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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

PageRank Sculpting is Dead? Good Riddance

Danny Sullivan reports on an update in Google philosophy and algorithmic emphasis. As I interpret the story, at one point Matt Cutts didn't rule out the idea that you could slap nofollow tags on some internal links on your pages to conserve "link juice" for your important pages. Hence, the practice of "PageRank sculpting" was born. SEO's had another cool story to tell their clients, and each other.

Danny's interpretation of this is that making this kind of technique available, and then taking it away, is a violation of a broad principle of "backwards compatibility". Shame on Google, he implies, for making the advanced SEO's scramble to undo what they already did now that Google's algo has supposedly undergone this massive shift and a page with ten links passes only 10% link juice to each link on the page, rather than, say, doubling the juice on the remaining links if you nofollow half of them.

I don't think I agree. Here, Danny is standing up for the constituency of advanced SEO's, many of whom are currently attending SMX Advanced. My take is that SEO's taking actions on speculations about the algorithm are themselves building the new "features" that lack "backwards compatibility." This is especially the case when the "features" (tactics) address no known principle of third-party trust or relevancy of sites or pages.

But for those of us who don't believe all of Matt Cutts' stories and non-stories, and take a holistic view of business strategy, information architecture, audience development, and traffic growth, we had a lot of lower-hanging fruit to work on than using a short-term fad method of "telling" Google which pages are important.

Long term, search fails when site owners try to "tell" search engines which pages are important, short of burying the unimportant ones in their architecture so they're literally invisible. Importance shouldn't be arbitrarily determined by site owners, though certainly users and engines appreciate it if they provide indications.

Search Engine Land itself has undergone a surge of traffic in recent months, all no doubt a product of holistic audience development. I'd love to hear Danny's take on how much of that improvement in fact resulted from deliberate PageRank sculpting. None? A lot of it?

No matter: holistic brand building and audience development and overall quality content, combined with sound organization/architecture of the content, are what gave Search Engine Land its mojo - not short term tactics. And that's how most companies should look at the SEO exercise.

What was supposedly "given" to advanced SEO's in the short term has now been taken away. Nofollow and for that matter XML sitemaps are just supplements in a much more important larger "grand scheme of things." PageRank sculpting turns out to be just another time-waster that contributed mainly to "Advanced SEO" bragadoccio on the barstool. It's gone now? Boo hoo.

If you spend your life hanging on Matt Cutts' words about SEO, well then mark these words: you will, in turn, find yourself annoyed with Matt Cutts.

In conclusion, I propose a new tag that should only be used by Advanced SEO's - square brackets used so as not to screw up the HTML on this page: [this page is really frickin' important] [/as you were]

Rand Fishkin, in a spiffy flow chart, seems to approximately (and diplomatically) agree with my take, highlighting the key low hanging fruit that comes before frivolity like PR Sculpting: content development, information architecture, link acquisition, internal link structures, and conversion rate optimization. But as for Rand's example of a site that is a large one with many deep URL's, as an example of one that might benefit from the sculpting, this might depend on the query we hope to rank for. Overall, I've seen no major problem ranking very deep pages on relevant long tail queries (for example, at HomeStars.com). Those pages rank or don't rank for a variety of reasons, as many as the tail is long. And from what Cutts is saying today, the point is moot anyway, as the provisional tactic/loophole has now been closed. Back to working on the important parts of the business.

Hmm, and I'd love to think my take on this is just common sense and uncontroversial, but the statistics out there seem to indicate (even outside of major sites like Wikipedia) that there was a massive rush to play with the nofollow tag among the "SEO community". Like Rip van Winkle, I slept peacefully through the stampede.

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