The last few days have been interesting ones for those of us who have nothing better to do than follow online gossip and trends. Especially so when you consider that the big gossip in the world of search has been how some rather well known sites have seen their PageRank shot down in flames by an invisible assassin. Well, perhaps not so invisible as the sniper has come out from cover and revealed itself to be Google. No surprise there of course, who else could have been responsible for the Great PageRank Massacre?

The interesting question to ask is who were the victims and why were they targeted, oh and is anyone else on the Google hit list?

The victims have been plentiful, I guess we will never know the full extent of the drive by PageRank shooting as some sites will have chosen not to draw attention to the fact. However, wander around the usual blogging suspects and it becomes very clear very quickly that Google has not shied away from hitting some rather well known names squarely between the eyes. The Washington Post, Forbes, Engadget and The New Scientist have all dropped from PR7 to PR5. Search Engine Guide and Search Engine Journal were both hit harder, taking a fall from PR7 to PR4.

As for the why and who else parts of the question, they are answered in part by Matt Cutts from Google who is well known for being pretty much the equivalent in blogging terms as Scoble was for Microsoft. The software engineer has a particular interest in handling link spam issues at Google, so no real surprise that he knows what is going on. In a comment to the Search Engine Journal Cutts has confirmed that the PageRank massacre was intentional and there will most likely be more to come. "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."

Google has already made it clear that it values unique and compelling content over and above directory sites, and a few weeks back a number of paid link directory sites took a tumble in the search rankings as a result of an outing with that PageRank rifle.

But is this all necessarily a bad thing? The directory shooting earlier in the month should have been interpreted as a warning shot. Paid links are bad for search, at least as far as the end user is concerned. They want Google to turn up relevant hits, not sponsored ones and certainly not sponsored ones that are cloaked in a guise of legitimacy. It should come as no great surprise to discover that Google is playing it tough in order to protect its SERPS integrity. There does not seem to be any great hoo-ha in the blogosphere from those sites which do not sell links, it has to be said. Although that could change over the next few days as the story starts to get more attention and people start questioning why Google can sell sponsored links but nobody else can…

Did Google have a right? Absolutely. They can do what they want with their own software. What's important to note is that this change has ONLY affected those little green pixels in the Google toolbar, so far at least. Internal page rank and traffic levels from Google have not been affected. In fact, it would almost be stupid of Google to have affected true rank because searchers expect to find sites such as Forbes and Engadget in the search results. This change was meant to be a warning to text link sellers/buyers ... not something to negatively affect Joe searcher.

Google had a right, but they did make some judgment mistakes when killing the PageRank of many blogs that had not ever sold links.

Personally, I've seen many people hit by this and it is bothersome. A few of them clearly don't sell links but it looks like Google got to these people in a clean sweep. I'm not enthusiastic about how they've addressed these issues.

But you make interesting points when you say the following:

"[Users] want Google to turn up relevant hits, not sponsored ones and certainly not sponsored ones that are cloaked in a guise of legitimacy. It should come as no great surprise to discover that Google is playing it tough in order to protect its SERPS integrity."

You'd hope that anyone who uses these link brokers knows that they're trying to bring relevant results to the top, though. Sponsored results exist alongside the organic listings and typically are pretty relevant. Many people do flock to these results because the ad copy does appeal to their needs.

Truthfully, in a way, I don't see the SERPs' integrity at risk at all -- never quite has been, either.

I think that most of the sites that don't sell links that got hit did so because they buy links on other sites, which ended up getting devalued, more legitamately affecting them during the recalculation than just an arbitrary drop.