By now (I hope!) most businesses realize that Google Plus is not only here to stay but offers a number of distinct benefits from a marketing standpoint. Many will mention the effect of Google+ on SEO (Google Search). Or they’ll bring up Hangouts and Hangouts On Air as useful, free communication and broadcasting tools. And more and more brands are finding creative uses for Google+ Communities.
But for anyone who regularly produces content for the web, it’s likely that one of their first attractions to Google+ will be to Google Authorship and its fabled, much-speculated-about cousin Author Rank.
As one of the best-known speakers and writers about Authorship and Author Rank, I’ve been encouraged by the increasing attention the topic has been getting recently. I think it’s a powerful tool for personal branding and authority-building. At the same time, I find myself more and more concerned over the amount of misunderstanding and even misinformation floating around the web about these concepts. In this post I’ll try to bring some clarity to what we do and don’t know so far, particularly with regard to Author Rank. My take on this is based on my own intensive investigations, consultations with other experts on the topic, and conversations with Google staff, both on and off the record.
What are Authorship and Author Rank? Put very simply, Authorship allows you to connect your Google+ personal profile to your original content anywhere on the web, while Author Rank is the idea that Google might use data gathered via Authorship to develop trust and authority scores for individual authors that could affect search result rankings for their content.
When Google Authorship was introduced in June 2011, and again a few months later in a follow-up video about it, Google engineer Othar Hansson mentioned that at some future time Google might want to use Authorship data as a factor in ranking search results. Combined with the work SEO expert Bill Slawski had done on explaining a series of Google patents collectively known as “Agent Rank,” and the idea of “Author Rank” was born.
Google Authorship Is Alive and Well
There isn’t much controversy over Google Authorship itself. You can see it every day in your search results. A proper Authorship connection can result in the author’s Google+ profile photo being shown next to search results for his or her content, along with several other custom items embedded in the result.
Google Authorship already has a number of well-documented benefits:
- Frequently seeing your photo associated with topics they search reinforces your personal brand with customers, potential customers, and others who should matter to you in your field. I like to tell the story of how I was pushing through the crowds in the lobby of a major online marketing conference in Las Vegas when a stranger stopped me, looked at me quizzically for a moment, and then exclaimed, “I know you! You’re in my search results!”
- A number of studies have shown that a face photo next to a search result can significantly increase the click-through rate (CTR) over what the result would normally get in that position on the search page. That can have a significant impact on traffic, as CTR drops dramatically with each lower position in search results.
- Anyone can add you to their Google+ circles (or just learn more about you) by clicking your byline in the search result, which takes them straight to your Google+ profile.
- The “More by…” link in an Authorship result opens a custom Google Search page with just that author’s content.
- If someone clicks one of your authorship results and stays on the content for at least a couple of minutes, when they return to the search page they will see an expanded result showing three more links to your content. Google figures if you didn’t immediately bounce back to the results page, you must have found something useful in that author’s content, and you might be interested in reading more from them.
What About Author Rank?
Once we move past the confirmed and demonstrable benefits of Authorship noted above, we arrive rapidly in the land of speculation. Worse, speculation without proof (or with very thin evidence offered as proof) gets picked up and repeated in blog posts and on social media. And all it takes to make something an assumed truth is to repeat it enough times.
In the remainder of this post I’m going to try to cut through that confusion and misinformation to what can actually be established about Google Authorship in relation to search rankings (Author Rank). Finally, I’ll make some suggestions about how Authorship can indeed help you to increase visibility and “findability” on the web, which is everyone’s goal with or without any actual “Author Rank.”
Google Statements About Author Rank
As I noted above, the idea of Author Rank is rooted in a series of Google Patents known under the collective rubric of “Agent Rank.” In these patents, Google described a system whereby they would use various signals, primarily social and other engagement signals (such as blog comments) to score various “agents” which could then themselves act as ranking signals for search. These agents would be entities who all had various roles in producing or contributing to a piece of web content.
With the announcement of Google Authorship, and the attendant hints in those announcements about possible search ranking implications “at some point,” the idea of Author Rank was born. Since Google+ profiles now provided a way for authors to easily identify themselves to Google and connect Google with their content across the web, it looked like all the pieces were in place for Google to move toward using data about those authors and their content as a ranking factor.
The Author Rank flames were stoked even more when then-CEO of Google Eric Schmidt remarked in an August 2011 television interview that Google+ could be used as a way of identifying and sorting out good content creators from those who “do evil and wrong things on the Internet” and rank them; what he called an “identity rank.”
Schmidt revived those fires recently when a brief excerpt was leaked from his forthcoming book The New Digital Age. Schmidt wrote:
Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.
As I pointed out in a post I wrote when that quotation started fueling speculation that Schmidt had “confirmed Author Rank,” the quotation is extremely brief, lacks surrounding context, and is from a book in which he is providing his personal speculations about the future of the digital world, not the present. Another false flag raised by the “Author Rank is now!” advocates.
On top of that, other relevant Google staffers have maintained in public that Google Authorship is not yet a direct factor in Google search rankings. I have heard the same in person from Google’s Matt Cutts at conference Q&A sessions, and have had this confirmed in confidence by highly placed sources who must remain anonymous.
Author Rank: Problems with Implementation
Even apart from Google statements, it seems unlikely that Google would be using Authorship as a major ranking factor yet due to a number of difficulties that have yet to be fully overcome.
Noted Google Authorship expert AJ Kohn pointed out several of them in a recent post. As he makes clear, many people writing about Author Rank vastly oversimplify what’s involved. Since the Agent Rank patents state that individual agents (authors) would need to be scored differently on the various topics about which they write, and those scores would be dependent in part upon verification of positive sentiment in the signals pointing to the content, there are several areas of advanced analysis that would need to be in place. Among these are:
- A highly-detailed understanding of how social computing works.
- High confidence in social annotations.
- A fuller grasp of the nature of relationships between social agents.
AJ notes that all of these are subjects of intense study by Google, but all their published statements to date indicate that they still have far to go in feeling confident enough about any of those to allow them to have a major effect on their precious search result rankings.
Moreover, there are a number of implementation problems evident to any of us who have been carefully observing Google Authorship:
- Google+ and/or Google Authorship have still not been adopted by a large number of content producers. (See my Windmill Networking study on this.)
- Authorship is sometimes misattributed in the search results, demonstrating that the identity connection tool is far from perfect (though it does get it right most of the time).
- Several legitimate use cases, such as multiple authors of a single piece, or those using pseudonyms for political protection, are not currently covered by Authorship.
Taking all of this evidence together, combined with the lack (to my knowledge) of anyone being able to present a test proving the present existence of Author Rank (that can’t be explained more easily by already-existing ranking factors), I believe I can say with confidence that, at the time of this writing, there is no such thing as Author Rank in Google search.
So Is Authorship Worthless Without Author Rank?
Far from it!
First, remember all the present, confirmed benefits of Authorship I listed above. Those alone should be worth the price of admission.
More to the point though, I think the obsession with Author Rank is one aspect of what I call “SEO Sickness.” SEO Sickness is a condition wherein a marketer or content producer becomes so fixated on one or another small aspect of SEO that he or she becomes myopic, and loses sight of the forest for the trees.
Google Authorship should be just one “tree,” one tool in the toolbox or a well-rounded, healthy marketing and/or branding strategy. Such a strategy involves a mindset Wil Reynolds of SEER Interactive has dubbed #RCS – Real Company Stuff. It means thinking in terms of the kinds of marketing, branding, and authority- and trust-building that real world companies have to do all the time.
Google+ combined with Google Authorship can be powerful assets in building #RCS presence online. Want to know how? Here’s my three-part Windmill Networking “free if you can read” course in building the kind of powerful, targeted, and useful network that concepts like Author Rank only hint at: