Since its foundation in 1998, Google has become one of the world’s most popular search engines. The quality of results from that search engine is the responsibility of a team led by Matthew Cutts. On April 2nd, 2014, Cutts provided the answer to an important question about Google: “…how do you separate simple popularity from true authority?”
PageRank, named after Google founder Larry Page, is one of the algorithms Google uses to list the results of a given search. Cutts denied that PageRank is as simple as measuring the popularity of websites, and gave the example of porn sites against government sites to demonstrate this. Porn websites are usually far more popular than government websites. However, government websites are linked to by other websites far more often than porn sites are. PageRank only takes one of those aspects into consideration: how often a given page is linked to by other websites. How popular a webpage is, Cutts says, has nothing to do with PageRank.
After establishing that PageRank is able to distinguish between a popular website and a reputable website, Cutts brings up another interesting question: “How do we try to figure out whether a website is a good match for a given query?” PageRank is able to look at all of the websites and related links that the search engine receives about a given topic. It then looks at how many of those related links discuss the topic being searched. The more links that discuss the topic, the more of an authority the Google search engine deems the website, and subsequently, the higher it appears on the list of results for that search.
The last thing Cutts discussed in his answer to the popularity versus authority question was an upcoming update to the PageRank algorithm that may further refine its ability to distinguish authoritative websites. The most important part of these changes, Cutts said, is that it tries to match websites with more general queries, such as distinguishing websites that would be a good match for any medical query. These changes are geared towards making sure that well-known websites with good information are listed with less well-known sites that have just as much, or even more information on them about general topics.
A search engine like Google will always have room for improvement. If the changes Cutts proposes go through (and, of course, if they work), Google searches will almost definitely be more refined and contain more detailed, relevant information. The balance between giving a chance to newer, unpopular content and keeping popular, authoritative content high in relevance is a difficult one to hit. However, it feels as though these changes will probably bring Google closer to achieving that ideal.
Whether Google is biased towards popularity over authority is an important consideration for anyone who is using the search engine. Fortunately, based on Cutts’s comments, it is clear that Google search engines take authority into account far more than popularity. PageRank, although far from the perfect system, is able to give higher relevance on a list of search results to authoritative websites than popular ones.