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Why I Think the Author Rank Hype is Misguided
Written by Barry Adams
Monday, 23 April 2012 13:14

Another month, another hype doing the rounds in the realm of SEO.

This time it's Author Rank and the implementation of rel=author on websites. The hype around Author Rank is that it is a method of validating authorship and assigning a certain level of trust and authority to authors. The idea is that this will then feed in to the search engines' ranking algorithm, with content produced by trusted authors being ranked higher.

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The Limits of Rel=Author

The problem with Author Rank, as I see it, is that it is rather limited in its application. I suppose it's a good signal for bloggers and journalists, a method of separating low quality content from high quality material, but when you think about it that's not a particularly broad application.

In my opinion, outside of the blogosphere and news sites, Author Rank as a concept has precious little value.

Those tooting Author Rank's horn seem to advocate a SEO model focused purely on churning out great deals of high quality content, which is then socially shared and appropriately attributed, resulting in a solid Author Rank for the creator and, thus, good rankings for the website it is published on.

Puttting a Face to It

But for the vast majority of websites, this model is simply not that useful. It would require organisations to nominate one or more public figureheads to serve as their corporate website's 'authors', gathering Author Rank based on content published under their names. That model has many problems.

First and foremost, many organisations are not comfortable with assigning such a public role to one of their employees. And if forced to - as a widespread rollout of Author Rank would demand - the default person in an organisation will likely be its CEO or a similarly senior person.

Realistically, that person will not be writing great content themselves. Instead it will fall on an array of ghostwriters to produce that content and publish it under the CEO's name. Thus the CEO will build up Author Rank artificially, based on other people's content.

With such a high degree of online visibility assigned to a limited number of employees at an organisation, it is likely that the company in question will want to safeguard that visibility. That in turn can lead to all kinds of non-competition clauses in employment contracts. Otherwise if an employee decides to leave the company for a rival organisation, all the associated Author Rank that has been built up (either authentically or via ghostwriters) will then benefit the person's new employer.

Considering the level of job hopping prevalent in many industries, this sort of model where search engine visibility hinges on employee loyalty is just not that feasible.

Reliance on Google +

Also, the implementation of Author Rank in its current form relies entirely on an organisation embracing Google+. If this becomes a requirement for rankings, organisations definitely will embrace G+, but as this will be an involuntary move purely aimed at placating the Google gods it will be entirely artificial as well. Great for Google to boost its G+ adoption numbers, but it won’t be a happy marriage and will do little to establish G+ as an authentic and trustworthy social space.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Lastly, the problem I see with Author Rank is that it is essentially an extension of the Google-approved SEO model: great content. It seems to me that it serves little purpose other than impress Google's oft-repeated and vomit worthy mantra of “produce great content and the rankings will come” upon the SEO masses. And, as usual, we're swallowing it wholesale. It's a cute technical solution for the 'build it and they will come' assumption which until now has been proven entirely false.

If rel=author sees widespread adoption and Google will incorporate Author Rank in its ranking algorithms, I expect to see a very rapid dilution of the actual value of Author Rank due to lack of authenticity, artificial implementation constructs, sanitised corporate Google+ profiles, and other as of yet unforeseen effects.

In turn, Author Rank will become as questionable as the link-based PageRank metric is nowadays, and Google will have to roll out hosts of corrective measures to give it any sort of credibility at all. And that, in my view, is a horrendous waste of everyone's energy.

Barry Adams -

Barry is the Senior Digital Marketer for Search at Pierce Communications in Belfast , where he works for a wide range of clients in the UK and Ireland. Since starting his career in the mid-'90s as an intranet content manager, Barry has worked in a wide variety of positions including corporate webmaster, in-house SEO specialist for a large regional newspaper, and web consultant for SMEs.

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Comments  

 
0 #1 Dan Thies 2012-04-23 13:39
Nice post, Barry. Tweeeeeted!

Building an audience and promoting a business by sharing excellent content with your audience is still a very good "SEO" plan, with or without AuthorRank, of course.
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+1 #2 Terry Van Horne 2012-04-23 13:41
Barry... The Gorg has spoken and plugins and editors are already available as well. It is as good as it gets in the way of attribution and above all else that is a major concern to all parties so I think you thinking it will be like the microformats and RDFa ... nope there is actual ROI for publishers if the Gorg get attribution right and this is the best idea yet...
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0 #3 mike litson 2012-04-23 14:54
haha well it's not unheard of for one employee to do all of the journal work and conference circuits etc in our sector and then jump ship with the increased reputation that his employer has essentially forked out for them to build up.

But, I have to agree the likelihood of it all being under the CEO with ghost writers or possibly a made up person is quite likely a work around and not really viable.
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0 #4 Pete Morris 2012-04-23 18:54
I must say I've been a stumped over the hype about this one too. Most people seem to think that a high level of engagement on social platforms is the way to determine an author's authority, but surely this is just as problematic as the backlinks system has become?

I read an article by someone speculating that Google should blend author rank into the algorithm in such a way that the pages an authoritative author links to get a boost in authority from that link over and above the PageRank that is usually passed.

I thought that was an interesting opinion, but as you say, completely useless in all but a minority of cases and therefore likely to make very little difference in terms of search quality.

Will be interesting to see where Google goes with this none the less.
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+1 #5 Aaron Bradley 2012-04-23 23:26
Good stuff Barry, as always.

I'd just perhaps add a bit of nuance here. That is, I think it's possible to separate the place of Google+ as a social network and the place of a Google+ author profile page as, well, a profile page. Recall that Google+ pages replaced Google profile pages (or subsumed Google profile pages, or whatever).

So I've been telling people for sometime that it's important to have a (relatively complete) Google+ profile page so Google can do it's whole semantic thing with said profile page. That is, as an entity URI identifier, your profile page has value regardless if you ever post to Google+ or otherwise engage on the network.

Of course if not exactly a walled garden it is Google's garden that we're forced to play in and, yes, that sucks - while I appreciate the importance of entity-linked URIs, there's of course no reason why you can't link up your universe of entity-associated URIs regardless of where they reside (a la FOAF).

But I will admit a grudging admiration for Google in having produced a pretty decent, and fairly extensible personal entity page (though Google's - probably deliberate - failure to canonicalize this important URI, and to do that whiplash 302 thing is pretty annoying).

And to that end I also advocate that organizations acquiring Google+ Pages for precisely the same reason: it is a linked entity identifier. Again, not for an actual social media presence, but for the semantic linkages that URI (in conjunction with rel="publisher" - just as for persons the linkages are made with rel="author") provide

But it does provide a sort-of mechanism - regarding some of the discussion of Author Rank above - for calculating authorial "importance" insofar as this is linked data. John Doe may never post on G+, but by dint of his profile it (potentially) allows Google to disambiguate him for other John Does - knowing that he's *that* particular John Doe on Twitter, *that* John Doe that's a columnist for the New York Times, and so on. And when it comes to entity ambiguity organizations aren't immune either, of course - nor are the places ("Springfield" anyone?) where these people and organizations hail from (the association of geocoordinates, incidentally, being another by which Google might connect the semantic dots and canonicalize a person's presence).

So not so much disagreeing with you (I think:) as providing a more strictly structural perspective on what Google might be trying to accomplish here.

Thanks again for the read.
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0 #6 Aaron Bradley 2012-04-23 23:29
Quoting Terry Van Horne:
Barry... The Gorg has spoken and plugins and editors are already available as well. It is as good as it gets in the way of attribution and above all else that is a major concern to all parties so I think you thinking it will be like the microformats and RDFa ... nope there is actual ROI for publishers if the Gorg get attribution right and this is the best idea yet...


Sorry Terry, I kind of glossed over your comment and just re-read it after I posted my own. Um, yes. And you're right, the heft of Google and (I know many will find this hard to believe) relatively simplicity of the attribution system may actually result in pretty good adoption.
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-2 #7 Cant get it up 2012-04-24 04:28
Well it might work, good post thooooo :o
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0 #8 Barry Adams 2012-04-24 10:03
Thanks all for your comments. Glad to know I'm not the only Author Rank skeptic out there. :)

Quoting Aaron Bradley:
And to that end I also advocate that organizations acquiring Google+ Pages for precisely the same reason: it is a linked entity identifier. Again, not for an actual social media presence, but for the semantic linkages that URI (in conjunction with rel="publisher" - just as for persons the linkages are made with rel="author") provide


Thanks Aaron, you're entirely right, G+ is not so much a social network as it is an identity/entity network which allows Google to know who you are and what entities you are connected to.

From that pov I agree that corporations should establish a G+ presence, though they don't have to really do anything with it after they claim their space.

Yet that still has a fairly limited use case. The type of corporation that benefits most is the one that engages in creation and publication of content as a business model, whereas for others (which will be the majority of organisations out there) the applicability and usefulness of this model is close to non-existent.

It seems to be Google is, once again, making us do their hard work for them. It's forcing businesses to adopt an online business model (content creation & attribution) that benefits Google - not one that directly benefits the business itself.
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0 #9 Jason Golod 2012-04-24 21:59
Agreed that hype is usually not warranted. However, I am not sure I totally agree with you...especially on the job hopping business.

From the way you were describing it, no employees or CEOs created content on the web before G+ and author rank. I mean that is why people get hired or recruited isn't it? No matter how much a CEO is beating the company drum when writing or speaking, he/she is still building their own authority at the same time, aren't they?

While it may not be the best thing since sliced bread, AR seems to be a smart thing to me. I think it might actually help Google find some clarity in some areas where they may not be able to use their super duper sophisticated algorithm because the signal levels on most of their good tells is so low. AR might actually give them a little something to work with.
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+1 #10 AJ Kohn 2012-04-26 14:27
Well, I'll take the other side of this debate and simply point out what I see as some myths or misconceptions.

Myth: AuthorRank Will Only Apply To Content

The links from an author will carry and flow AuthorRank. So you need not participate as an author to benefit from authorship. Dropbox may not have an author but if Robert Scoble links to them in one of his posts then they'll acquire some of his AuthorRank.

Every link can have an AuthorRank attribute that gives it more or less value.

The only thing a company who doesn't have a content strategy might have to pay a bit more attention to would be influencer outreach. Which, you know, they should be doing anyway.

Myth: Reliance on Google+

Google+ is the identity platform. That's true. And while there is clearly some benefit to using Google+ you wouldn't have to in order to obtain a high AuthorRank.

First, Google clearly wants to monitor engagement in other platforms (hence the acquisitions of PostRank and Social Grapple). Comments, Twitter, Quora, etc. Also, you need not be present to have that content make it's way to Google+ (or any other platform).

Google+ is but one place that content an author produces and yield interactions.

Myth: Artificial Profiles Equal AuthorRank Win!

First, Authorship is tied to identity, and Google got quite a bit of flak for their real names policy. They are looking for real people. But just telling people to do so isn't going to make that happen, right? So fire up a fake name and start the engines right?

How easy do you think it is for Google to look at a profile and determine whether it's a newly minted person or someone who's real? It shouldn't be that hard.

Real people leave behind a pretty big digital wake. They've got social profiles and connections to other people and comments and pictures and on and on and on. Rapleaf got the flak for crawling the public social graph but Google does it too, just look at your Social Connections.

You'd have to invest a lot into building up that fake person before they looked real. So much so that they'd essentially become real, or an alter-ego of whoever was behind it.
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0 #11 Barry Adams 2012-04-26 14:57
Hey AJ, welcome to the comment thread! I do love me a good debate. :)


Quoting AJ Kohn:
Myth: AuthorRank Will Only Apply To Content

The links from an author will carry and flow AuthorRank. So you need not participate as an author to benefit from authorship. Dropbox may not have an author but if Robert Scoble links to them in one of his posts then they'll acquire some of his AuthorRank.


That just proves my point that it's overhyped. Let the hype-chasing bloggers do their authorship thing, and we can just get on with doing business online and profit from their hard work as their author rank trickles down to our money sites.

Quoting AJ Kohn:
Myth: Reliance on Google+

Google+ is the identity platform. That's true. And while there is clearly some benefit to using Google+ you wouldn't have to in order to obtain a high AuthorRank.

First, Google clearly wants to monitor engagement in other platforms (hence the acquisitions of PostRank and Social Grapple). Comments, Twitter, Quora, etc. Also, you need not be present to have that content make it's way to Google+ (or any other platform).

Google+ is but one place that content an author produces and yield interactions.


Sorry, but no. The whole thing pivots around G+. Without that, Google can only rely on third party sources that it does not have full access to, which puts the whole identity/entity thing on shaky ground. The only way Google can guarantee consistency and integrity is by force-feeding G+ down everyone's throat.

Quoting AJ Kohn:
Myth: Artificial Profiles Equal AuthorRank Win!

First, Authorship is tied to identity, and Google got quite a bit of flak for their real names policy. They are looking for real people. But just telling people to do so isn't going to make that happen, right? So fire up a fake name and start the engines right?


Straw man argument. Fake identities are just part of the problem, and a minor one at that. The real problem, which I explained in my post, is that you get genuine profiles belonging to real people accumulating Author Rank based on content supplied by others. That undermines any semblance of authenticity of Author Rank. Imagine if you found out that nearly all of Robert Scoble's blog posts were ghost-written by an army of cheap copywriters?
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0 #12 Eric Van Buskirk 2012-04-26 15:16
I do think it will be important. But I wrote a long peice, with research, on my site that is very much in agreement about the problem of WHO should get the credit in an organization? Corporate blogs are often written by lower/mid level employees. But, it's senior management that needs the public face.
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0 #13 AJ Kohn 2012-04-26 15:20
Well if you want to rely on the kindness of others, go right ahead. I'm not one to let go of the reigns. Why not be the one who has the influence rather than rely on it from others? I'm not saying you should start to produce content because of authorship but if you already do - if you're already social, then authorship is a no brainer.

We'll have to agree to disagree on G+. It's the identity platform, which is necessary. But look at those PostRank reports (I still get them) and tell me Google couldn't do about a metric ton more with that. They haven't launched a true portable digital signature yet, but when they do there will be no wiggle room in this debate.

The ghostwriting thing ... that's sort of like saying, do you trust that anything anyone writes is their own. If the ghostwriters are good then it's sort of immaterial.

If they suck then that person's AuthorRank will drop, probably not as quickly as it should because of the suck-up effect but it will eventually.

That's the more interesting potential argument in my opinion. How do you deal with authors who have jumped the shark? To me, Seth Godin has been mailing it in for the last four or five years, yet people still fall over themselves to Tweet when he farts in a blog post. But that's a people problem, not a Google problem.
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0 #14 Barry Adams 2012-04-26 15:32
Quoting AJ Kohn:
Well if you want to rely on the kindness of others, go right ahead.

Isn't that what we already have to do with linkbuilding - relying on others to link to us? ;)

Quoting AJ Kohn:
I'm not saying you should start to produce content because of authorship but if you already do - if you're already social, then authorship is a no brainer.

Exactly - if you're already a publisher. My point is that this is a pretty limited use case.

Quoting AJ Kohn:
The ghostwriting thing ... that's sort of like saying, do you trust that anything anyone writes is their own. If the ghostwriters are good then it's sort of immaterial.

If they suck then that person's AuthorRank will drop, probably not as quickly as it should because of the suck-up effect but it will eventually.

I don't think that aspect is immaterial. If you can gain Author Rank by utilising good copywriters, it becomes just another metric to be manipilated - just like links. And doesn't that defeat the whole purpose?
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0 #15 AJ Kohn 2012-04-26 16:03
Not if you're linkbuilding, no. That's a concerted effort to acquire links. If you simply crank out content and let natural link citations happen, then you might be.

Again, why wouldn't you want to participate if you could? It's like the guy on the sidelines who says, 'I could be the quarterback on the team if I tried, but trying is for suckers.'

Perhaps we have different views on content and publishing. Have a blog? You're a publisher. There are opportunities for eCommerce sites to play here as well.

A lot of this may necessitate that companies allow us to know the employees. This is already happening with the advent of social and changes in employment trends. People don't work for the same company for 40 years, the company isn't the faceless monolith that it once was.

Well, why would great copywriters sit behind the curtain when they could claim that for themselves? Sure, there might be some, but great writers don't grow on trees. Very few good writers would likely perform this work. I just don't see the market. There's a vast market of crappy writers, but using them would just lead to a decline in authority.
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0 #16 Eric Van Buskirk 2012-04-27 13:48
AJ, You've done a great job leading the discussion on this topic and I continue to learn from you about what we might expect and why.

Barry has a good point-- authorship does have limited use. Most of the content on the Web should not have a author associated, or it would lower user experience. Think about the physical world and how NOT important it is to know who created a billboard when we drive by, who wrote a direct mail piece that's NOT a "known person," who created a print ad if we are just looking at it casually.

When Goog implements, this is something that will make all companies realize they truly need to be publishers. The VAST majority don't understand blogging. If they do original writing, it's on social sites which Goog doesn't include in rel=author, like Twitter. When this rolls out, It will be a boon for those that evangelize creating "earned media" content on a companies site, not just on other social websites.
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+1 #17 Raging Contrarian 2013-02-25 15:41
This is the first critical post I've found on the author ranking- other than my own which is more of a bashing session.

I hope more people will speak out against this ridiculous move or, better still, move to another search engine. Not only is it bad for content creators but also for users who get denied unbiased results.

If they MUST do this, then it would be much better to just have G+ results in the top bar next to youtube and image results. That way the user has a choice.
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