In Google Authorship, the ‘Who’ Overtakes the ‘Where’


2014 is shaping up to be the year of significant adoption and impact of Google Authorship.

Beyond just being a social network, Google+ serves as a platform for authors to verify their contributions to a specific publishing domain. Rel=author markup allows publishers to post an author’s Google+ profile code to confirm who wrote the piece. The two sides match up and voilà! The result is bidirectional verification that an article was authored by a specific person.

Trust Placed in Authors

Now, Google knows with assurance who produced the content, not just where it is published, and that leads to something transformational in the search world.

Since Google’s inception, it has ranked and displayed content based on trust signals of the publishing domain (overarching trust signals for domain trust has been link volume and quality). Historically, an article has been trusted and therefore ranked because of where it had been published.

Today, we find ourselves with a mechanism to authenticate author signatures. Google can choose to trust an article based on who wrote it, not just where it is published.

Once a large enough pool of verified authors and associated content exists, new ways of determining the relative trust and influence of an author emerge. Authors who publish frequently on trusted domains and garner significant engagement on those posts establish author-based trust signals.

Welcome to the unfolding world of Author Rank!

Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, stated that the true cost of remaining anonymous may one day be irrelevance. The introduction of the who, coupled with the where, is the most fundamental addition to the Google equation since the company’s inception.

“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,” said Schmidt. “The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.”

The ‘Where’ Is Still Important—It’s Just Not Everything

The trust of the domain is still absolutely critical. Links will continue to play an important role in determining domain trust—and thereby search results. Matt Cutts, Google’s head of search quality, even recently disclosed that Google has an internal test algorithm that does not use links—and its results are inferior in quality.

The key here is that a new additional fundamental component (the who) is integral in ascertaining the trustworthiness of a document.

What About Links?

In terms of contribution to organic search success, it’s reasonable to expect that links are destined to eventually take second seat to authenticated digital signatures.

Think of links as invisible strings that connect tangible elements like blogs, videos, images, and pages of content. Those strings are destined to carry less weight in the algorithms that generate search results, while the pieces they connect carry more weight, especially if they contain digital authenticated signatures that have a history of trust.

Who Is Using Google Authorship Markup?

At iAcquire, we have invested significantly in technology and analysis to understand Google Authorship to build the foundation for a proprietary publishing platform called ClearVoice. We have examined millions of posts across 70,000 key digital publications to see the adoption of Google Authorship markup in their posts. Though much more data is to come, initial findings show that one or more instances of Google Authorship are being used by…

  • 37.8% of the top 500 sites (based on domain authority)
  • 24.8% of the top 2,500 sites
  • 16.37% across all 70,000 sites

Adoption is most prolific at the higher end of the publisher spectrum. Adoption from the middle and lower tier will most likely follow suit. Among the sites that use Google Authorship, an average of 82.31% use it in every post. So, what does this mean?

To put it in perspective, author-specific Twitter handles, which have been around since 2006, are incorporated in 50.2% of posts on the top 500 sites based on analysis we conducted. Google Authorship launched in 2011 and its use is ramping up at a much faster speed.

Value of Rich Snippets and Markups

Why is Google Authorship catching on so fast?

Beyond Google Authorship’s eventuality to be a critical trust signal for algorithmic search, users recognize an immediate and important value that authorship brings to content. It often yields a rich snippet, which pulls microdata in the form of an author image, a byline, and a content blurb into the SERP.

End users are more likely to click through search results that have rich snippets. Both SEO BodyBuilder and Cyrus Shepard of Moz say they experienced a 38% increase in CTR after they started using rel=author tags with Google.

Authorship Affecting Domain Authority?

Search marketers focus much of their effort on building authority both at a page level and at an overall domain level. Domain authority is effectively the overall level of trust a domain has in the eyes of a search engine; page authority indicates the elements attributed to trust of a particular single URL.

Domain authority is traditionally driven by factors including domain age, link popularity, size, and freshness of content. Domain authority is important because search engines prefer to highly rank content from sites considered trustworthy and authoritative. It traditionally has been closely tied to volume, type, and quality of links from documents on other trusted domains.

Every two years, Moz surveys dozens of leading organic search experts to establish what they collectively consider as the relative importance of ranking factors. By the way, remember that the SEO industry at the end of the day is nothing more than a collective hunch. The Moz survey is the best documentation of this collective hunch. The survey segments authority factors into a few key groups: the overall algorithm, domain level authority, and page level authority.

Authorship is clearly something that affects trust and authority of a specific page. The Moz survey lists this as a relatively low-effect page level factor (13/16 listed factors). The 2013 survey is interesting not in what it shows as factors but in what is conspicuous in its absence. Authorship is not listed anywhere as a contributing factor for overall domain authority.

That perception is likely to change.

Consider this hypothetical: Let’s say we have two sites that are similar in topic, size, age, and backlink profiles. Site A has trusted authors powering most but not all of its content, and site B does not. Wouldn’t it be logical to trust all pages on site A (even the non-authorship verified content pages) relatively more than on site B?

If that were true, associating multiple trusted authorship profiles to a site would be an important mechanism not just to fuel a site with quality content but to act as a key signal of trust and authority that affects all pages of the site.

That is not today’s reality but it should be the direction in which we are headed—category-level trusted authorship as a key signal for domain trust and authority. The old “just build great content” adage starts to take a more meaningful form with the addition of “just build great content powered by trusted authors.”

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