Fagan Finder > Searching > Popularity Ranking

In This Page:
Search Result Ranking
    • Popularity Ranking
Is Popularity Ranking Good for the Searcher & Researcher?
    • Is Popularity Ranking Good for the Webmaster?
Measuring Popularity
    • Direct Hit & Click Popularity
        • Others Using Click Popularity
    • Link Popularity
        • Google
        • Teoma
        • Others
    • Yep & Traffic Popularity
Popularity Bias?
Popularity Without Searching

Search Result Ranking
When you do a search on any search tool, and there are more than one result, the search tool must decide what order to place them in, and often there can be thousands or millions of results. All search tools use relevancy as the main (or only) factor in ranking sites. Generally, relevancy is determined to be higher when documents contain more of your search terms, contain them more often (frequency), contain them close together (proximity), and contain them higher in the document. This is called Term Vector Theory and is used to some degree by every search tool. For years, relevancy was exclusively how all search engines ranked results.

Popularity Ranking
Unfortunately, results ranked only by relevancy often take a long time to sort through, and may bury useful pages deep in the results. The idea of popularity ranking is that pages which are more popular are probably going to be more useful/informative/entertaining; more relevant regardless of Term Vector Theory (see above). When a search tool uses popularity, web pages are ranked by some combination of popularity and Term Vector Theory. Popularity is determined differently by different search tools.

Is Popularity Ranking Good for the Searcher & Researcher?
For the most part, popularity ranking means better results, which is why Google, which rarely advertises, has climbed to the top spot in searching. Unless you are intentionally looking for something which is unpopular (though I can't think of any reason for this), popularity ranking will definitely help to improve your search experience. One other reason that you may not want to use popularity ranking is if you are looking for something new. New websites generally have lower popularity than existing ones. Because of the gigantic nature of the web, popularity is a relatively unbiased measurement.

Is Popularity Ranking Good for the Webmaster?
Yes and no. If you have a quality website, which is informative/entertaining/useful, then your website will probably do well in popularity. The problem is for new websites. For most measurements of popularity, existing websites have a big advantage over newer ones, and it can take time to overcome this.

Measuring Popularity
There are three main methods of calculating the popularity of a web page: links, clicks, and traffic. These are explained in more detail below.

Direct Hit & Click Popularity
Opened in 1998, Direct Hit was one of the first search tools to use popularity ranking. It uses click popularity, also known as click-through popularity. When a user searches on Direct Hit and clicks on a result, that is recorded. If you don't like the site and go right back to the results, that is recorded. The more people click on a result, and the longer they stay on that web page (stickiness), the higher Direct Hit considers a page's popularity to be. Inversely, if many people ignore a result, this lowers the popularity of that page. The nature of this type of popularity ranking means that the more times Direct Hit is used, the better its measurements of popularity are. To compensate for new pages having no popularity, individual clicks are worth more for newer sites. This does a so-so job of compensating. Direct Hit was acquired by Ask Jeeves in 2000, and Direct Hit results are used by MSN, HotBot, and other big-name search tools, and clicking on results from these will also be recorded by Direct Hit. See the Direct Hit Technology White Paper, which consists mainly of their explanation of why the Direct Hit approach is better than others.

Others Using Click Popularity
Other search tools than Direct Hit have measured clicks, including Excite (no longer around). Yahoo apparently uses click popularity to determine which sites to list as "most popular," which do not affect result rankings (probably), but do affect the directory rankings. Google sometimes measures clicks, and may use these measurements in the future. You can tell if a search tool measures clicks by looking at the link. If the link is to something like www.searchtool.com/redirect?url=http://www.website.com instead of just http://www.website.com, then you know that the click is being measured. Often this is disguised, so you need to click down on the link (Internet Explorer) or look at the source code (Netscape).

Link Popularity
Link popularity is based on the idea that websites link to pages which they consider good, and so a link from one page to another is like a vote for that page. Link popularity is the most common type of measuring popularity. Websites which have more and better links to them are considered to be more popular. "Better" links simply means links from pages which are themselves more popular, which demonstrates that link popularity is cyclical. The more links on a page, the less "votes" each one of them is worth (this is true at least for Google).

Google was the first search engine to use link popularity, which is one of the main reasons for their success. Google's founders called their measurement of popularity PageRank, and if you are using the Internet Explorer browser then you can download the Google Toolbar, which displays the PageRank (approximately, out of ten). Google also enhances the Open Directory by listing according to PageRank, not alphabetically. See the following links for an in-depth look at PageRank:
  • Google Search Technology their simple explanation
  • The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine the original paper by Google's founders
  • PageRank Explained (PDF) by Chris Ridings
  • Hilltop: A Search Engine based on Expert Documents
  • The PageRank Citation Ranking: Bringing Order to the Web (PDF)
  • Authoritative Sources in a Hyperlinked Environment
  • PageRank Calculator

Teoma, a relatively new search engine which was purchased by Ask Jeeves, also uses link popularity. There is, however, one major difference between Teoma's popularity ranking, and Google's. Google assigns every single page a PageRank (see above). Teoma only calculates popularity after it has found all the results that match your query. It then determines popularity not by how many websites link to a page, but by how many websites within the search result link to a page. The result of this means that the popularity is probably a little better, but not much. If a website about hockey, then a link from a page about baking wouldn't make any difference on Teoma, although it would on Google. Teoma's popularity measurement is therefore variable; it depends on what you search for. On Teoma results pages, web pages ranked by popularity are the normal results, not the "experts' links."

WiseNut, another new search engine, also uses link popularity. It is most likely calculated it in a very similar way to Google. Northern Light added link popularity in 1999. Apparently the following other search tools also use link popularity: Inktomi, AltaVista, AllTheWeb, and MaxBot.

Yep & Traffic Popularity
Traffic popularity measures website traffic, in other words, the more people visit a site, the more popular it is. Webmasters can track the number of visitors to their website with a tracker, like the little coloured image at the bottom of this page. One free tracker is HitBox, which, like Yep, is owned by WebSideStory. Yep (which can be searched here) uses HitBox's statistics to rank results. Unfortunately this means that Yep will only search for pages that have a HitBox tracker

Popularity Bias?
Webmasters obviously want people to come to their website, and some use unethical methods to try to improve their search engine rankings. Search engines, in return, try to prevent people being able to do this. Unethical methods include clicking on your own site (see click popularity) and making pages of links to your site (see link popularity). Most of the time, however, the search engines are the winners. Link popularity assumes that websites' links are recommendations. This may not always be true; links may be advertisements or reciprocal links (I'll link to you if you link to me), which means that link popularity, like all other measurements, is not perfect.

Popularity Without Searching
If you use the Internet Explorer browser, both the Google Toolbar and the Alexa Toolbar have a bar which shows the popularity of the website you are currently viewing. Alexa's uses traffic popularity, which it measures by how many users of the Alexa Toolbar visit a site. Two new tools, Daypop and Blogdex (see Current Popular Websites) have listings of pages which are currently popular, based on link popularity from weblogs. In their methods, a link today is more important than one from yesterday, so their listings are always current (and so do not reflect overall popularity).

This page was last updated on January 12, 2002. Submit changes here.

Inside Fagan Finder
Searching Information
Current Popular Websites
Traffick.com - Searching for a Better Way #1 - Popularity Search Engines
Spider Food - Link & Click Popularity (who uses what)