR ranking and other stats.
I'm not saying the people who are complaining are guilty of this. Only they and Google can know if they are abiding by the Webmaster's guidelines Google laid down. And it's clear from blog posts that some of the sites don't know what they're doing wrong because they're trying to guess the reason for the PR dip.
Stephen Arnold, who has been poring over the technical documentation of Google and other search engines for years, told me most of the people who are complaining didn't design their Web sites with a clear understanding of how Google's search algorithm works.
Compound the lack of understanding with the fact that Google is, as a matter of course, upgrading the algorithm to fend off relevancy abuse, and you've got a lot of, well, misunderstanding. This is breeding the contempt we're reading in the blogosphere.
"It's like driving a Hummer to Dairy Queen get a milkshake," Arnold told me today. "You get a milkshake; you feel good about it; the guy selling the milkshake is happy; but the fact that you drove over Aunt Sally's cat is not on your radar."
Translation of the elaborate metaphor: The Hummer is Google, the Dairy Queen is the purveyor of milkshakes, or "treats" that purport to deliver a high Google ranking, and the cat is the company that doesn't see Google coming or isn't smart enough to get out of its way.
Collateral damage. Roadkill on the road to SEO. Meowch!
"It's the way math works," Arnold added. "All they're [site operators] trying to do is cheat Google, and they're trying to outwit math."
Forrester Research's analyst Charlene Li added that PRs falsely influenced by paid links aren't a true reflection of what Google's human judgment of what the algorithm is designed to do. She has no problem with Google trying to control the issue, but her take was a bit different than Arnold's position.
"Algorithms sound like their mechanical, but they're programmed by people so that represents an editorial judgment of what is relevant," Li told me.
Li said PR is not the be-all, end-all of sites where search is concerned, noting that while PageRank is a factor, AdSense affiliates could help themselves by focusing on how to ensure they show up for certain keywords.
"If they're upset about PageRank numbers going up and down, go and show me keywords where you think you deserved a higher ranking before and after this and show me the impact. And show me that the consumer has been harmed rather than your site. Google doesn't care about your site; they care about the user experience."
It's a tough situation. We want to tell these people to take a chill pill, but PageRank does influence financial success, so it's kind of hard to do that. I wouldn't like it if my salary dropped because I didn't make certain page view numbers.
It's a competitive world. Google wields a lot of influence over it. What can you do?