If you’ve spent time (or are simply curious) about online marketing, then the topic of search engine optimization (SEO) usually comes up.  And, no discussion of search engine anythingis complete these days without some mention of Google.  This article provides a brief overview of how Google ranks search results with a look at their PageRank™ algorithm (a key component).  I’m not a search engine expert (that’s the bad news).  The good news is that I know enough to describe Google PageRank in relatively simple terms (such that you can impress your friends and family with your new-found knowledge).

Quick Intro To SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

Put quite simply, SEO is the process of optimizing your website for the search engines (like Google).  By “optimizing”, I mean attempting to make it such that searches for specific phrases rank your website higher in the search results than other websites.  There are lots of good reasons to want to rank higher, but for businesses, the primary reason is to generate good leads for your offering.  Millions of people use Google every day looking for a product, service, or information.  Some of these people might be potential clients looking for your particular offering.
There are two ways for you to show up on the results page when users are doing a search. The first is with paid search (I’ll talk about this in a future article) and the second is what is known as “organic” (or “natural”) search.  The natural search results are listed free and are dependent on Google’s estimation of how relevant and credible your website is.  Natural search results are my favorite kind, because you don’t have to pay money for them, and they often works better than paid advertising.  I liken this to the difference between getting mentioned in a magazine article and purchasing an ad in that same magazine.  

If you can rank high on the free (organic) search resultsfor Google, it’s like getting tens of thousands of dollars worth of free advertising in the most relevant trade magazines for your industry, every time a new issue comes out.  I’m not sure about you, but that’s pretty interesting to me.  It’s a great way to grow your business and find new clients.  So, how do you get all this free, effective advertising in the search engines?  Well, to do that you need to understand the Google algorithm and how it determines who gets listed.

Google’s Search Algorithm

First, let’s establish a simple example which we can use to frame our discussion.  Let’s assume you are the partner in a boutique strategy consulting firm.  Lets further say that your specialization is advising technical founders of high-growth, venture-backed companies on how to be better at selling.  Now, you could probably identify a number of search phrases that your potential clients might use when interested in this particular topic.  Users may search for something like “technical sales consultant to founder”.  Or, they may just start by looking for content (instead of consulting) and search on “successful technical selling”.  In either case, Google has an algorithm that figures out which websites of the hundreds of millions out there should be displayed in rank order on the results page.  These are the organic (i.e. non-paid) results.  You want to rank high on these results.  [Author’s note:  If you do actually search Google on “successful technical selling”, you’ll find that my OnStartups.com blog ranks #1].

Though Google’s algorithm is extremely sophisticated, it boils down to something like this:

Search Ranking = Relevance * PageRank

Relevance is basically the measure of how your website (or more accurately one of your web pages) matches the search phrase the user has entered.  Measuring relevance is a relatively sophisticated process, but it boils down to some fundamentals like the title of the page, words on the page and how frequently they occur, etc.  So, if your home page contains keywords like “technical selling”, it drives up the relevance for this particular search.  The reason my blog article is ranked #1 on Google for “successful technical selling” is in no small part because of the title OF ONE OF MY ARTICLES (“Successful Selling Tips For The Technically Gifted”).  Basically, Google figures out what your page is “about” by looking at it’s content (and by looking at other sites with similar content that are linking to yours), and then uses this to figure out how relevant your site is for a particular search phrase.

PageRank is an independent measure of Google’s perception of the quality/authority/credibility of an individual web page.  It does not depend on any particular search phrase.  For the public (you and me), Google conveniently reports this as a number from 0-10 (10 being the best).  So, assuming for a second that your web page and your competitor's web page have the same relevance – whoever has the higher PageRank gets the better ranking and shows up at the top of the results page.  This is why PageRank is so important.  Your relevance is based on your content (if you’re a consulting company specializing in technical selling, your relevance for stainless steel monkey wrench searches is going to be understandably low).  Your PageRank is what counts.

How PageRank Is Calculated

There has been a lot written and a lot debated about Google’s PageRank, but on one point there is near unanimous agreement.  PageRank is primarily determined by how many other web pages are linking into you.  Google considers this kind of inbound a link a vote of confidence.  But, here’s the trick:  Not all inbound links are created equal.  Web pages with more credibility that link to you have more “value” to your PageRank than those with less credibility.  How is this credibility determined?  Why, by their PageRank, of course!  So, let’s take an example.  Let's say you have your Uncle Charlie link to you from his blog to your small business website.  Let’s also say that Uncle Charlie’s blog has a Page Rank of 3 (this is being a little generous because all Uncle Charlie writes about is his dog Sparky and he has limited inbound links).  This link from Uncle Charlie will certainly help you – a little bit.  It will help you more if you can find 100 such Uncle Charlie websites with a PageRank of 3 and get them to link to you.  

However, if you get a single link from HubSpot.com (the sponsor of this blog), it’ll help you more than a 100 Uncle Charlie websites.  Why?  Because HubSpot.com has a PageRank of 6 and a link from it is much more valuable.  I divide up PageRank into these broad categories:

0-3:  New sites or sites with very minimal links
4-5:  Popular sites with a fair amount of inbound links
6:  Very popular sites that have hundreds of links, many of them quality links
7-10:  Usually media brands (NYTimes.com), big companies or A-list bloggers.

Now, it’s important to note that PageRank is believed to be calculated on a logarithmic scale.  What this roughly means is that the difference between PR4 and PR5 is likely 5-10 times than the difference between PR3 and PR4.  So, there are likely  over a 100 times as many web pages with a PageRank of 2 than there are with a PageRank of 4.   This means that if you get to a PageRank of 6 or so, you’re likely well into the top 0.1% of all websites out there.  If most of your peer group is straggling around with a PR2 or PR3, you’re way ahead of the game. 

What’s Your PageRank?

There are two ways to figure out what your approximate PageRank is.  One, you can download the Google Toolbar (the PageRank feature is not turned on by default, so you’d have to enable it after installation).  

The other way is to use our immensely popular (and free) Website Grader tool.  It will not only tell you your Google PageRank, but a bunch of interesting other stuff too.

Quick recap: 

Organic search is like free advertising.  It’s worth the investment to try and get a high ranking by the major search engines.  To rank high you should do two things:  First, make sure your site has the right relevant content for the types of searches your potential clients are conducting.  Second, try to get the highest PageRank possible.  To do this, you need to get as many inbound links from as many high PageRank web pages as possible.
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Originally published Oct 20, 2006 12:13:00 PM, updated February 01 2017


Technical SEO