Friday, June 24, 2005

Is it time to get rid of the Page Rank system?

by Rick Hendershot, The Linknet Network

The most widespread and most conventional view of what a "link" is holds that it is a kind of endorsement. This view says if I link to your site I am "recommending" it in some important sense. Google entrenched this idea with the Page Rank system. But the development of link farms, automated link exchanges, and anonymous link "directories" has resulted in a degrading of the practice of linking. What we need is to rethink the concept of the "link". The best way to restore the value of links is to think of them as advertising.

Most web-savvy people quickly learn the importance of inter-linking their sites with others having similar interests and subject matter. Your "inbound" links are one of the most important ways of getting yourself known in your field, at the same time as generating traffic to your website.

When Google burst onto the scene in the late 90s they entrenched the importance of links in the Page Rank system. A page's PR became one of the most important measures of a its value, and is still one of the things that many web promotion people (including me) chase after.

In creating the Page Rank system Google entrenched the idea that a link is a kind of "endorsement". This idea has been kicking around since the beginning of the web. The concept is pretty simple: if I put a link to your site on one of my pages, I am recommending your site -- I am giving you an endorsement. This is why we have "Resource Directory" pages on websites. More or less like the "Recommended Reading" list at the end of a magazine article, a website's "Resource Directory" is, in theory at least, a list of other websites that the webmaster recommends.

But the founders of Google went a step further and formalized the concept of the link as an endorsement. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the idea that a link is an endorsement was based on the citation system used in academic circles. An academic's value as a researcher and writer is (at least informally) based on the number of times he or she is "cited" by other writers and researchers in their own published works.

Linking has been degraded

Most web marketers quickly learn that Google places a high value on inbound links. The knee-jerk reaction of many webmasters is to create a "link directory" and start looking for "link partners". Automation quickly follows, along with submission to hundreds of "directories" that are nothing more than link farms.

Google sends mixed messages about these practices. On the one hand they make a lot of noise about how they will "penalize" webmasters engaging in questionable linking practices.

But in reality, since it is often very difficult to tell the difference between a "valuable resource" and a site filled with spam, we find that directories with no inherent value are given a high Page Rank. Many of these directories are attached to websites having very little legitimate content. These sites feed off the Page Rank of their directories and gain impressive PR of their own.

So Google ends up supporting the spamming practices they claim to be condemning.

Page Rank is like "central planning"

Google's Page Rank system has the same problem that all "planned economies" suffer from. They impose a scheme of evaluation based on some preconceived notion of what is good and bad. Since this system does not reflect what people actually value, it is open to serious abuse, and is unlikely to ever line up with what is happening on the ground.

The alternative to making pre-judgements about the "rank" of web pages is to let people decide for themselves through a process of discovery, trade, and exchange of goods and services which web sites are good and which ones are not worth visiting.

In other words, forget about assigning arbitrary "Page Rank" to web pages and let people decide for themselves whether a web resource is valuable.

Selling Links for their Advertising Value

It is ironic that the king of web advertising -- Google -- does not (seem to) approve of the sale of links. Do they have something against advertising? Obviously not, since, as I've said, they are heavily dependent on Adwords to bring them most of their money.

No, they oppose the selling of links because this practice takes advantage of the artifical evaluation system they use. Having created a "market for Page Rank", Google hypocritically looks down on people who would buy and sell it as a commodity. In other words, we have the classic clash between a "free market" and a "planned economy". The system of evaluation imposed from on high is not consistent with the freedom of real people to try to manipulate it for their advantage.

The solution is the throw out the high and mighty preconceived notion that links are endorsements and are therefore "valuable" in themselves. The most tangible way to make such a statement would be to get rid of Page Rank as a standard of evaluation.*

This would have the immediate effect of eliminating the sale of Page Rank. No more ads saying "Get your link on a PR7 home page." This kind of pitch would immediately become pointless and obsolete.

It would also put an immediate end to most anonymous link exchanges. The practice of piling up thousands of inbound links from sites that nobody ever visits would lose much of its raison d'etre.

Instead, webmasters would focus on the more "traditional" methods of getting links to their sites. The most important would be advertising on other sites likely to generate the kind of traffic you want.

Links as advertising.

This does not mean that all links would be seen as advertising. Endorsements would continue to be valuable. And getting "free" links would continue to be an important source of potential traffic.

The search engines would also continue to value the quantity and quality of the links pointing at your site as an important indicator of its visit-worthiness. But the practice of acquiring links would cease to be focused on building the phony indicator of value called Page Rank. Instead it would be focused on building a network of relationships that brings traffic.


*Many experts claim that Google has already seriously downgraded the importance of Page Rank. If so, why do they keep it in play with the Google toolbar? If Page Rank is not important anymore, why do they give the impression that it is important? Is this nothing more than a manipulative marketing ploy?


Rick Hendershot is a writer and internet publisher. You can increase your visibility on the web by advertising on The Linknet Network.

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