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Case Study: The Curious Case of Toolbar PageRank

August 17, 2016

Or, Why Does My Personal Blog Have the Same PageRank as a Search Marketing Site with a Huge SEO Budget?

Toolbar Pagerank Updates
A couple of weeks ago, Google rolled out a new update to Toolbar PageRank. Victor Pan, our resident SEO “ninja,” dropped me and Larry a note, letting us know the WordStream site is holding steady at 5. Out of curiosity, I checked the PageRank on my own blog. It was also a 5. Amused, I let them know, and Larry shot back, “You should be running our SEO meetings!”

In case you don’t find this as surprising as we do, let me tell you a little more about these two sites:

WordStream.com: We’re a venture-backed search marketing company that has been around for about five years. We primarily sell PPC management software, but we also offer both free and paid keyword research tools as well as a free PPC auditing tool. We have a blog (you’re looking at it!) that covers all types of Internet marketing topics, with new posts almost every day. In any given month, the WordStream site gets several hundred thousand visitors, with the lion’s share of that from SEO. We have a large SEO budget and several full-time employees devoted to content marketing, link building, social media marketing etc. The site as a whole, including the blog, encompasses thousands of pages of original content.

The French Exit: This is my personal blog, hosted on a blogspot domain. There is no real topical focus – I frequently write about poetry but I also use it as a journal to write about whatever’s on my mind, which might be perfume or gender politics or wave-particle duality or pasta recipes. I have no “SEO budget.” I follow SEO best practices when I feel like it and do the bare minimum amount of link building, but it’s not something I think about daily or even weekly, and Blogger’s SEO options are minimal (for example, you can’t edit the URL or add a meta description by default). As of August 2012 it has 475 posts total.

So what gives? By all rights, shouldn’t WordStream be beating the pants off The French Exit?

Caveat: Maybe Toolbar PageRank Doesn’t Mean Anything

Before I go any further, let me just say that I’m aware a lot of SEOs give no credence whatsoever to Toolbar PageRank. It is not the same thing as actual PageRank (which figures into Google’s ranking algorithm, though no one knows how much).

I’ll also say that I’m of the opinion that Toolbar PageRank (TBPR) is not a completely meaningless metric. In my experience it correlates pretty well with site authority most of the time – that is to say, humungo sites like the New York Times, Wikipedia and Twitter have a TBPR of 10; authoritative industry sites like Search Engine Land have a lower but still impressive TBPR of 7; and crappy, “thin content” sites (scrapers, blogs that rarely update) tend to have a TBPR of 0 - 2.

So for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll assume that Toolbar PageRank isn’t hugely valuable in and of itself, but it can usually be taken as a rough indication of your site authority, in Google’s eyes.

Open Site Explorer Comparison

In order to figure out what was going on here, I dug into Open Site Explorer (OSE). Here are the key metrics for WordStream.com:

Domain Authority: 83/100

Page Authority: 85/100

Linking Root Domains: 1,699

Total Links: 14,469

And for The French Exit:

Domain Authority: 95/100

Page Authority: 59/100

Linking Root Domains: 105

Total Links: 13,875

Well now – things are starting to get interesting! Given all the active content marketing and link building we do at WordStream (including, but not limited to, infographic marketing), I’m not surprised that WordStream boasts way more linking domains than my blog – almost 17 times as many. What I was surprised about: The French Exit has almost as many total links as WordStream! How the heck did that happen?!

The Power of One Domain

My blog was stuck at a TBPR of 4 for a long time – years in fact. As far as I can tell, the linking domain that made all the difference was poetryfoundation.org. The Poetry Foundation site is hugely authoritative in Poetry Land – it has a Toolbar PageRank of 8 and a page authority of 88 according to OSE. In other words, my poetry blog getting a link from the PoFo (as I like to call it) is the equivalent of a little outsider SEO blog getting a link from Search Engine Land – except better.

But here’s the real kicker – I didn’t get just one link from the Poetry Foundation. They added my blog to their blogroll, which means that every new post they publish includes a do-follow link to my site. And they publish a lot of posts – I did a site-specific search for my name and got almost 900 results just in the past month:

Toolbar PageRank

Not too shabby, eh?

So What Does It All Mean?

Here are some of my takeaways, plus speculation about what really matters to Google now.

Sitewide Links Still Have Value – or Do They?

Recently Matt Cutts was quoted as saying that Google has “done a good job of ignoring boilerplate, site wide links” – implying that site-wide links are often purchased links or a form of link spam. Some people (including Larry) interpreted this to mean that footer links are dead. But are blogroll links considered boilerplate, site-wide links? In this case, the link isn’t actually site-wide, because it only appears on the blog pages, not every single page on the site. It’s on a secondary navigation.

If Google can detect and ignore site-wide links, it would seem that an obvious workaround is to change the boilerplate links for different sections of your website – for example, rather than having one site-wide footer, you could have a different footer with different links on each secondary navigation level of your site. But how long until Google starts devaluing those too?  

Domain Authority

I would have thought that WordStream’s domain authority score would blow my own out of the water – common SEO wisdom is that it’s best to host your own domain rather than using a Blogspot (or Wordpress, etc.) extension. But OSE counts blogspot.com as the root domain, and gives it an authority of 95/100. It seems likely that the root domain is lending additional authority to my blog.

Engagement Factors

Before we discovered how many inbound links I have, Larry attempted a differential diagnosis of the two sites, and noted that The French Exit has a higher repeat visitor rate, a much lower bounce rate, more comments per post on average, and less SEO traffic relative to other sources. He speculated that Google might lean on engagement metrics as a signal that a site is truly awesome versus faking being awesome. However, Matt Cutts has said that rankings absolutely do not include metrics like bounce rate and average time spent on page.

For now, the links alone are probably enough to explain why both sites have a Toolbar PageRank of 5, but with Google taking so much interest in social signals, this is bound to change eventually.

Giving the Little Guys a Chance

At SXSW earlier this year, Matt Cutts has this to say about “over-optimization” (emphasis mine):

What about the people optimizing really hard and doing a lot of SEO. We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.

It sounds like this is a great time for underdogs. Google may be looking for signals that a site is doing too much SEO. We know some of those signals – keyword stuffing, over-optimized anchor text. What else might qualify? A really large number of linking domains?

Is WordStream Over-SEO’ed?

We spend a lot of time, effort and yes, money on SEO at WordStream – and accordingly the majority of traffic to our site comes from organic search. On the one hand, it’s great that new people are finding our site all the time! On the other hand, we wish more of those people were coming back.

On my own blog, less than half of traffic comes from search. The rest is split between referral and direct. A greater percentage of my readers are returning visitors.

Now, obviously, my own blog and the WordStream site have totally different goals. My blog isn’t monetized at all, and I’m not trying to sell anything. WordStream is a business and it has to make money in order to justify its own existence.

Still, the question remains: Does this massive search marketing website have anything to learn from my little poetry blog? Or, to put it another way: Maybe the question isn’t what is The French Exit doing right, but what is WordStream doing wrong? Given its size, budget, topical concentration and link diversity, why doesn’t it have more authority – not just more traffic – than a little blog?

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Sr. Manager of Content Marketing and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.