Webmaster Tools drops the pixie dust

In the last few days there have been some additions and one removal from Webmaster Tools. The removal is in some ways the more interesting for what it might signal for the future – Pagerank is no longer being mentioned.

Now it was never much of a feature – they told you if you had a lot, a medium amount, or not very much PageRank, and they told you which of your pages had the most. Not exactly rocket science that last one, given that it’s very unusual for the home page not to be the one with most PR. The assumption was that the bars indicating the amount of PageRank were the same as the PR on the Google Toolbar, thought I’m not certain if that was ever explicitly stated and there was never any use of the numbers that appear on the Toolbar.

Barry Schwarz on Search Engine Land believes that they should drop Toolbar PageRank as well to prevent webmasters obsessing about it. In many ways I agree with him although in my experience it’s clients that are the ones that obsess about it – them and the crazy link builders who send you emails requesting link swaps only from high PageRank pages. However in some ways we’re all correct to obsess about PageRank, but the real stuff rather than the poor out-of-date approximation that the toolbar shows. Because it’s still the lack of PageRank that prevents perfectly good content from ranking by dropping the page it’s on to the supplemental index rather than the main one. The fact is we need a genuine indication of PageRank so we can get an idea of how it’s being distributed across our sites.

I’ve recently taken to showing the SEOMoz mozRank in my Firefox status bar (using the SearchStatus extension) instead of the Alexa rank which I find less useful. It’s interesting to compare it to the Google version because sometimes the Google figure shows zero on pages that you’d expect to have a figure of 2 or 3, and you’re never quite sure if there’s a problem with the internal linking structure or if it’s just Google being obtuse. So far the mozRank figures are suggesting there’s nothing wrong and the link strength is being distributed as expected, but when you have a page that isn’t the one that’s ranking in Google for it’s main target keywords then you have to wonder if the toolbar is telling the truth and they’ve dropped it to supplemental status. What you don’t know of course is why. The thing is, if the internal linking isn’t giving the page enough strength for some reason known only to Google then the only recourse is to try and get someone else to link to it for you, and that is one good reason why some people have an obsession with PageRank.

To be honest, Webmaster Tools aren’t as useful as they used to be. Since the changes they made a few months ago the external link results have been both much lower than previously and very inconsistent, while the internal links have been showing some very odd figures – often the home page is being shown as having far fewer links to it than some other pages despite it being actually linked to from all the pages of a site. Such results make it hard to have any confidence in what we’re being told and harder for genuine webmasters who want to build good sites to do so. There’s no point in telling us, as they perpetually do – that we should just build good content when very often that good content ranks far behind some spammy pile of scraper droppings simply because of a lack of PageRank and we have no tools to measure what’s going on.

And then they wonder why some people are also obsessing about link building!

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