When Does PageRank Matter?


As much as I would like to ignore Google PageRank altogether, it is still relevant when building inbound links.  When looking at external links there are essentially two factors to consider; the first is relevance, the second is PageRank. Those two factors combined are what build your website’s reputation for a given keyword or topic. So while your own website’s PageRank is not an accurate indication of where you will rank for a specific keyword phrase, the PageRank of your inbound links does matter.

Which Links Matter?

Building links from highly relevant high PageRank websites is the ultimate goal for any SEO campaign.  Achieving that goal is how you can build your perceived authority (or reputation) for a target keyword.  If you are getting links from high-value, relevant websites then Google sees that as a good indication that you are a reputable source for that keyword.

For example, let’s say you receive an inbound link from two websites that are both highly relevant to your web page.  But let’s say hypothetically that one has a PR2 and one has a PR4. Bearing in mind that they are both equally relevant for the purpose of this example, the PR4 link is going to be worth far more to ranking for the target keyword used.  The PR4 site is itself a more reputable source and so Google will give more weight to that link than the PR2 site, which has a lower authority.

Getting a whole bunch of these higher value links is the ideal scenario for building your authority online.  However, this is where many people get confused.  It is not enough to simply target high PageRank links – even more so since the launch of Google Panda.  Yes, a PR8 link from anyone would be awesome for your rankings but a PR8 link from a relevant website will be many, many times better.

Building Authority

Think of it like this: when you read a journal article or a textbook, there is a large list of references used in its preparation. Being referenced in this way is an indication that the source is considered to provide reliable and relevant information by the author. Useful and reputable sources will be referenced in multiple journal articles and textbooks.  Furthermore, being referenced by an already well-known or reputable author would provide even more creditability to those references.

The PageRank algorithm works much in the same way. Imagine the textbooks are websites and the references are links.  If you are “referenced” (linked to) by a reputable source then that indicates you too are credible.

Taking it further, if you were actually cited within the body of content, that would be an even stronger indication that you were a reputable source on the topic. It would provide even more credibility on the topic for which you are being cited than simply appearing in the Reference list at the end of the document. In the same way, Google considers a contextual link to be worth more than a standard inbound link and this is how it ties into relevance.

Relevance Is King

Now consider this, if you were looking for more sources on say psychology as an example, would you look in a textbook about ancient history or would you look in another textbook or article about psychology? Which would you consider to be more trustworthy on the topic?

Being referenced in a textbook that is on a similar topic is a better indication of authority than in an unrelated source.  This same relevance value is considered very highly by Google.

For example, let’s say you have a website about accommodation and receive an inbound link from two websites that both have PR4.  But let’s say hypothetically that one is about travel and one is about pharmaceuticals.  In this case, both inbound links are going to add the same value to your website’s PageRank, but the link from the site about travel is going to give you a much higher boost in rankings for your target ‘accommodation’ related keywords.

Let’s take this example a step further and say that the link from the travel website is in a relevant paragraph of text on a topical page and uses your target keyword as the anchor text; the other link on the pharmaceuticals website has your link in the sidebar or footer among other links and uses your company name or URL as the anchor text.  Once again, both websites are going to send the same amount of PageRank to your website, but the link from the pharmaceuticals website is going to have very little, if any, effect on your ranking for your target keyword.

This is the exact reason that websites with a lower PageRank can actually rank higher in the search results for a specific keyword.  The PageRank algorithm includes ALL links to your website, regardless of how relevant they are, but search results for a specific keyword take into account all of the other SEO ranking factors as well.  And so the website that has a higher number of high-value links from relevant websites is going to rank higher, despite what the PageRank might be.

It gets complicated when you also consider that the relevance of your inbound links is also determined by the relevance and value of their inbound links, and then again for all of those websites, and so on.  We won’t get into that but suffice to say Google’s algorithm is fairly large and takes everything we’ve discussed and more into consideration all at once.

Toolbar PageRank

Before we conclude, when building these targeted links it is important to also understand the difference between the PageRank number that you see in your web browser’s toolbar and the actual PageRank value that Google uses in their algorithm.  There are two primary differences of which to be aware:

  • Toolbar PageRank is always displayed as a whole number out of 10; actual PageRank is much more specific with exponential increases in actual value for higher toolbar PageRank values.
  • Actual PageRank is updated in real time as new links to a page are found by the crawl-bot; toolbar PageRank is only updated a few months later and is therefore always slightly out-dated.

So how can we use this knowledge? Firstly, it is a good idea to keep in mind that when you get a link from a website with a certain toolbar PageRank, that page’s actual PageRank could be higher or lower. You should always check back later to make sure that the PageRank of links you have built are maintained or increasing and not decreasing, as that will affect the authority that your website receives.

The other point to remember is that each sequential increase in toolbar PageRank is increasingly difficult to achieve. Getting from PR4 to PR5 is much harder than getting from PR3 to PR4, which is harder than getting from PR2 to PR3, as there are far more actual values used by Google between the two toolbar values.  This essentially means that it requires more and higher quality links to achieve a higher PageRank for a website.  This is important to know when link-building as a link from a PR5 website is not just worth a little bit more than a PR4 link, it is actually worth about 10 times as much. For this reason, higher PageRank links provide significantly more authority and it will require a large number of lower PageRank links to provide the same value. That said, in most cases a link with a slightly lower PageRank from a page that is highly related to your target phrases will still help you rank better for those target keywords than a link with slightly higher PageRank but an unrelated topic. However, as long as the links are relevant to your topic area, then higher PageRank is still always better.

With all of this in mind, Google PageRank must still be taken into consideration when preparing your SEO strategy. You can virtually forget about your own website’s PageRank as a ranking factor but you must take into account the PageRank of inbound links.  When you are link building, always target websites that are related to your topic area first and that have a high PageRank second.  This is how you can increase your Relevance and that is what will ultimately get you to the top of Google.

George Cleanthous

George Cleanthous

SEO Strategist at Web Profits

Formerly of EY and Alcatel, George has extensive experience in many facets of online marketing and has developed an expert analytics skill set. Specialising in Search, George helps drive innovation and the application of our search engine optimisation strategy.