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Google has confirmed that the recent update to its "visible PageRank" system is an effort to crackdown on sites trying to rig this closely-watched web popularity contest.

Over the weekend, Google search engine guru Matt Cutts told Search Engine Journal that the company is intent on punishing web publishers that attempt to sell their PageRank currency to other sites.

A site with a high PageRank can often boost the rank of a less-popular site simply by linking to it. As a result, popular sites will often provide such links in exchange for cash. And Google doesn't like that.

Here's the word from Cutts:

The partial update to visible PageRank that went out a few days ago was primarily regarding PageRank selling and the forward links of sites. So paid links that pass PageRank would affect our opinion of a site.

Going forward, I expect that Google will be looking at additional sites that appear to be buying or selling PageRank.

As Cutts says, Google has changed its visible PageRank values - the scores that pop up on the Google Toolbar when users visit a site. This is merely an approximation of a site's "real" PageRank, which is actively used to sort search results.

Cutts' email goes a little further than the official company line. The Google PR machine gave us a slightly-less-direct explanation.

"Google is always working to improve the ways that we generate relevant search results and update our opinions of sites' reputations across the web," said a company spokeswoman.

"Values in the Google Toolbar can fluctuate for a number of normal reasons, including changes in how we crawl or index the web, or changes in the link structure of the web itself. In addition, Google may update the visible PageRank indicator in the Google Toolbar to incorporate not only our view on the back links to a page or site, but also to incorporate our opinion of the forward links for a site." ®

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