Google’s PageRank algorithm, which determines the importance of a site or a page by looking at the number and strength of the inbound links, may be about to undergo some very significant changes in the coming years.
Named after Google co-founder and co-creator Larry Page, it has been a critical, if controversial, part of Google’s success as a search engine. Though many have questioned PageRank’s importance in recent years, it still remains a popular and common tool for measuring the importance of a site or a page and is still one of the factors Google uses to determine ranking.
However, when Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed the technology, they were at Stanford University in California. As a result, Stanford University holds the patent over the PageRank technology and not Google itself.
To deal with this, Google obtained an exclusive license to use the technology and, in 2003, extended that agreement through the end of 2011, at which point Stanford is free to license the tech to other companies, including competitors.
According to Google’s recent 10-K filing (see page 14) there hasn’t been a renewal of this exclusive license yet, opening up the possibility that competitors, most notably Microsoft, might be able to license it as well once the period expires.
However, this seems to be an outside concern. For one, it is only the first version of Google’s PageRank that is covered by this patent and there has, with little doubt, been many overhauls and improvements sense that are not covered. Second, there is widespread agreement that PageRank is less important than it was, even prompting Google to remove it from Google Webmaster tools.
But the bigger problem is that the patent itself is set to completely expire in 2017. Anyone wishing to use PageRank technology in 2012 would have to license it from Stanford, likely at high cost. However, in 5 years time after that, it will be free for use by anyone.
All in all, it doesn’t seem like that Google’s competitors will be beating down Stanford’s door to license an old version of a technology that Google seems to be downplaying increasingly, especially since others have developed their own non-patent-infringing technologies to do much the same thing.
Instead, startups will be the ones most likely interested in the PageRank tech and they will likely wait until 2017, when the patent can be used for free. Even then, they likely won’t be trying to build a new search engine to compete directly with Google, not considering the disaster Cuil’s attempt was, but rather new and novel products better suited to a small startup.
However, it is important to note that that the patent only covers the concept of PageRank and how it works not the actual code that determines it. That code is protected by copyright and, most likely, has over 70 years of protection left on it.
This means that Google’s exact implementation of PageRank is likely very much safe, even after the patent expires completely and with a 20-plus year head start, it seems unlikely anyone will pass Google in their implementation of it anytime soon.
This was a guest post by Lior who is an advisor to iAdvize, a live chat customer support company.