Google updates its Toolbar PageRank

Matt Cutts (Google’s head search spam fighting honcho) has announced that they’ve updated their Google Toolbar PageRank values and you can expect to see the changes in the next couple of days.

You mayt be wondering what Toolbar PR is and how this change will affect you.  Most SEOs will tell you that it’s totally irrelevant and you don’t need to pay any attention to it.  And they’re pretty much right, but most non-SEOs use it as a major indicator of how well their website is performing, so any change in it is a big thing for them.  Are they right to place such a large emphasis on it?

Lets start at the beginning:  What is Toolbar PR, how can you see it and what does it represent?

You can get access to the PageRank values by installing the Google toolbar.  Once you’ve installed it you’ll see that for each website you visit, the green bar will get longer or shorter (actually it’s a number from 1 to 10 – for those real geeks amongst you, you may be interested to know that Google actually stores it as a floating point number and that there are n numbers after the decimal point. But that’s not important and maybe even just a little bit dull…) . 

If you visit Google then they get a nice fat 10 and if you visit other pages then they get a big fat zero (including this blog!).

So, most sensible people would assume that pages with a high PR are more popular than those with a lower PR.  If that was the end of the story then it’d be great, but it’s not.

Relying on Toolbar PR has the following drawbacks:

1. The value that is displayed is the PR of a website at a fixed point in time, so when an update is published it is already out of date.

2. Toolbar PR is also rather unreliable in that sometimes it’ll give you a different number depending on what Google datacentre you’re looking at (short lesson: When you go to you’re directed to one of many servers, each of which can have slightly different results to the other – the same goes for PR) and sometimes it’s been reported to just show weird numbers.

3. This is the most important part – the value in the toolbar PR has no relevance whatsoever to the keywords you’re targeting.  A site with 0 PR can rank above a site with a PR of 8 for a search if the 0 PR site is deemed to be more relevant to the search topic.

Toolbar PR has its uses, but if you’re evaluating the worth of a website, don’t base it purely on Toolbar PR.  You should be investigating a stack of factors and coming to a conclusion based on the sum total of those factors, not a flaky green bar in your web browser.

When the updates are finally visible in the next day or two, don’t go nuts if your PR goes up or down.  Note it and see how it relates to the other factors you measure – only then can you make a comment on the current SEO-worthiness of your site.