If there is just one piece of jargon that has destroyed the SEO industry's understanding of PageRank, it's got to be "link juice."
Never have two words uttered is succession created so many misconceptions.
(In shame, I have to admit I've probably used this evil incantation at some point in the past.)
Here's the truth: PageRank is counterintuitive, so counterintuitive that most people who try to "sculpt it," one way or another, will end up shooting themselves in the foot. And I'm not saying that because I believe they're going to get penalized. I'm saying that because they simply don't understand how PageRank works.
Here's what made me want to write this post.
I was just reading through Brandon Buttars' post on categories and tags over at Avalaunch Media. In general, I agree with his advice. But he said something that made me stop and think:
Each page of your site starts with 100% of the page's total link value and that value is divided among the links on the page. To get the most out of the links on your page you want to minimize the link bleeding. Link bleeding refers to link value being sent to worthless pages like your contact page, about page, etc. Every link on the page decreases the total value passed through each link, so less links adds more value to each link.
What Brandon is saying is true on the micro-scale. Unlike later ranking factors, Google has always been very upfront about how the (original) PageRank algorithm works. Each page passes about 85% of its PageRank forward, to the pages it links to. That PageRank is divided equally between the links. So, if it links to two pages, the PageRank is split in half. If it links to a third page, the PageRank is split into thirds, meaning each page gets less PageRank.
The knee-jerk reaction, then, is to assume that if you put more links on the pages of your site, you're going to end up "bleeding link juice" at the expense of other pages on your site.
Is that always true?
No, it turns out, it isn't always true.
Well, it sort of is, and it sort of isn't. It depends. But I can show you how it works, and I can prove it with math.
Link Diagrams: Examing How PageRank Works
To answer the question of whether dividing PageRank across your site actually hurts PageRank, we need to revist how PageRank works. I'm going to do this visually, because it's not an easy thing to think about.
Let's start with the simplest non-trivial link diagram, one page linking to another page:
We assume that the page at the top inherits 1 "unit" of PageRank from inbound links. Technically, every page also inherits a tiny, tiny portion of PageRank, even if it has no inbound links, but this portion is so small that we can ignore it.
When this page links to the page below it, the PageRank that it passes forward is multiplied by the damping factor, d, which we are told is usually 85%. The next page, then, gets dx1=d Pagerank, or 85%.
So far, nothing particularly surprising. Okay, how about if it's passed on to multiple pages?
Alright, nothing new there either. On top of the damping factor, the PageRank is divided among the three pages, so that each inherits d/3 PageRank.
How about something a little more interesting? Something that just might be a game changer, actually:
Uh oh, here comes the algebra.
See, when a page links to a page that links back to the first page, things start to look a bit different. The PageRank "snowballs." Now the main page doesn't just inherit 1 unit of PageRank from its other links. It also inherits back some of the PageRank it sent to the other page. A bit of algebra tells us x, the PageRank of the main page:
x = 1 + d2x
x = 1/(1-d2)
if d = 0.85:
x = 3.6
Yes, you read that right. If the subpage links back to the main page, the main page no longer has 1 unit of PageRank. It has 3.6 units of PageRank. As a result, the subpage now inherits 3.06 units of PageRank. Here we learn our first lesson: never throw away PageRank by linking to a dead end.
Some people are under the impression that you can "capture" PageRank by pointing links to a page that you want to rank, then making sure that page doesn't link to anything. Here we see the danger of the "link juice" analogy. If PageRank worked the way it did in the original algorithm, you could end up throwing away as much as 72% of your PageRank.
Of course, there's a very good chance all of this has changed anyway (don't forget it!), but the goal of this discussion is to address misconceptions about PageRank as we understand it, not to speculate about how it may have changed since.
A Look At Two Extremes: Link Trees and Link Clusters
Now that we have some idea of how these link diagrams work, I want to look at two extremes for internal link architecture: what I'm going to call link trees and link clusters. Neither one of these would be a good design for anything other than a small site, but together they help us understand something important about how PageRank works.
Here is my conception of a link tree:
Starting to look a bit cluttered, isn't it?
Here's the important thing to notice.
The only difference between this diagram and the last one is that there are three subpages instead of one. And, it turns out, that doesn't make a very big difference. Look at all the arrows pointing back at the homepage. Take a look at what that adds up to:
x = 1 + d2x/3 + d2x/3 + d2x/3
and guess what that adds up to?
x = 1 + d2x
Look familiar? It's exactly the same as it was last time.
As you can probably guess, this scales as large as you want it to. It doesn't matter how many subpages you have. If the only page they link back to is the homepage, the homepage always inherits 3.6 times as much PageRank as it would on its own.
From the perspective of the homepage, it doesn't matter at all how many times you divide your PageRank among subpages.
Of course, from the perspective of the subpages, it does matter. The more subpages you add, the more you divide the PageRank for each subpage.
Alright, now let's take a look at link clusters:
For obvious reasons, I haven't included the values being passed through each link. My conception of a link cluster, a completely flat architecture, is one where each page links to every other page.
If you think carefully about how this is set up, you will come up with this system of equations:
x = 1 + dy
y = dx/n + [(n-1)dy]/n
Which gets these answers:
x = (dn-d-n)/[(d-1)(d+n)]
y = -d/[(d-1)(d+n)]
[Edit: I neglected to mention in my first draft that n here represents the number of subpages.]
These results are anything but self explanatory, so let's take a look at some graphs comparing the results with the tree structure:
So, as we might have expected, adding more subpages does in fact reduce the PageRank of the main page with this link structure. But take a look at what happens with the subpages:
That's right. Interlinking all of the pages is actually increasing the PageRank for the subpages.
PageRank Doesn't Follow Intuition
By looking at these two extremes, we can see that PageRank doesn't always follow our intuition when we try to fit it into metaphors like "link juice." While increasing the number of outbound links does divide the PageRank leaving each individual page, the effects on the site as a whole can be counterintuitive:
- Linking to a dead end page doesn't "hoard" PageRank. It only causes you to throw away PageRank.
- Pages don't lose PageRank through outbound links. In fact, if those pages link back to it, they increase it's PageRank.
- Higher pages don't necessarily lose much (or any) PageRank as more lower pages are added, depending on how the links are structured.
- A high amount of interlinking between subpages will indeed cause main pages to approach the same amount of PageRank as they would have if they stood on their own. However, this interlinking actually increases the PageRank of the subpages, rather than diminishing them.
With this in mind, it should go without saying that relevance and ease of navigation should come long before thoughts of "bleeding your link juice."