Quo Vadis Author Rank? The Present and Future of Author Authority in Search

What Ever Happened to Author Rank?

UPDATED 20 May 2014: See the “Matt Cutts: Author Rank Comes Into Play” section below for a new statement from a Google representative.

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Danny Sullivan: You say you are not using anything like an AuthorRank now. Why not use “AuthorRank” in the future? Would it not add value?

Amit Singhal: Possibly it could. (Laughter, but Amit says no more about it).

That exchange between Danny Sullivan (Founding Editor of Search Engine Land) and Amit Singhal (head of Google’s search ranking team) took place at the SMX West conference on 11 March 2014 (as recorded in a “live blog” post by Eric Enge).

Possibly. It could. Maybe. Someday. Or not?

Whither Goest Thou, Author Rank?

Quo vadis is Latin for “whither goest thou?’ (or as we might put it in more modern times, “where are you going?”). That’s the question I want to ask in this article. Not so much “where is Author Rank?’ or “Is Author Rank here?” but what is its future? With all we’ve been through in this soon-to-be three-year discussion, what is the future of Author Rank.

And perhaps more importantly, what is the future of author authority as a factor in Google search results?

Matt Cutts: Author Rank “Comes Into Play”

I don’t want to spend too much time in this article covering why I don’t think author authority is a direct ranking signal for Google yet. Eric Enge already did a great job of that in his article for Search Engine Land. But I do think it’s necessary to dig in a little bit to what author authority is and isn’t doing in search right now.

Shortly after the SMX West keynote mentioned in the opening of this article, I tweeted the following, and got a response from Google’s search spam czar Matt Cutts:

Matt Cutts tweet on Author Rank

This is an intriguing response, as Cutts (to my knowledge) never uses the term Author Rank, nor does he make reference to it. But here it is unmistakable that the pronoun “it” in his response has as its antecedent the noun “Author Rank” in my tweet. So what is Cutts saying in reference to Author Rank?

One thing is clear: he is not saying it is presently a direct ranking signal for search results.

In fact, he never has. He’s said things like “we’re doing a doing a better job of detecting when someone is sort of an authority in a specific space” that they could then use to boost content from those authorities, and in December 2013 that they’re still working on that project. So it’s possible that they’ve even begun some testing and experimenting with doing that, but we shouldn’t expect to see it yet in any observable manner in the search results.

Before we go on I want you to notice this, because it’s very important: Cutts clearly does not try to contradict my basic assertion in my tweet (that there is no author rank yet). He just wants to add that there are other things “in play in some [other] ways.”

Confirming this, in September 2o13 Google’s John Mueller stated in a Webmaster Central Hangout that authorship data is not used for ranking search results. I heard Google’s Pierre Farr say the exact same thing at SMX East shortly thereafter. And now we have Amit Singhal assenting to the same at SMX West 2014.

UPDATE 13 March 2014! According to Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Land, on stage at SMX West today Matt Cutts was asked to clarify his Twitter response to me shown above. Barry reports that Matt confirmed what he had said, that some form of “author rank” is used in helping to determine what content should show in In-Depth Articles. According to Eric Enge who was at the session, Matt went on to say that “use of the concept is quite limited at this time” and that “we will see more with [author rank] in the future, however it is very challenging and will take time” (Eric’s paraphrases; not exact quotes).

UPDATE 20 May 2014: As reported by Barry Schwarz at Search Engine Roundtable, John Mueller of Google Webmaster tools once again confirmed in a Google+ Hangout On Air that Google Authorship is not currently being used as a ranking factor in search, though (as Matt Cutts said above) it can be used as a qualifying factor for In Depth Articles. As I said in my article about Google reducing the amount of authorship snippets being shown in search, I believe that similar factors are also used by Google in determining who qualifies for still getting the full authorship rich snippet in search. Again, it is worth noting that both of these are qualifying factors, not ranking factors.

So How is Author Authority “in Play”?

Notice the example Matt Cutts used in his tweet: In-Depth Articles (IDA). While the strength of the “publisher” (the website hosting the article) still seems to be the strongest factor in determining what gets featured in IDA, Google told us that using rel=author markup (Google Authorship) would help them in determining articles worthy of the feature. And occasionally we do see examples of Authorship displayed in IDA:

In-Depth Articles with Authorship

Notice here that Charles Duhigg is the only author shown in these three IDA results. That might indicate that something about his author reputation helped make his article more likely to be shown as an IDA result. Of course, publishing in the NY Times doesn’t hurt! But Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Times, and has published a bestselling book. The authors of the other two articles in this IDA result are fine writers, but nowhere near as well-known as Charles Duhigg. It makes sense that Google would want to feature his name as an author.

Another place I believe we are seeing author authority “in play” is in Google Authorship search results. In my examination of why some author photos disappeared from  Google search in December 2013, I revealed that while publisher factors seemed (once again) at the forefront, there did seem to be an “author content quality” factor in play. This was confirmed by two different Google spokespeople, as you can read in that article.

Here’s the commonalities of those two examples:

  1. In both cases, some author quality measurement was being used to trigger a search results feature.
  2. In neither case was “ranking” part of the equation.

So it would appear that what is “in play” so are factors around an author and his or her content that determine eligibility for certain “rich snippet” features of search. Again, I’ve seen no credible, verifiable evidence to date that it is being used otherwise, particularly to boost search rankings of an author.

Will We Recognize Author Rank When It Is “There”?

You keep saying AuthorRank but I do not think you know what it meansThere’s a real baked-in human problem at play here. When we think about and discuss a concept at great length over a long time, the concept begins to take on a life of its own. It begins to morph into something other than what it started out as. Research shows that we how we feel or think at the end of an experience determines our memory of the entire experience.

I believe that has happened with the concept of Author Rank. It has now been almost three years since Google Authorship was introduced. When (then head of the Authorship project) Othar Hansson in the video that introduced rel=author said, “We hope to use this information…as a ranking signal (but it’s still the early days…and who knows where we’ll go with this)” it set off the whole Author Rank Watch frenzy. Naturally many of us expected it to start showing up quickly. When it didn’t, there was little else to do for the hard core but enter into endless discussions and debates about what Author Rank might look like, and when we might expect to see it.

But here’s a question that is rarely asked: Would we even recognize Author Rank if it were staring us in the face?

By that I mean, would we be able to discern it, to single it out in the search results in some definitive way that we could say, “Aha! That must be Author Rank!” (because it couldn’t be anything else)?

A Case Study: The Fishkin Effect

Here’s a recent example (also cited in Eric’s article linked above) where a prominent and respected SEO thought he might have caught Author Rank “in the act.”

In June 2012 Craig Addyman published an interview with Moz founder Rand Fishkin. The interview never ranked very highly in Google search. Then in April 2013 Craig asked Rand to cooperate in an experiment. He asked Rand to link to the interview from Rand’s Google+ profile Contributor To links and allow Craig to make the connection back from his end to set up Rand’s authorship for the interview page. However, Craig had made a mistake on his end which he didn’t get corrected until January 30 of 2014.

Once Authorship was correctly set up, Craig watched the results. After 7 days, Rand’s authorship began to show for the page in a search for “interview with Rand Fishkin.” But more amazingly, the post shot up from the second page to #1 for the query! Unsurprisingly, Craig wondered, “Is this Author Rank?” and soon after Rand Fishkin speculated the same thing.

Indeed, some 40 days later at this writing, this is the result I see in an incognito search for “interview with Rand Fishkin”:

Rand Fishkin AuthorshipAs you can see, Craig’s post with Rand’s authorship remains at #2.

Must be Author Rank, right? Could be. Looks compelling. But it ain’t necessarily so…

For one thing, Craig Addyman himself admits that several significant changes were made to his site right around the the same time as he got Authorship working on the interview post. He said he updates a link on that post, updated the date of the post, changed his blog’s home page from showing 100 posts to just 10, and had been blogging more frequently recently.

On Rand’s Google+ thread, Gianluca Fiorelli commented that some of the changes Craig made could have a significant effect, especially the date change and the more limited number of links on his home page. And I added that these changes, including the implementation of Authorship, may have triggered the Google Bot to recrawl his site, and reconsider the Fishkin interview, which by now had gained some links. This could have triggered an effect where Google will temporarily boost up highly relevant content it sees as “new” or “fresh” to see what attention it gets. This one ended up with quite a bit of sudden attention, which could explain its retaining its high ranking.

Or it could be Author Rank ;-)

My point here is that it’s very, very difficult to tease out a single anecdotal result like this and say with any certainty that any one factor (real or imagined) “caused” it. This is a great example of just how complex search ranking behavior is, a fact not appreciated by enough observers.

So How Will We Ever Recognize Author Rank?

Is that AuthorRank or are you just happy to see me?That question leads to my point, and my new belief about this topic: We very likely won’t be able to recognize it if and when it does become a factor.

In fact, that’s really true of a great many search ranking factors. They are so blended in with other factors, it’s very difficult to tear them apart and isolate them. Pretty near impossible in many cases.

That’s because search ranking factors rarely work alone. There are built-in interdependencies in the algorithm. A certain signal may boost a result so far, but it may be either stronger if other factors chime in to add confirmation. Or on the negative side, the lack of other signals could perhaps weaken the effect of one strong one, if it stands alone.

Now let’s bring that home to author authority. We know that Google wants to do something with this. We have repeated assurances from Google reps that they think it is important to identify and boost in some way the people whom other people see as respected and trusted authorities in various subject areas.

The question is how might Google implement that?

Can I Get Some Confirmation?

I’d like to propose that it may only be ever used as a kind of confirmatory signal rather than a direct signal. By that, I mean that having a high “author rank” for a particular topic may not ever mean that you automatically get highly ranked for every piece of content you produce on that subject. There may have to be other factors entering in as well, and then your author rank is like the icing on the cake. It says to Google: everything else makes this a good result for this particular query. Oh, and he has a high author rank for the topic as well? Sold, run this one up to the front page.

Obviously that’s a way over-simplified version of what would actually happen. But here’s the important thing for purposes of this article. If author rank is mostly confirmatory, and only works when in tandem with other signals, then it will be next to impossible to spot it.

In this scenario, over the long haul, an author with a high author rank for a particular topic should do better in search for that topic on the average, but it will be difficult to discern that on a query-by-query basis.

There’s another reason I think Google might give author authority a more “behind the scenes” role like that. Making it a too-direct ranking signal would give authored content a distorted advantage over non-authored content. I think my scenario would help Google keep it in the balance it should be: one among many things to be considered when deciding what content is best for a particular searcher on a particular query.

 

Comments

  1. says

    This is interesting because I just started a new WordPress site withe above address, granted, it has very little content; but Google is making it even harder to add content. It refuses to bring up the WP admin login site.

    Now, if I go to Firefox and use duckduckgo search, it will bring up the site under Google cache (something Google search will not do)

    I personally believe, it has gone a bit over the top. This has been occurring over the last couple of months, no problem before that (bringing up the admin panel)

  2. says

    Let’s say the Rand Fishkin example is AuthorRank in action.

    In that case a writer’s authority will be used to surface content about the topic they are known for, even if exists on an off topic site.

    So, AuthorRank can counterbalance negative Panda signals, and act as a replacement for domain authority

    • says

      Certainly possible, Hashim, although I have my doubts about Google giving just authorship alone that much power.

      However, perhaps a tick in your favor: A couple of times when Matt Cutts has talked about subject area authorities, he’ll spin off a hypothetical where, say Danny Sullivan publishes something on a lesser-known site. He says, “I might want to know about that, because it’s from Danny Sullivan.” So maybe there is something to what you propose!

  3. says

    Perhaps we can just accept it without chasing it. If we can’t spot it, then I can see repeated possible tracking that may only yield patterns over time. If we can’t spot it we can’t game it. I for one enjoy the idea of it as a confirmation. I also appreciate the level of detail of this examination and the excitement of some clarification in these confirmation snippets today. Thank you for your diligence Mark.

    • says

      Pepper I so agree with you. That’s part of my motivation in writing articles like this. I want to get people off trying to “figure out” author rank or see if they can “prove” it exists and on to pursuing the things that will build your authority whether or not author rank exists. Because if you do those things, you’re already benefiting. And if you’re doing them and some kind of author rank is in effect, then you’ll just benefit all the more.

  4. says

    I feel the display of my photo and byline are sufficient enough reason for me to insert rel:author / rel:publisher. The more quality work I produce, the more I see. I honestly am not overly concerned about if a single signal is ranking me or not. If it was, I could see attempts to manipulate it. Case in point: Craig/Rand’s experiment.

    • says

      Well said Randy. Things like that are interesting from an academic standpoint, but you’re not going to be able to replicate them on a daily basis (assuming you even had a clue as to what was causing them!). So you’re better off pursuing quality and building a valuable audience.

  5. Andrew Dennis says

    Excellent work as usual Mark!

    It certainly does seem like this debate over AuthorRank has been raging for quite some time now and I appreciate how you continue to break down all the nuanced bits of information and vague statements we get from Google into something that is easy to digest and understand.

    You have always done a great job of separating fact from speculation and clarifying when you are making predictions of what could happen, as opposed to asserting that something is happening already, without any evidence.

    I really like your proposal that AuthorRank/Author Authority might only ever be used as a confirmatory signal, rather than a direct signal. To me, this really seems like the only feasible option for reasons that you mentioned. I agree, it doesn’t seem like Google would want to give an “unfair” advantage to authored content over non-authored or even mutli-authored content. This could potentially have a negative effect on the quality of their SERPs and prevent them from returning the best results.

    On the other hand, using AuthorRank/Author Authority as a confirmatory signal to help bring content that already has other strong ranking signals further to the top (when it is written by an author with established authority) could make sense. Google seems to always be looking for ways to improve the quality of their search results and this could certainly be a route they take.

    Thanks as always for another great post!

    • says

      Andrew, back in my teaching days I used to always think that if a student could repeat back to me in his own words what he learned, I had done my job as a teacher.

      And that’s why your comment is a high compliment. Thanks!

  6. says

    Your distinction between “direct signals” and “confirmatory signals” is intriguing. Perhaps Author Rank (by wshatever name it’s called) will be more about trust than anything else.

    • says

      Durant, that’s more and more the way I’m seeing it. Google wants to drive us toward thinking about the long term value, the value of a brand that people talk about more with each passing year, the value of trust and authority. That’s why they will never sink to the simplistic level of “do the right markup and you’ll automatically rank higher.”

  7. says

    Great read. I guess I am in the “why not take the few minutes and set it up for the place where you frequently write?” camp. For example I write for LinkedIn, MarketingLand, Content Marketing Institute and our own blog every month, so I will try to make sure everything is set up correctly for those accounts. Some time invested now just might payoff in the future. In fact, I think I will go double check all of those now.

    • says

      That’s my approach, too, Arnie. Authorship already has benefits (personal branding, and higher CTR) and if it ever becomes a significant ranking factor, well, I want Google to have a nice long history of data on my content.

  8. says

    I’m with Durant on this in thinking that Authorship is likely a positive trust signal. Anything more than that? Speculation abounds.

    I particularly enjoyed your point on would we know AuthorRank if we saw it? It makes sense to me that Google wouldn’t let us see it. Another “not provided” stat. As already mentioned, if we can’t see it, we can’t abuse it.

    As with most things Google, I personally don’t stress over Authorship. Do I use it? Yes, just in case :D

    Personally, if an article is authored by a real person using a real social media profile, I’m going to put more weight in the believability of that article. Versus an article with a name, but no links to social media profiles to say who they really are. Especially if it is a name I’m unfamiliar with.

    In this way, Authorship really matters a great deal. But does it help rankings? Nah, I don’t think so. But I do think it certainly helps send positive trust signals to Google. Meaning, it is content from a real person with a real online footprint.

    • says

      Exactly my attitude toward it, Shannon. Of course, if you have a large Google network, it can be a factor in personalized results for people who are in your network.

  9. says

    Mark,

    Just wanted to give you a heads up at that I did some research into the three articles that were in the screenshot. After review of the source code of all three articles, only the article from the WSJ included the rel=author tag.

    I’ve noticed that many of the publications are more interested in gaining publisher authority than letting any of their writers capitalize on author authority. Prime example is the piece that I wrote that was republished on Mashable. I looked through a lot of SERPs for their articles and mine was one of the few that actually had the rich author snippet, chiefly, because I asked.

    Either way, it’s all interesting stuff. I’m just in disbelief that a lot of these big publishers don’t have authorship set up yet…

    • says

      Good point, Peter. While Authorship is one possible help to getting into In-Depth Articles, it is by no means a necessary qualifier. Publisher rating still seems to prevail.

  10. says

    My clients are mostly mom and pop business owners who I encourage to blog. They do not have the resources to hire SEO firms so we teach the DIY approach whenever we can. Google’s incessant changes make it so very difficult to keep encouraging the small business owner to blog an use social media when the results are just not there for them. They desperately need to balance their time promoting their website with techniques that really work. “Author rank, no author rank”…oh boy. I wish there were different rules for the little guy! Thanks for the article though. And for the place to let out a little groan!

  11. says

    Mark,
    As always (in this article and many, many others) your break-down of soundbites/statements/comments from Matt Cutts and other authoritative figures on issues like Authorship, Author Rank, etc. is very cogent.

    You are careful not to jump to conclusions: you break down the semantics of the statements to deduce exactly what we can perceive as a fact, a speculation, a hint, etc. This is very helpful in an industry (indeed, a world) where statements are often misconstrued, misunderstood and given too much (or, rare is it may be) too little credence.

    This is wildly helpful, and it demonstrates your authority, intelligence, and the high value of your insights. Thank you!

    • says

      Adam, I think when any kind of actual “author rank” is incorporated into the search factors, the authority of publishing sites will also be a factor. Although, Matt Cutts has used the example of where there could be value in Google surfacing content from a well-trusted author that is published on a lesser-known site.

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