When it comes to search engine optimization, many webmasters will jump through any hoops necessary to hold onto their PageRank. But is your PageRank death grip helping or hurting you?

PageRank is a number calculated by Google based on how many links are pointing to your webpage, how many links are pointing to the pages that are linking to yours, and so on. The theory is that the sites that are linked to by the most other sites must be the best sites. And if those links come from sites that have lots of links pointing to them, all the better.

Early in Google’s history, PageRank had a huge impact on how high your site got ranked in search results. It’s what made Google famous. And it’s what drove webmasters to rabidly scramble to get as many links to their sites as possible without really caring where they came from.

Because it used to be so valueable and so much emphasis was placed on tricks for building PageRank, the perceived importance of PageRank remains high even though it’s actual significance is much smaller than it used to be.

In a June 2007 article, Google engineer Amit Singhal revealed that Google’s ranking system involves over 200 factors, of which PageRank is just one.

If you think about it, it makes sense. Google’s goal is to show users the pages most likely to contain the information they’re searching for. If a page contains the keywords they entered, is the number of links pointing to that page the best measure of whether it’s the right page? Google’s system has evolved to consider much more than that.

Does the page simply contain the keyword, or is it about the keyword? Are the pages that link to it about that keyword or not? Does the link text that’s used to link to the page contain that keyword? Does the page link to other pages that talk about that keyword? Any one of those factors may be a better indicator than PageRank of whether that’s the page the user wants to see.

It’s actually very easy to test the theory that PageRank is not the all-important factor that many people think it is. Just install the Google browser toolbar, do a Google search, and check the PageRank of the pages that come up on page 1.

When I tried this experiment, one of the first searches I did was for “Chinese art”. The #4 result only had PageRank 2. It ranked higher than millions of other pages containing the same keywords not because of it’s massive PageRank (PageRank scores range from 0 to 10), but because Google believed that it was what someone searching for “Chinese art” would like to see.

A few more searches showed a PageRank 4 page in the #3 spot and a PageRank 3 page in the #6 spot for “SEO” — a highly competitive keyword (one that a lot of SEO “experts” probably spent a lot of effort trying to rank high for by building their PageRank!) And 3 of the top 10 results for “internet marketing” only had PageRank 4.

If that’s not enough logic and evidence to convince you that PageRank is no longer the all-powerful force of days past, then don’t bother using LinContEx — you won’t like it. To use this site, you have to give up your death grip on your PageRank and trust that doing the kinds of things that your website’s human visitors will value (like importing related content from other sites and linking to them) will also help you in the search engines.

I’m not saying that PageRank is worthless — it’s still one of the 200+ factors Google uses to rank pages. LinContEx isn’t all about trading PageRank for relevant content — your exchange partners will be giving you some PageRank back in exchange for the content they get from you. I’m just saying that some of the things you’re afraid to do if you value PageRank above all else are probably going to help you more than the loss of a little PageRank would hurt you.

Oh, and just to allay one more fear some webmasters have — you can easily make all of your outbound links open in a new browser window. That way, when your visitors close the sites you send them off to, they’ll still have your site open.