Our Senior SEO, Mike Arnesen, is speaking today (on two panels) at SMX West 2013 in San Jose, California. If you’re there, make sure to check out Blow Me Away Blogging at 1:30pm and From Authorship to Authority at 3:30pm. What follows here is the blog post version (of course, it’s nothing compared to the live act) of Mike’s piece from the From Authorship to Authority Panel.
We have a huge problem in search.
It’s a problem that we face everyday as search marketers. Our clients face it as they try to expand their reach online to get in touch with new customers. Even our friends and families face it (they probably have it worse than any of us).
The problem is this: crap content in our search results. Your search results; my search results; the search results that the general public are subjected to on a daily basis and may just believe that we, as search marketers and SEOs, are responsible for.
The problem is people creating content that sucks in order to rank for terms that they probably don’t deserve to rank for; to pad out their thin affiliate websites; to create content just for the sake of content; or, worse yet, they’re cranking out 3rd rate content so they can brand it as “content marketing” and hock it to clients.
So, what’s the end result of this huge problem? Nearly unusable search results! Search results that we have to filter and refine until we finally uncover the answers and information that we’re searching for. Sure, it’s gotten a whole lot better in recent years, but sometimes our search results can seem like a lost cause.
The whole situation is a bummer, because using search shouldn’t leave you feeling like you want to give up; search results should be exciting and inspiring. Maybe that sounds lame, but still remember my first experiences on the web.
When I was growing up, my dad seemed like he must have been morally opposed to technology; I don’t think we had an Internet connection until 2002. I was most definitely the one weird kid in high school who didn’t have an AIM or ICQ. However, I hung out at my friends’ houses a lot and that’s where I first experienced the Internet. When I used search engines for the first time, I was amazed at all the incredible stuff you could find in just a few clicks. I could quite literally find anything I wanted and it completely blew my mind.
I don’t want that experience to be lost. We don’t have to be overwhelmed by garbage in our search results. Search should be a tool that’s exciting to use because it connects you to the answers to your questions, gives you resources and exposes you to stories that inspire you, and connects you to other people.
Coming from the SEO perspective, I know what an immense challenge it is to maintain and improve the quality of search results as we get more and more information (as well as absolute junk) dumped onto the web over the years. However, I think the search engines are doing a commendable (and largely thankless) job of it; they’re committed to help filter out the crap.
And, they have an idea that can make the whole situation a lot easier to manage.
“We know that good content comes from great authors”
There’s a novel idea! That’s the beginning of a quote by Othar Hanson and Othar is the engineering lead at Google’s Authorship Program. His quote goes on to say, “we’re looking at ways (Authorship) markup can help us identify authors and rank search results”.
Hold up! What? RANK search results? That could be a game changer. We’re used to search results that are ranked largely on website metrics like PageRank, the authority of a domain, semantic webpage analysis, page speed, etc. This idea shifts the focus to something much more meaningful than ranking websites and web pages. Now, we’re looking at the people behind those things!
This is what Google’s Authorship program is about in a nutshell. I’m extremely excited about the possibilities that Authorship brings to the table (heck, I’ve been real excited about it for a while now) but the ideas behind Authorship aren’t really new.
Think about how you’d go about predicting what’s going to make a good result for a searcher? You’d want to try to determine if something is trusted, if it’s considered valuable, and how it’s related to other trusted things on the web. When we’re looking at more-or-less anonymous sites, those things are possible to fake, right? I mean, people do it all the time. You can:
- Buy links or get involved in link schemes
- Hop on Fivrr and buy 100 social shares for $500
- Churn our crappy infographics and contrived press releases on a weekly basis
- Build WordPress plugins and themes with embedded links in them
All of these things can spoof the appearance of trust and/or value. Unfortunately, all of these things can (and have) been successfully in gaming algorithms.
But when you apply the ideas of trust, value, and relationships to the human authors behind web content, they become much harder to fake. If you bake credibility, relationships, and trust for specific content authors into your algorithm, you just might be onto something. We’re not quite there yet, but we are getting close.
Look How Far We’ve Come!
Before we venture further into authorship and authority, I’d like to take a quick moment to recap our journey so far. If you turn back the clock just a couple years, good content was really hard to spot from the search engine results page view. Unless you recognized a specific root domain, clicking through on a search result was kind of a gamble. Sure, in most cases a bad result wouldn’t destroy your life, but there was a decent chance it was crap. You could end up having to click in and out of results or refine your search a couple of times until you finally found what you were looking for. This could be especially frustrating in verticals where there’s a lot of spam.
Luckily, we’ve had some great algorithmic improvements in the past few years. Google’s Panda and Penguin helped clean up a lot of the junk. Even though some relatively innocent sites got the short end of the stick with these updates, I look at them as a good thing. Wil Reynolds says he loves Panda and I’m inclined to agree. Sure, we’ve had a few clients who’ve been nuked by Panda, but it’s taught us some things about quality and it’s made the web a better place overall.
But algo updates aren’t enough. Everyone who’s ever used a search engine has one thing in common and it’s that we’re all people, and, as people, we just want to connect with each other. Moving towards search results that highlight people, and their connections and their authority, is going to make search results more like the Shire and less like Mordor. It’s going to make sure search doesn’t lose that element of excitement, wonder, and real value.
Hey, I Know That Guy!
In the summer of 2011, Google started doing something revolutionary: they stared showing us human faces in search results. Do you remember the first time you saw that? It was freakin’ awesome! Sure, we’d seen rich snippets for ratings and reviews before; we’d seen images pulled in for news results; and we’d seen rich recipe results; but this was something groundbreaking!
Now when I search, I can immediately target the results that I know are much more likely to be spam. If someone was willing to tie their face to a piece of content and put their reputation on the line, chances are they put some time into making sure that content was decent.
So right now we’re highlighting authors in search. If highlighting the authors of content in search is good, rewarding their authority is f*$king great (Thanks, Mike). In my mind, the natural progression from something like Google Authorship is to start using the authority of verified authors as a determining factor in where their respective content rankings in search. If we know that Matt Cutts wrote a blog post about how to avoid being picked up as web spam by Google, doesn’t it make sense that that post rank higher than something I asked an intern at SwellPath to put together based on random articles she can find online? She’s not an expert and the articles her post is based off of might not even be accurate. Assuming all website metrics are the same between mattcutts.com and swellpath.com, doesn’t it make sense that Matt’s post get ranked higher? He’s the authority, he has the expertise, he has the trust, and people want to learn from his insight.
Hopefully you agree, because that’s the direction in which things are headed. Once Google starts measuring the authority of authors and using that as a ranking factor, search results (and search marketing) will be shaken up in a big way. My buddy AJ Kohn speculated in his seminal post on AuthorRank that “the rollout of Google AuthorRank will be bigger than all of the Panda and Penguin updates combined”. I don’t think he’s wrong. That’s because the authority of authors (their AuthorRank) is a very strong indicator of quality. Integrating AuthorRank into the algorithm will be a major improvement and things will never be the same afterward.
So What Is AuthorRank, Exactly?
Before we get into specifics of how Google will calculate AuthorRank and how you can build a strong AuthorRank, let’s explore where the idea came from.
Back in 2005, Google filed a patent for something called “Agent Rank”. Agent Rank is a system designed to rank “agents”, which could be people or other entities online, based on how their contributions were received by others. That calculated raking could then be used to rank the content those agents produce in order to serve up the information that was likely to have the highest value. While nothing really happened with Agent Rank for a few years, in 2011, Google was granted a continuation patent on Agent Rank, which referenced using a “portable identity platform”. This identify platform was a requisite piece in identifying agents so that Google could track the cumulative performance of their content.
The lack of an easy-to-use portable identity platform or digital signature system was an obstacle for a while. However, when Google+ launched, something really neat happened. Suddenly, Google had a database of people (the integrity of which it trusted) that could be used as part of a digital signature system; Google+ was the “portable identity platform”. Call me crazy, but I believe that Google+ was never meant to be just a social network; in part, I believe that it was always intended to fulfill the role of “portable identity platform” so that this idea that had been in the back of Google’s mind for the past six years would finally mean something.
In fact, when Google+ launched on June 28th, 20011, Google’s Inside Search blog also announced that “hey, you can use your Google+ profile to set up this really neat thing called Authorship and we think you should do it!” #Intriguing
Everyone’s Coming To The Party
Ever since Google+ launched, the ideas of “Google Authorship” and “AuthorRank” have been getting more and more popular. Just take a look at search interest for these terms of the past few years.
As search marketers, or any kind of online marketers for that matter, Google Authorship is a huge opportunity. We can see that this is going somewhere big and the time to jump on this is now. Otherwise, you risk being left behind. Authorship and AuthorRank are going to be big and, as Google’s Eric Schmidt has been widely quoted as saying, “the true cost of anonymity may be irrelevance”.
Getting Up to Speed on Authorship
If you’re not already set up with Authorship, getting started isn’t very heard. Sure, things can get complicated depending on your CMS situation, but if you understand the theory of authorship configuration, you can use that as your guide.
Google authorship requires the demonstration of a reciprocal relationship between a Google+ profile and a piece of content. Think of your Google+ profile as your ID card: it lists your vital stats like your name, your title, your photo, and the sites you write for. By listing sites in your Contributor To section, you’re telling Google, “I write content on these sites and you should look for it there”. The other half of authorship configuration is pointing BACK to your Google+ profile from your content. I like pointing directly from each blog post to your Google+ profile, but there are a few different set ups that will work. The resources below can help you through virtually any setup.
Building AuthorRank, i.e. Authority
After you’ve set up Google Authorship, you’re theoretically eligible to start building AuthorRank (technically, building the positive signals that will play into determining your AuthorRank).
A very common question I get is “how can I build high AuthorRank quickly?” or “What are some tips to get better AuthorRank?” Well, the trust is, there aren’t any shortcuts to building your AuthorRank up. We know from the Agent Rank patents that Google is going to look at a variety of hard-to-fake/manipulate factors to calculate AuthorRank.
- How often and how quickly is your content shared?
- Who shares your content and are those people experts in that topic?
- How many comments are on your content and who actually commented?
- Were the comments positive and were the comments themselves high quality content?
- How often and by whom is your content endorsed via something like a +1?
- How are you comments received, not just your content?
There’s one surefire way to nail all of those things: become an authority! It’ll be extremely hard to fake being authority in order to game the AuthorRank system. But let’s think about how one might try to game the system. You could establish a huge network of either fake or duplicitous social contacts who would then all constantly share, +1, comment on your content, and tell you how amazingly insightful you are. Would that work? Well, if those social profiles don’t have any topical authority of their own, you’re not going to get much (if any) AuthorRank credit from those recommendations.
At the end of the day, you can’t avoid doing Real Expert Shit. #RES. That’s a variation on Wil Reynolds’ #RCS (No, I’m not obsessed with Wil, I just reference him a lot because he’s incredible at what he does (and will have a bomb AuthorRank)). The idea of #RCS applied to how we go about link building and SEO. It centers on doing Real Company Shit, because real companies provide great experiences and great resources that get shared and that’s how we should approach link building. Act like real companies.
AuthorRank is no different. The way to build AuthorRank is to do #RES. Be a real expert. That said there are strategic and tactical approaches to doing that. I’ll avoid rehashing all my tips here, but you can read about them in-depth on SEOmoz.
If you take away anything from this post, though, I’d want it to be this:
If you want to build AuthorRank, be an authority. Be the expert people want to listen to and learn from.
So What About My Company?
This is definitely the question I get asked most regarding Google Authorship. It’s, “Can my company get authorship and AuthorRank?” The short answer is, “no”. The longer answer is, “of course not. What are you thinking?”
A company with authorship is diametrically opposed to the intent of the Authorship program. Authorship is a program intended to make search better for the people who use search engines thought surfacing other people in search results. Google Authorship is not about promoting corporate content or a corporate brand. You could even go so far as to say it’s about demoting those types of things (okay, maybe that’s a bit much). Anyhow, there is some really neat stuff you can do for your company and I’d definitely recommend reading AuthorRank for Brands here on SwellPath.com.
Authority Makes the Web a Better Place
Authorship is about people because, as people, we trust authorities, experts, and thought leaders. I recognize someone like Eric Enge because I know he’s been playing the search game for a while; he’s written books on the topic that others have recommended and that I’ve read; He has a reputation for creating outstanding content. When I see Eric’s face staring back at me when I’m search for SEO answers on the web, I know I’m onto something good.
Google’s Authorship program is an incredible opportunity for us to make our users’ experiences like that! Let’s become the authors our users want to trust, so that Google can make their experience better through connecting them with us.
I encourage everyone (whether you’ve had Authorship since the initial rollout or whether you’re planning to set it up today), to keep moving on your journey from Authorship to Authority. Remember that if you want to build AuthorRank, all you need to do is be an authority. Do #RES and be the expert people want to listen to and learn from.
We have a real chance to make search results better for everyone. I’ll always remember my first experiences on the web; that amazement and wonder. I don’t think using search should be a tedious activity of sorting through low quality results. It has the potential to be an exciting adventure again. Through being a real word expert (or helping your clients to be experts), you can make people excited to search for answers and information online. We truly have a chance to make the web a better place. Let’s do it.