Google’s PageRank Algorithm: Its History, Current Form and What it Means for Link Building

How Backlinks and PageRank Influence Website Success
Published on 
January 18, 2024
Updated on 
January 18, 2024
Posted in 

At its core, PageRank (named after Google co-founder Larry Page) is simply a Google algorithm that aims to improve search results by using backlinks in order to gauge the “quality” of individual web pages. 

To Google, links pointing from a referring domain to another web page is a vote that lets the search engine know other sites (ideally, relevant high authority sites) have seen fit to send their traffic to it. The more incoming links you have (so long as they are relevant and from reputable sites), the better. 

It is an old algorithm–first created in 1997–that bears some similarities to the way in which scholarly articles are rated and ranked using the “impact factor” metric. This essentially says that the more a journal article is cited, the more important it is. 

By combining links with content to determine where a page should rank in the search results, Google effectively positioned itself as the best arbiter of webpage quality, and backlinks as the internet’s main currency became the status quo. 

As professional link builders, dofollow has been around for some of the most tumultuous times in linkbuilding and knows how important it is to stay on the right side of Google’s updates and decrees. 

While the concept of PageRank might be quite old at this point, it is still very important. That’s straight from the mouth of a Google Employee, FYI. 

In the below article, we’re going to perform a deep dive into the concept of PageRank and, importantly, discuss things you can do in order to improve yours. 

Let’s go. 

PageRank is old, but still highly relevant

screenshot for google search in few decades ago, with pagerank toolbar

While the days of toolbar PageRank (picured above) might be long gone, it remains one of Google’s most important modern algorithms and is a crucial component of EEAT (Expertise, Experience, Authority and Trust). 

This is from Google’s “How Google Fights Disinformation

screenshot about how google assess EAT (now EEAT)

PageRank is also important insofar as crawl budget is concerned. Crawl Budget is essentially the amount of bandwidth that Google has available to crawl pages on the web and it would make sense, in this respect, that page deemed more important (by algos like, PageRank, for instance) are crawled more often. 

PageRank is also what’s known as a canonicalization signal. The higher the PageRank, the more likely a web page is to be chosen as the canonical (i.e., the original version that gets indexed and shown to people). 

In the next couple of sections, we’re going to lay out some of the most important history of Google PageRank, specifically things the search engine has done (and continuously does) to try and make sure the PageRank algorithm remains as trustworthy and uncorrupted as possible. 

Link spam

If there is a way to try and manipulate PageRank via backlinks, you can take it as a guarantee that it is going to be found out and exploited by SEOs almost instantly. 

There are myriad ways that SEOs have tried to game the PageRank algorithm over the years for better rankings (and money). Sometimes it takes Google longer than others to identify and nullify the tactics, but, rest assured, they eventually do. 

These link schemes and spam include things like: 

  • Buying and selling backlinks. 
  • Overdoing link exchanges. 
  • Using software to generate links.
  • Forcing people to provide backlinks as part of TOS and other agreements. 
  • Text advertisements that don’t use nofollow or sponsored tags. 
  • Advertorials/native ads that use dofollow backlinks. 
  • Over-optimized anchor text in web content (e.g., guest posts).
  • Keyword-rich and even hidden links that are embedded on widgets. 
  • People coding links into headers and footers of WordPress themes that are either sold or given away. 
  • Forum and other link comment spam. 

Google has caught on to all of these and, to varying degrees and with varying levels of efficiency, cracked down on all of them. 

Nofollow links

Nofollow is such common parlance in the SEO space at this point that, if you haven’t been around since the early aughts, you might not realize that it was only in 2005 that Google announced the rel=nofollow attribute for links. 

This was done to help combat spam, giving webmasters the ability to “tell” Google, via a piece of HTML code, that a link should not be interpreted as a vote of confidence (thus passing on PageRank) in the way that a standard dofollow link does. 

Nowadays, it’s just taken for granted that any links in comment sections (whether it’s Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, etc.) are automatically nofollowed. 

Since that time, Google has added other common link attributes that are more specific types of nofollow attributes. On September 10, 2019, Google introduced the 1) rel=ugc (user generated content) and 2) rel=sponsored tag, which indicates either paid or affiliate links. 

Google search engine algorithms targeting link spam

As search engine specialists found new ways to manipulate backlink profiles and fool PageRank, Google worked on combatting this. 

For instance, the Google’s original Penguin algorithm was first launched in April of 2012, a lot of websites and site owners found their traffic had been decimated. What Google ended up doing to ameliorate this was introduce the disavow tool several months later in Google Search Console.

screenshot from search console help about disavowing links

When Google unleashed Penguin 4.0 in September 2016, it further revolutionized how search engines fought link spam. 

Instead of simply penalizing websites that were deemed to have too many suspicious or spammy backlinks, Google simply started discounting spam links. 

Google’s search guru, John Mueller, has said on numerous occasions that, other than links you’ve actually paid for, you don’t need to get too hung up on so-called “toxic” backlinks.

At this point (2022), Google is good at telling which links a website has acquired organically that are spammy and just neutralizes their SEO value (good or bad). 

screenshot of twitter conversation where John Mu explains that most sites don't need to disavow links in most cases

The evolution of Google PageRank

The OG version of PageRank has been obsolete since 2006, having been replaced with a much less resource-intensive algo. 

This is according to something that an ex-Google software engineer mentioned in a Hacker News discussion. 

They replaced it in 2006 with an algorithm that gives approximately-similar results but is significantly faster to compute. The replacement algorithm is the number that’s been reported in the toolbar, and what Google claims as PageRank (it even has a similar name, and so Google’s claim isn’t technically incorrect). Both algorithms are O(N log N) but the replacement has a much smaller constant on the log N factor, because it does away with the need to iterate until the algorithm converges. That’s fairly important as the web grew from ~1-10M pages to 150B+.


Not all links are the same

Another major change to PageRank has been the way in which links are evaluated. 

PageRank doesn’t just spread out equally amongst all backlinks on a web page. Certain links receive more PageRank than others. 

There is the concept (unconfirmed by Google, but with a lot of support in the SEO space) of first link priority. The idea is that links that are more likely to be clicked on by users or readers of a webpage will be given more PageRank than links lower down. 

Many SEOs believe that what this means, particularly where internal links are concerned, is that you should place your highest priority internal links high up on the page. 

Certain links are still ignored

We’ve already discussed things like special rel tags (nofollow, UGC, sponsored), as well as things like the disavow tool, the Penguin Algo and other link spam updates that help Google determine which links to pay attention to and which to ignore. 

But Google will also ignore any links that are blocked by robots.txt.

This prohibits Google from crawling the page and discovering the links. This is something that has likely been there from the very start of PageRank’s trajectory. 

Certain links are consolidated

It is important to understand that Google has a canonicalization system in place that helps it figure out which version of a given page should be indexed and to then consolidate any signals from duplicate pages to that original iteration. 

These canonical link elements were first introduced in February of 2009 and let users specify the preferred version of a page. 

When people redirected a page (to a new URL), it was originally believed that an equal amount of PageRank was passed. Google now says that no PageRank is lost: 

screenshot from twitter that mentions 30x redirects not losing PageRank

Checking your PageRank

There is no way to verify or check your PageRank. There is no Google toolbar with a PageRank number (any longer) in it or a Google directory where your site’s page rank is contained. 

Google, as it does with all of its metrics, plays things very close to the chest and, once in a while, will strategically release a bit of insight. 

All users have to go off of are third-party metrics (Ahrefs, MOZ, etc.). 

To that end, Ahrefs URL Rating (UR) is a good proxy. 

screenshot of DR and UR scores inside Ahrefs

It functions in ways that are very similar to Google’s PageRank formula, indicating the strength of an individual’s page’s backlink profile on a scale of 1-100. The higher the number, the better the profile. 

Major caveat

While UR is widely viewed as the best alternative to actually knowing a straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth Google PageRank score, it’s still not an official number. 

UR ignores the value of certain links and doens’t factor in nofollow links, which presents a problem. No one knows exactly what Google does and does not ignore and tools like Ahrefs have no way of knowing which links being used in their calculations have already been disavowed by users. 

Both of these factors would have a bearing on Google’s official PageRank analysis. SEO tools like Ahrefs would also differ in how they treat canonicalization signals such as link elements and redirects. 

How to improve PageRank

Ok, so how do you actually improve PageRank? It’s all well and good to understand the technical/mathematical side of PageRank and what Google is attempting to do, but what kinds of practical things can you do to help improve PageRank (i.e., build more and better links)?

These are the kinds of considerations that we, as link builders, are constantly thinking about an implementing for our clients. It has allowed to us build some pretty incredible backlinks: 

screenshot of logos from websites have built links on in the past

Unlinked mentions

If PageRank is all about the quality, diversity and number of backlinks (taken all together) pointing to a given page on your website, then a great way to add to that link profile is to find places where your website, brand or you yourself have been mentioned but not linked to. 

Typically, over time, as people discover your website and content, they will both link to it (dofollow and nofollow links) as well as mention it (without providing a link). 

Sometimes that lack of a backlink is a matter of strict editorial policy. Other sites, for a variety of reasons, choose to not include a link back to your site when referring to you, your brand or your content. 

Sometimes, however, it is simply because there was an oversight or (as sometimes happens) they didn’t realize that you would prefer a dofollow link. 

It can pay major dividends to spend some time finding out where those unlinked mentions are and then reach out and request a dofollow link. We’ve landed some very nice links over the years (both for ourselves and our clients) by doing this. 

The Ahrefs site explorer is a great tool for this. 

screenshot of ahrefs ui for unlinked mentions

Enter in the URL of the page, Filter by DR and traffic. 

screenshot of ahrefs ui for unlinked mentions with parameters selected

Following that, you export as a CSV and then begins the hard work of combing through the results for unlinked mentions (not all of the results are going to be unlinked mentions). 

Ahrefs has put together a helpful video on this: 

Voila. You’ve got an outreach list that could turn up some really nice backlinks that make significant improvements to your PageRank. 

Stay on top of your broken pages (i.e., redirects)

Another great way to make sure you aren’t neglecting opportunities for better PageRank is to stay on top of your broken pages and subsequent redirects. 

Sites change over time and people are often reluctant to implement proper redirects. If you’ve got broken pages (e.g., they no longer exist, or were moved somewhere else), one of the easiest things you can do is make sure than any links the original page was getting point to the new correct location. 

Finding these redirect opportunities is pretty straightforward. It, again, involves Ahrefs’ site explorer tool. 

Simply paste your domain into the site explorer. 

screenshot of ahrefs webmaster tools CTA section

Sort using the “best by links” report. Add a “404 not found” HTTP response filter. And then sort by referring domains. 

Sometimes it can be hard to determine exactly where each link points (or can take a very long time). 

There is a very handy redirect script that can do a lot of the leg work for you. It matches historical content from (aka, the way back machine) and matches it to content that is currently live on your site. This is where you want to send your redirects. 

Better internal linking

For the most part, you have very little control over backlinks acquired organically (aka natural links). Other sites either give them or they don’t and they can choose whichever anchor text they see fit. 

Internal links, on the other hand, are completely up to you. 

With internal links, you choose which pages pass on link equity to other pages on your site. In fact, this is fast becoming the essence of modern link building. 

Modern link building and internal links

Other sites don’t want to be penalized by Google for bad external linking policy (i.e., they don’t want Google to think they sell backlinks to whoever is buying, which includes linking to whatever target page the buyer wants). 

This means that it is usually very difficult to get backlinks to your commercial content. Most sites don’t want to send traffic to a purely commercial page because they value their users’ experience more than that. 

Good link building means using internal linking to pass along link equity to your target pages. You need to choose those target pages (the places you want to spread that PageRank and link equity to) carefully. 

Done well, you can structure your website in such a way that your internal links are passing on a significant amount of rank-booting link juice.

Wrapping up

The hard part, of course, is building/acquiring backlinks in the first place. That’s where the years of expertise, experience and trial and error come into play. And that is exactly what a link building service like dofollow offers. 

PageRank and links are intimately correlated. The better your link building and link acquisition are, the better your PageRank. 

Get in touch with dofollow today and find out whether our contract-free, transparent, user-centric link building services are the right fit for you and your business. 

Why Trust Us On SEO

Eric Carrell & Sebastian Schaffer have been working in SEO for over a decade, building their own projects - understanding and testing SEO strategy, along with building hundreds of white hat links per month for our projects. They take their learnings and experience and apply them to the strategy that drives our link building strategy for our clients.

Eric & Seb have always believed in quality over quantity, doing things the right way so we future proof our client’s websites against future Google updates and the evolving industry of search.

While Seb handles the company strategy around culture, processes and structure, Eric is constantly working to improve our service offering, customer experience, and following the industry in parallel with Google’s Quality Guidelines so that we are always one step ahead of our competition and aligned with what Google wants to see for your site to rank higher.

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