You don't own your PageRank, so you can't sell it

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Linking bird

My, my. It’s been an interesting few days for web publishers, hasn’t it?

Interflora’s Search Death

First of all, Google wiped Interflora from the search rankings:

Searching for the terms [Flowers], [florist], [flower delivery], [flowers online] and hundreds of other related search terms yielded the domain in first place – until yesterday afternoon.  Now the website does not even appear for its own brand name:

Eeek! There’s some suggestion that because it was using blogger gifts to garner links, it was penalised for that. However, at least one commenter suggests that it was involved in more direct paid linking:

I have to say at this point that I know quite a few bloggers who posted the interflora links and it wasn’t in return for flowers or products but paid for links from a rather well known SEO company… Totally against Googles t’s and c’s – to be honest the bloggers themselves could jepordise their own pageranks of they don’t remove the links too.

Punishing Local Papers

That sounds pretty prescient, because it turns out that Interflora had been buying links from local newspaper sites – and they got hammered for it:

David Naylor, a consultant who specializes in search-engine optimization or SEO, described in a post of his own how the Interflora content had broken the rules, and how the company’s own PageRank had declined sharply as a result — and he also noted that the PageRank of the local news websites that posted the content hadn’t just declined, but had actually dropped to zero. According to Naylor, such a massive drop for a single infraction is unusual.

What’s telling is one of the comments:

So Google created a currency and is now pissed that people/entities trade it between themselves, am I getting this right?

No, she isn’t. What people seem to be struggling with is what links actually represent to Google.

A link is a vote

The core innovation at the heart of PageRank – Google’s system for assessing a page’s relevance and importance – was that every link to that page can be counted as a vote for that page. The more votes, the better the page. If someone is taking the time or trouble to link to it, it indicates at least some level of significance.

The SEO profession tends to obscure that truth – intentionally or not – by use of the words “backlinks”. Take that jargon out, and put the word “votes” in, and you see how this becomes uncomfortable. You’re not buying or selling “backlinks”, you’re buying and selling votes. Feel comfortable about that?

From Google’s point of view, people buying their way to the top of search rankings is a problem. It means that content which people don’t feel is important enough to link to in the general run of things is placing higher than things which people do feel is good. That’s undermining their core search business – so no wonder they’re penalising it harshly. People want the best results from their search engines – or they’ll go elsewhere. If you think your content is the best, but no-one’s linking to it, you need to figure out if your assessment of content quality is wrong, or if you’re so disengaged from the rest of the web that no-one thinks to link to you. (And this is where a decent SEO consultant can help you.)

You can’t sell what you don’t own

Your PageRank – and you ability to convey benefit to someone else’s site via a link – isn’t yours. You don’t own it, and can’t sell it. It’s just Google’s opinion of your site’s worth. It’s more akin to a credit rating than anything else – and try selling your credit rating and see what happens to you then…

Here’s what you should bear in mind: you can sell the attention of your readers to others. You can sell the chance of traffic from your site to them. You just can’t convey search benefit to them when you do so. That’s why Google has guidance about using nofollow on those links.

If your bothered by that, think about this the next time you do a Google search – do you want the best result back, or just the one that someone has paid the most to get there?

Sarah from has been looking into this as well…


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.