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:
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:
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:
- In both cases, some author quality measurement was being used to trigger a search results feature.
- 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”?
There’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”:
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?
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.