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Authority, Trust, and SEO – Why Authorship Matters October 23, 2012

Google SERPs have evolved quite a bit over the years. First was simple text, then came images, videos, real-time results (for a while anyway), and shopping. In 2011, another addition to the Google SERP has cropped up: author information, complete with a link to the author’s Google+ profile and a thumbnail photo. So what is this development, and what could it mean for SEO?

It may seem like just another step in Google’s evolution, but it can also be seen as an indication of a larger shift in Google’s quest to rid its SERPs of spammy or even just low-quality content. Take a look at some of the changes that have occurred over the past year or so:

1: On June 7, 2011, Google announced they would support authorship markup, allowing sites to link their content to a specific author and connect that person’s work across domains.

2: On June 28, 2011, Google announced that they were introducing a new feature to their search results: highlighting content creators. Essentially, this feature expanded upon the previous update with one interesting detail: this time, Google specifically mentioned linking content to a person’s Google+ profile. Once the content is linked, a small thumbnail with a link to that author’s profile appears in the SERPs.

3: Ongoing since 2011, the Panda update particularly emphasized the importance of having high quality content. Aimed at sites with low-quality content, this algorithm update (or perhaps more accurately, deluge of updates and refreshes) increased the importance not only of having quality content, but of having quality authors. This has of course raised the question of what makes a quality author (we’ll get to that in a bit).

4: On April 24, 2012, Matt Cutts announced that they would be pushing out another update, which eventually became known as Penguin. This update targeted webspam, including keyword stuffing, content spinning, and link schemes. Penguin has an impact on authorship because it takes into account who you associate with. Think of it like a high school clique. If your group of friends gets caught stealing, your reputation can also suffer: guilty by association. Similarly, your site on its own may be full of great content, but if your link profile is stuffed with exact-match anchors and you have a high percentage of links from spammy sites, then Google isn’t going to trust you as much, and therefore won’t rank your site as highly. This of course opens the door to negative SEO, which we discussed in an earlier blog post.

5: On October 9, 2012, Matt Cutts tweeted a video explaining Google’s view on guest blogging for links and emphasized that the person doing the blogging can determine the value of the link and whether it’s worth the effort. If the person is an expert in that topic, it is valuable. If not, then not so much.

Based on these developments, it’s clear that Google has expanded the factors they consider when evaluating trust and relevancy to include not only websites but also the person (or people) behind those websites and their reputations. An April 2012 article from SEOMoz explored this concept and concluded that going forward, the power of a link to a certain page or site will be determined not only by PageRank but also by AuthorRank, or as the writer more simply put it: AuthorRank x PageRank = AuthoredPageRank, the “new standard” for determining the value of a link.

Where Does Author Authority Come From?

No one knows for sure how Google calculates authority, but there have been several clues provided:

Social Signals – A key player in determining trust and authority. Facebook may be Google’s mortal enemy, but it still provides invaluable social signals that can indicate how active and trusted a person is in a certain industry or community. Since Facebook Pages are public, Google can see how many likes that person has, how frequently they post, the number of comments they get on that post, and how often they interact with others on the network. The same can be said for Twitter and of course Google+.

Personal Websites or Blogs – Does a person have their own website or blog? If they do have a blog, how frequently do they post? How many comments do they get? And importantly, what do they write about? If Google sees that a person is consistently discussing a certain topic, and that others are turning to their website as an authority on that topic, then it stands to reason they would give that person precedence in SERPs over someone without such history.

Third-Party Sites – Is the individual mentioned on other websites and referenced as an “authority”? On what types of sites are they found? A person who is referenced mostly on websites centered on the same topic will likely be given more authority on that topic than someone who is referenced on websites outside that niche, even if they’re found on a greater number of sites overall.

What Could Be Next?

Knowing the emphasis Google has placed on authorship and trust, what could be next? Based on past events, we think there are a few possibilities:

1: Links from social networks will increase in value, particularly those from industry leaders. Seeking to have your content tweeted by an authority in your niche as a link building technique may become just as prevalent as guest blogging is today.

2: As Google places more value on links from social networks and use the site to determine AuthorRank, Google will analyze social signals more closely. There’s been a lot of talk recently of fake Facebook accounts and fabricated interactions on social networks. If they aren’t already, we believe that Google will begin weeding out or even penalizing the websites that are involved in such schemes, similar to how Penguin pushed down sites engaged in link schemes.

3: Content will really have to “rock” to rank. If you don’t have a reputation already and want to establish yourself as trustworthy, the content you’re associated with is going to have to be great.

It’s impossible to predict what’s under development at Googleplex, and Google’s webspam team may very well change course again. Looking at the past few years, though, it seems safe to say that AuthorRank is here to stay, and any successful SEO needs to include this factor in their strategies in order to stay ahead.

Nick Cuttonaro

Nicholas Cuttonaro is an Internet Marketing professional specializing in search engine optimization, lead generation, and online reputation management.

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