Why I don’t believe authors are the future for SEO

We have heard a great deal in the SEO community recently about how the rel=author tag is likely to influence SEO in the near future. My thoughts are partly inspired by two excellent presentations at BrightonSEO by Glenn Jones and James Carson , although my conclusions probably differ somewhat.

What is the rel=author tag?

Before I get into the pros of cons of authors from Google’s perspective, it’s worth looking at exactly what authors are, and how they work.

In a nutshell, it’s a tag you append to articles, blogs etc. to indicate the author of said article. The current purpose of this is so that your photo can be included in the search results as a rich snippet, although to achieve this you must link back to a Google+ page.

In theory this post, although on Fourth Source, would link to my Google+ profile (which most people tend to check when both Facebook are Twitter are down, and it’s also a blue moon).

Google authorship

How the rel=author tag shows in the SERPs

Why is this important for SEO?

Although the current use for this tag, as mentioned above, is to provide an enhanced rich snippet in the search results, which would probably provide a boost to the click through rate achieved by those articles, there are likely to be bigger SEO implications.

It’s quite feasible that articles and blog posts could be evaluated based on the strength of not only the publishing website, but the author themselves.  This means that a blog written by a well known expert in that industry would rank higher than if it was attributed to the office intern or ‘admin’, for instance.

Despite my reservations about just how much weight this will carry, I have little doubt that this will become a factor, and, in some fields, make a reasonable difference.

SEOMoz also make an excellent case as to how this could be extended to backlinks, by using the author in conjunction to the publishing domain to determine an Authored PageRank which would, in theory at least, add a much needed trust signal to backlinks.

Taken to its fullest potential, the data around the author could be used to map topics of expertise to the author, allowing Google to assign variable amounts of weight to an author’s view (or endorsement when it comes to links).  This would mean, for instance, that if a well-known musician was to link to a record company it might carry more weight, than one to a political think tank or a new skin care product.

In Summary, websites with strong authors would benefit, as would those able to gain recognition from strong authors.

Isn’t this another thing SEOs will game?

Although I can see that, like social metrics, it’s another metric that would be more challenging for SEO’s to manipulate, I still feel it’d be also be a significant challenge for Google to make bulletproof. Although James Carson argued in his presentation that anonymous would be at mediocre, it doesn’t necessarily equate to the metric not being possible to game.

It’s feasible that agencies, content mills and the like will find ways to create seemingly reasonably authoritative social profiles  to go alongside their content – while it might seem difficult to imagine a fake Google+ profile getting into millions of circles (not least because it’d take millions of people to actually use Google+), it’s quite foreseeable that, for instance, in the field of mortgages, a fake profile could get just enough traction (bought follows, frequent updates, promoted profiles etc) to pass off a respected commenter on that niche.

There’s also the potential for powerful authors to be exploited.  For instance, if a blog has five actual writers, with one of them being a big name blogger, the most powerful blogger’s name could be used alongside all (or most) posts even though other members of the team wrote the article.  At what point would Google decide that the author could not physically produce a given amount of posts in a day?

Just like ‘top diggers’ were paid to ‘digg’ content, top authors would quickly become commoditized should Google start to assign too much weight to this variable.

In my view, the lack of technical barriers, and transparency of the data sources involved in assessing authors, would make the metric easier to manipulate than pagerank in its current form.

So will it make a difference?

Although I feel this tag will be highly susceptible to manipulation, Search engines can still benefit significantly by integrating this metric as it allows them to diversify their algorithm. A mature search algorithm with many diverse signals is likely to outperform one based on few signals, although SEOs may be able to successfully game individual factors, it’s unlikely most in SEO will have the capability and skillset to manipulate several hundred signals.

Authors will play a role, and we’ll be encouraging our clients to make use of this tag, but it’s unlikely to be the new Pagerank. It’s quite likely that in certain fields, such as publishing, or in vertical search results, the metric will carry more weight, making it especially relevant to journalists.

Is content really king anyway?

Probably the biggest reason why I won’t be jumping onto the authors bandwagon and diverting disproportionate amounts of my time worrying about having ‘power authors’ is because I feel we are once again overestimating content, and misunderstanding it’s nature. Content in the form of Blog posts or articles are not the be all and end all of the internet: many search queries, especially commercial ones, are likely to have a different user-intent to those where an article/blog post is the likely destination.

I’d challenge that most pages (based on popularity of those viewed) are NOT editorial pieces of content, but instead home pages, product pages, categories, interactive tools and the like, where authors become less relevant.

Google also knows that popularity and credibility don’t necessarily go hand in hand, and that it needs to serve popular results to satisfy user expectations.  When you think of flights for instance, how many budget airlines would you expect to have power authors, or to have endorsements by them? Furthermore, would you really care if they did? Most purchasing decisions online depend much more on price than the quality of the blog, and Google know this all too well.

So go ahead and make your webpages author tag friendly, request a new password to get back onto Google+, and start taking advantage of a what is undoubtedly a cool new addition for the web – just don’t expect it to change the world.

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By Matthew Oxley

  • http://www.fourthsource.com Sandeep Vadgama

    Hi Matt,

    Great post, authorship is currently a HOT topic at the moment. 

    Whilst I am not sure about whether this will be a significant ranking signal, I think it is a good feature for us.

    I manged to get authored a few months ago now and having briefly looked at the CTR rates from my post in SERPs before and after there it certainly an increase. 

    Additionally it is good from a personal branding perspective, whenever I am searching something about SEO, I am always drawn to the people I perceive to hold authority Rand Fishkin, Danny Sullivan, or Barry Schwartz regardless of whether they are at the top or not, seeing their photos just makes it easier to find them. 

    I also feel Google is more likely to show a authored post on the first page compared to a non authored page, holding the same ranking weight, because of universal search.

    Finally I think Google + is more than just a social network, I think Google want it to be our online passport, I believe eventually you will NEED a Google + account to access there properties. Your Gmail, Apps, Adwords, Adsense accounts will all operate through your Google + account, so eventually there will be many more millions on Google +.

    It may not come to hold as much weight as some people claim, but I certainly don’t see the harm in doing it, in fact i would recommend it.

  • http://twitter.com/Moxley Matthew oxley

    Hi Sandeep – I  certainly agree with the CTR & Universal search benefit , and we’ll be taking advantage of this along with many I imagine. The area where i’d suggest caution is in putting disproportionate effort into boosting the perceived authority of authors, as I don’t feel it bring the return some people expect.

    I do get what you are saying about Google+ though – all my jokes aside, I can see that they might use it in the way you’ve suggested, I think they’ve put too much focus into this product to let it go the direction of Wave.

  • JamesCarson

    Hi Matt, 

    I really like this post – it makes sense and I’ve considered most of these issues (although I had rather less time to express them in Brighton). 
    Your final point is one that I’d have liked to address  - these are important and they won’t be authored. However, if they are recommended by authors and endorsed, this will carry some weight.

    I don’t think the markup will be highly susceptible to manipulation as I think Google will get a good understanding of spam signals before its rolled out. It’s very much in BETA at the moment, and I don’t think it will have too much effect in the next year. To me, at the moment, this is just really an extension of existing author profiles that is extremely easy to implement. 

    Your point about the big name blogger is interesting, but in practice it’s not all that feasible. It would be very unusual to get this sort of system running, largely because there could be legal issues of who owns the profiles, what’s said etc. That’s not to say it can’t happen…

  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    Dammit. I have pretty much the same sentiments in a blog post queued for publication on Search News Central. You beat me to it. :)

  • http://twitter.com/matthewread88 Matthew Read

    Great post and a really big topic at the moment!

    I definitely share the same worry about it being another signal that can be gamed. Even if we take the online element out of this (fake reviews, Tweets and Likes etc.) what is to stop people simply paying high authority authors to associate themselves with their content online to give it credence?


  • http://twitter.com/jeremyhead jeremyhead

    Really thought provoking post. The thing that is a bit harder to game here is the human/personal element. I think authors who understand this stuff (like me!) will police the way their authorship-juice is used by publishers. I hope that increasingly, credible authors will begin to understand the value of linking their name to a piece of content and will be able to commend better rates of pay as a result. In many ways this is no different to ‘name’ authors in print publications commanding better rates because of who they are.

  • dk

    What is there that says that the rel=author, and corresponding rel=me, have to be used on long pieces of content? Isn’t a company, with a corresponding G+ Page, the ‘author’ of it’s own homepage, category pages, landing pages… why not deploy the tag thus?

  • Matt Gammie

    Great post Matt – nice and sane. Did you see Wil Reynolds on the topic here; http://pointblankseo.com/wil-reynolds (point 3: “Ask someone who is not in SEO but is in marketing what rel=author is and they’ll likely look at you with 3 heads”). 

  • http://twitter.com/Moxley Matthew oxley

    Interesting – hadn’t seen that. Agree with his points, but I’m seeing social signals having an impact already, and wouldn’t anticipate it would take 5 years for them to get on to a similar tier to links.

  • http://twitter.com/Moxley Matthew oxley

    Thanks for chipping in James. I hope you are right regarding the manipulation ,as it’d be nice to be able to take advantage of this, without needing to whole bunch of activity  around the author profile.

    A slow rollout of this signal into other areas than just rich snippets would be beneficial, and might reduce the chances of spammers catching onto this as the next big thing.

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  • http://twitter.com/Moxley Matthew oxley

    Sorry Barry! They do say Great minds think alike though ;)

  • JamesCarson

    I think also, we’re probably making a big deal out of this. Implementation is so easy! 

    My talk was about why you should do it and how… I’m honestly not too bothered if people want to spam. I do think it will make a difference to the algorithm in time – remains to be seen what it may be. 

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