There is a lot of misinformation out there about search engine rankings and how they are determined. Most SEO advice is based on a paper published by Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin when they were students at Stanford, and the subsequent patent application made regarding the same. The catch is that the algorithm contained in those documents is over a decade old. Google has updated their search ranking algorithm thousands of times since then.
While the methodology published in the original Google patent application and other documents no doubt remains the basis of Google’s search rankings, there can be no question that the simplified version often given as the basis for SEO activities is very out of date.
What Is PageRank?
Essentially, the basics of this original search ranking methodology involved a site passing "link juice" to each page it links to. The power of that link juice is determined by the original page’s authority, as measured by its PageRank, which is in turn derived based upon how many pages and of what authority link to original page. This outgoing link juice is then divided evenly over all outgoing links. All of this results in a numerical value, or other ranking, which then leads directly to the results listed for any given search, and the order of the search result rankings for that search.
At first, it sounds complicated, but just a moment or two of study brings into clarity the fact that this particular algorithm is pretty simple, especially for a computer.
In fact, the original Google algorithm displayed here would be both very easy to copy, and very easy to abuse. As Microsoft’s repeated efforts at crafting a search engine have shown, it is actually not easy to duplicate Google’s quality of search results. After failing with both MSN Search, and Live Search, Microsoft finally launched a new search engine called Bing. Microsoft’s Bing strategy has been not to duplicate Google’s level of quality in search results, but rather to shake up the user interface so as to increase the likelihood that a user will perform a search which is more easily interpreted.
When it comes to the various methods of abusing the Google search engine, as most often referenced as "black-hat SEO", Google has entire teams of people working to thwart their efforts. Matt Cutts is one of Google’s most public engineers thanks to his long running blog. He is also the head of the so-called Webspam Team, whose job it is to prevent junk webpages from clogging up the company’s search engines. As a full-time engineer who heads up a "team" of people, one can only assume that the efforts that take place in this arena are substantial. Each action they take has the potential to render numerous forms of "white-hat SEO" techniques worthless, or at least worth much less that they once were.
PageRank Reality Check and SEO Myths
One recent example was Matt’s blog post in which he made a few very important points.
First, that Google has drastically changed how it interpreted the only recently launched nofollow tag after another Google team, the Search Quality team, determined that webmasters were setting nofollow tags on links to valuable webpages in order to "channel" the link juice to certain, most likely more valuable, webpages. This practice, known as link sculpting, was actively recommended by virtually all SEO experts and Search Engine Optimization consultants right up the very minute the post debunking it as an effective technique was published.
Second, Matt commented that it was necessary for him to publicly and blatantly announce the change in treatment for the nofollow link tag because the people who research and test such things had NOT NOTICED. Not only that, but with a throw away statement a few sentences earlier, he noted that they had also not noticed other bigger changes made by Google to its search engine ranking system.
Third, before getting into the specifics of this particular announcement, Mr. Cutts re-iterated the basic version of the search algorithm used all over the Internet as outlined above. Then, he said that in 2000 when he joined the company that Google was doing "more sophisticated link computation" than was shown by the original PageRank papers that everyone quotes. In other words, this is NOT the way the Google search algorithm works anymore.
Modern Search Engine Optimization
The reason that SEOs and other Internet Gurus continue to espouse the old version of authority and PageRank is that it appears to still work. That is, if you look at a small enough subset of pages and you compare them to a similarly small subset of pages based upon another small set of factors, then yes, the old model explains things nicely.
However, like the Newtonian Model of physics, there are a great many things that cannot be explained by the long standing theory. I have personally seen webpages with a PageRank of 4 with no incoming links except for the Blogroll links of 3 or 4 websites that have nothing but a PageRank 2 landing page and the rest PageRank 0 pages.
It doesn’t take long messing around with any of the SEO toolbars out there to notice that a PageRank 3 site will outrank a PageRank 5 site even if both have all of the standard "onsite SEO" things setup right and the PageRank 5 webpage has more incoming links.
So, what does this all mean?
If you want to go out and build a bunch of quick throw together websites and then use SEO techniques to try and push them up high in the search results and watch the money start rolling in, your only hope is to go with the tried and true, Link Juice + PageRank + Backlinks model and hope for the best. Just don’t be surprised when it doesn’t seem to work for you as well as it does for "everyone else."
If, on the other hand, you want to earn money by writing online, then start building websites about topics you enjoy writing about. Write plenty of content and THEN see if there is any traction there to make money with ads or by selling things online. If so, then give yourself a high-five and keep writing, especially on those high paying topics and their keywords.
If it turns out that this particular passion does not have any future as a money making enterprise, then keep writing about it for fun. You never know if or when what you are writing becomes a hotter topic or just finds an audience.
But, and this is the important part that so many writers who fail to make money by writing websites forget, you also have to move on and create a new website. Fill that one up with quality content and see how that works out. Yes, things like keyword research can help give you an educated guess at what will and will not pay off, but in the end, there are just too many variables to know for sure. So, keep writing, and watch for your opportunities to arise. When they do, hit ’em and hit ’em hard.