Google Authorship and SEO

To date, Google’s use of authorship in search has had a fairly limited visible effect. Essentially, it has allowed bloggers and webmasters to have a photo and a link to their Google Plus account featured next to their post or page. This has likely helped some authors to increase their click-through rate and has helped some people stand out more in search results.

However, the concept of authorship has a lot more potential, and will become a very important issue in SEO.

To understand Google Authorship we should review Google’s Agent Rank. This is a piece of technology that the corporation patented in 2005.

Agent Rank is the PageRank of authorship

The Agent Rank patent describes a system of evaluating “the identity of individual agents responsible for content” (authors) and how the system uses this evaluation “to influence search results”.

This excerpt sums up the basic message: “Assuming that a given agent has a high reputational score… content authored and signed by that agent will be promoted relative to unsigned content or content from less reputable agents in search results.”

Agent Rank will influence where to rank a given web page, based on the Agent Rank of the identity associated with its content.

Therefore, pages created by highly ranked authors (agents) may rank higher than they would have done before as a result of the introduction of Agent Rank.

Agent Rank will classify authors, and their rank, by topic

The patent goes on to describe that “agent ranks can … be calculated relative to search terms or categories of search terms… classified into topics… [giving a] a different rank with respect to each topic” allowing for specialists on certain topics to emerge.

This means that relevance is going to be even more important to SEO as we move into the authorship age. A site that draws on a pool of content attached to personas with a high Agent Rank for one topic will pass on a lot more value in referencing third party sites that remain within that topic, than for those sites dealing with other topics.

Fostering engagement with (or being linked to by) identities outside of your site’s sphere of influence will not be as valuable a tactic for increasing your search visibility as obtaining references from within your niche or industry.The identity of both those that link in and those that write content on a site will become either an asset or a hindrance to search visibility as authorship is rolled out in a more and more complete form.

Agent Rank draws on ALL content – whether associated with an author or not

Agent Rank is not to be restricted purely to the sphere of ‘authored’ content, linked to a Google account. On the contrary, search results for pages without a Google plus association could potentially find themselves being affected by the introduction of Agent Rank.

Content written and hosted outside of the authorship sphere, rather than existing separately to the content within it, is drawn into the referencing assessment whether authored or not. Whilst the language in the patent seems to infer the primary role of references from other agents in determining agent score, un-authored documents are also part of that process.

“Intuitively, an agent should have a higher reputational score, regardless of the content signed by the agent, if the content signed by the agent is frequently referenced by other agents or content.

Thus, the reputation of a particular agent, and therefore the reputational score assigned to the particular agent, should depend not just on the number of references to the content signed by the particular agent, but on the importance of the referring documents and other agents. This implies a recursive definition: the reputation of a particular agent is a function of the reputation of the content and agents which refer to it.”

The wording of the patent allows for un-authored content to be considered in addition to assessing the links with other Agents.

Agent Rank is resistant to manipulation

To quote from the patent again, we learn that it has been designed with manipulation in mind:

“A high reputational score need not give an agent the ability to manipulate web search rankings. In one implementation, reputational scores are relatively difficult to increase and relatively easy to decrease, creating a disincentive for an agent to place its reputation at risk by endorsing content inappropriately. Since the signatures of reputable agents can be used to promote the ranking of signed content in web search results, agents have a powerful incentive to establish and maintain a good reputational score.”

As developing a negative association can ruin your Agent Rank, it is going to be difficult to manipulate or artificially inflate and pass Agent Rank in the same way that has been done with PageRank.

How might this affect Google Plus?

It makes the role that Google Plus is going to play a little clearer; the incentive for people to join Google’s network will be driven by the need to develop reputation for content. As the repository of identity on the web, Google Plus will become a central pillar in achieving rankings and visibility on Google itself.

In this way, Google have ensured widespread take-up of the service once the authorship project graduates from being a pilot scheme. It is clearer now why Google insist on users using real names when signing up to Google Plus.

How might this affect links?

In the very near future, the person who writes the content and the people that endorse the content are going to become very important in determining the value that content might add to the page or site. Whilst this has always been true, regardless of search engines, in that having a readership of experts is always a sure-fire way of spreading your readership through word of mouth, this process is going to become algorithmically significant for the first time once the Authorship pilot programme becomes a fully-fledged component of search.

White-hat link building campaigns are set to benefit as authorship functionality is embraced by increasing numbers of webmasters over the coming months and years. Those links obtained through building relationships with good sites will start to become more valuable as the authors get registered in the system and begin to pass on author rank score to the site.

Conversely, links from sites with really high PageRank that have no authorship footprint may, in time, become less valuable. The implications to content strategies and link building are becoming clearer; a link from a page that infers zero authorship value but that has a high PageRank score will signify abuse.

How might this affect authors and users?

Whilst at this early stage predictions of this sort are pure speculation, such a close relationship between your Google identity and the content you write raises questions. What about those authors with no interest in Google’s struggling socialplatform? Without feeling the full benefit of Google’s authoring system, how are such content producers to compete within the searchable web ecosystem in the future? We saw that the patent leaves room for un-authored content, but the focus is definitely on Google Plus.

Furthermore, with Google the wardens of online identity, does tracking the web experience from the onset of the creation of content, right through to tracking the users that engage with and respond to thatcontent, threaten wider web privacy? This capability will allow Google to index and target human interaction on the web on a grand scale.

With a 94% share of the search market in the UK, it seems that Google’s response to Facebook’s domination of the social sphere is to index the identity of the content producing web. Google Search Plus Your World has already been observed tailoring search results based on the names of people, irrespective of their email address or whether you know them – getting it wrong much of the time – so anything to help hone their understanding of identity will be seen as a major boon.

This will give Google a means to target advertising that plugs the gap created by Facebook’s ability to micro-target advertising based on personal user info. By tracking the content people produce, and the content people endorse, and the relationships of those people, Google recover some of the lead that Facebook took from them.

Whether this will be accepted and adopted by the web will be determined by the content producers. If the pilot programme of authorship becomes a full implementation of Agent Rank, the promise of potentially increased rankings may be too great for the content producing web to resist.

Further reading:

SEO by the Sea: Google Plus as a Digital Signiture

[schema type=”person” name=”Andrew Seymour” jobtitle=”Head of SEO” url=”https://passion.digital/about-us” email=”andrew@passiondigital.co.uk” ]

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