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Websites steamed after their Google PageRanks fall

Search-zilla takes a swat at link farms

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The net is abuzz with speculation that Google is cracking down on link farms designed to artificially puff up the placement of websites after bloggers disclosed recent PageRank drops for more than a dozen sites.

They include tuaw.com, which watched its PageRank fall from 6 to 4, and Engadget.com, SFGate.com, Forbes.com and WashingtonPost.com, all of which saw their rankings drop from 7 to 5. Webmasters don't take kindly when the engine that by some estimates handles 60 percent of the world's web searches suddenly deems their sites' content less relevant.

Google has yet to explain what is behind the changes. (The company's PR handlers didn't respond to our email seeking comment for this story.) So bloggers have been trying to fill the vacuum by advancing their own theories. Theory No. 1 is that Google, the world's most profitable seller of paid links, is punishing sites that try to horn in on the action (and Forbes.com, ironically enough, recently published a decent primer on page ranking payola.)

"Google's bean counter, naturally, would prefer that you pay Google for sponsored links instead," was how gossip monger Valleywag saw it.

That doesn't make sense to us for a couple of reasons.

First, Google's formidable legal eagles, recognizing the antitrust pitfalls of such a practice, almost certainly would put the kibosh on it before it ever got going. Second, last we checked, SFGate, Forbes and plenty of other sites that took a hit aren't in the business of selling links. At least not publicly.

That leads us to the second, and more plausible theory: That Google is penalizing the large networks of blogs that use one property to prop up another. Under such arrangements, each site in the network posts links pointing to other blogs in the network, operating under the assumption that more links will translate into higher PageRanks.

This is the theory being advanced by blogger Andy Beard, who reminds us here that Google Guidelines frown on "schemes designed to increase your site's ranking or PageRank".

Assuming that's the case, that's probably a good thing. Google's algorithm was revolutionary because it was one of the first to gauge the usefulness of content based on how many other websites linked to it. The use of reciprocal links benefits purveyors of fluff at the expense of those who are generating authentic and useful content.

Not that we can trust that this is what's truly at work here. One of the great things about being the dominant search engine is that even though you have the power to make or break countless other businesses, you don't have to explain your policies to anyone. So far, Google's lips are sealed. ®

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