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Maybe Authorship Is A Defensive Play

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I definitely expected more from Authorship by now. For me it’s kind of a let down. So far, it’s akin to the flying cars we were expecting. We were under the impression Authorship would bring AuthorRank, and it would do all these wonderful things.  But like the flying car, this was never specifically promised (that I know of).

I’m a little tired of telling clients, “put this and this on your pages, force yourself to use Google+, and get your whole content team to adopt it,” without a better reason.

“Because one day this might really matter!” doesn’t really cut it for me anymore.  I’ve become skeptical since this.

Where Is AuthorRank?

While the common expectation of Authorship was that it will become a ranking factor is exciting, Google has shown us that our expectations don’t always come true, despite even obtaining patents.

Case in point: social signals. I was told by someone at Google over 4 years ago that +1 buttons were going to improve rankings. Rarely do they come out and tell you that. He was a rarely loose-lipped project manager probably in violation.  By now there should be some majority proof that these buttons work, if they truly did.

Still, while exciting, it’s also scary. If I wrote the definitive post on a particular SEO strategy, and Danny Sullivan wrote a half-assed or inaccurate similar piece (not likely!), would Authorship favor him?

There’s no doubt Google is into taking Authorship further. They created triggered emails to give particular “authors” more context when needed. They added it to their rich snippet testing tool.  They’ve even tried to make it happen when it wasn’t properly implemented (suggesting the developers are hard at work).  It’s got to mean more than just a photo in the SERPs.  Don’t get me wrong, I know the value of the rich snippets in click-throughs (I worked very closely with a usability lab in a past life), and can’t imagine a face shot would turn anyone away from an informational search.  Even someone really ugly.  I don’t sweat over the studies.

On their Authorship page, Google says, “Make your content feel personal.”  I think that’s just a quick and safe banner.  They’ve told us they may use the data they collect as a ranking factor. What are they waiting for?  It’s safe to assume they’ve been collecting since well before August of 2011, when this rel=author standard was highlighted in a video.  Rel=author is not a Google invention.

Maybe It’s In Play – Just Not As Expected

I was talking to my business partner Keith, and we were having the usual water cooler conversation about Authorship.  Then he says, “maybe it’s more of a defensive play?”


Authorship DefenseI hadn’t heard anyone really suggest that before. We’ve been expecting it as a ranking signal.  But what if rel=author went the way of the +1 as a ranking factor, and is now more of a validator of editorial, non-spammy links?  After all, when’s the last time you saw spam or unnatural backlinks come from an author-verified page?

I could see Google ultimately determining that’s as far as it should go for now, with their current infrastructure.  Since they’re probably wrestling with how game-able Authorship really is, I could see them defaulting on it being a signal of trust which doesn’t push rankings, instead defends the link graph.  Until (or unless) spammers were to figure it out and start adopting it of course. Maybe Google is thinking most spammers are too lazy, and using this now as a pluggable cog.

I don’t have the answer, but it’s an interesting thought.  Would love your thoughts.  Are we looking into Authorship incorrectly?

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    1. Aaron Bradley
      July 5, 2013

      I think you’re definitely on to something here Bill.

      In fact, I’m something of a broken record when it comes to extolling the virtues (for Google) of authorship as a verification mechanism, rather than as a method of “ranking” content per se.

      As I said back in a Google+ post (yeah, I actually use the network:) back in February:

      “I think what people fundamentally misunderstand about Google+ is that is a social network second, and that it’s most important function for Google is as a named entity disambiguation mechanism – what one writer recently and accurately called an ‘identity verification network.’”

      Interestingly, too, where SEOs tend to think of search engines determining whether or not a piece of content is spammy by evaluating various signals (natural or unnatural keyword density, grammatical correctness, nature of inbound and outbound links, etc.), semantic web types tend to think of provenance instead. That is, determining whether or not something is spam by virtue of knowing its origin (and whether or not authorship and point of origin can be determined).

      So this is a one-two punch opportunity for Google: continue to use tried-and-true spam (or, more generally, content quality) evaluation methods, and layer provenance-based measures on top.

      I would point out too that this provenance extends to verified publishers (Google+ pages) as well as authors (Google+ profiles) – although the former has received less attention because verified publishers are not (yet) associated with rich snippets in the Google SERPs.


    2. Durant Imboden
      July 7, 2013

      Even if authorship were merely a “signal of trust” to “defend the link graph,” wouldn’t that have an impact on rankings?

      And what’s to keep Google from using authorship/AuthorRank as a link validator, a link-weighting mechanism, *and* a direct ranking factor?

      For what it’s worth, Google has a reputation for taking the long view (they’re stlll trying to get Panda right after nearly 2-1/2 years, for example), so I’m not at all surprised that authorship and AuthorRank are moving forward one small step at a time.


      • Bill Sebald
        July 7, 2013

        I’m supposing it may have an impact on rankings not by boosting them up per se, but allowing certain links or citations to even count (some links count but not enough to move the rank). More so, protect the links from being inaccurately identified as bad links. Thinking about the wikihow links that got devalued in Panda #1, would Authorship have helped them stay in the graph? If you put your face on something, maybe you’ll be more inclined to produce strong material.

        Again, I’m only proposing a theory and a different lenses to look through. I want to believe they’re using this data somehow now.


    3. Doc Sheldon
      July 10, 2013

      I’ve been saying for some time that G+ was never intended to be a social media platform, but rather, a data harvesting platform. While adoption has been slower than I’m sure they would have liked, I think it’s notable that those that have jumped into the deep end of that pool are the folks that are interested in promoting their sites and activities.

      I said as much again in April:

      “… what if Google+ was intended all along to be nothing more than the hub of their entity database, with any collateral benefits just considered to be a bonus, and there was another purpose for that database beyond simply being able to better target users with ads?”

      And earlier, on SEW in January (xxxx://

      “A search query today for nearly any term is likely to produce a host of results that have no demonstrable reliability. Ranking based heavily upon authority should greatly improve that.”

      We all know that Google does nothing without benefit, either directly or indirectly, as any business should. The key, I think, is to not fall into the trap of believing that the most obvious answer is the most likely.

      Great piece, Bill!


    4. Randy Smith
      July 15, 2013

      To me it’s just another front in the losing fight to maintain their business model. Last year it was backlinks, then social signals, now it’s authorship. I’ve come to believe that one of the biggest causes of content issues online IS Google. Think about it. 60%+ of the searches run worldwide (as I recall, don’t quote me here) go through ONE choke point, the Google search engine. That makes for one giant target for people who want to rig the deck. There is literally a multimillion dollar industry dedicated to the results of Google searches.
      That much profit motive + so many more people online all the time makes for one heck of a think tank. Throw in the increase of multilingual sites, and advancements in web design, and you start to see the problem. The algorithm has to get increasingly more complex just to keep up, and that means people have to become experts in SEO, thusly creating more people with the ability to beat the system.
      If searching the internet were to be decentralized, and people went to many different places to find what they want, then the black hat community would be scattered and less able to work together, but that would cause another problem, a drop in revenue for Google.I’m not sure how this is going to play out…