Google authorship: the free ride is over

Dear SEOs and businesses: I've got some terrible and wonderful news. It's only going to get tougher out there. The fun and exciting ride of authorship is about to come to a screeching halt – and in this piece, I'll explain exactly why.

This winter was especially cold for authors. Around mid-December, authorship snippets and author photos began disappearing from Google. Not entirely, mind you – but by a significant amount.

Shocked as the industry acted, it was a culling foretold by Google's grand wizard of search, Matt Cutts at Las Vegas PubCon:

"We want to make sure that the people who we show as authors are high quality authors. And so we're looking at the process of possibly tightening that up. It turns out if we reduce the amount of authorship we are showing by just about 10 or 15 percent, we're radically able to improve the quality of the authors that we show. […] So it's not just going to be about the markup; it's going to be about the quality of the author."

Uh-oh.

Depending on who you are, that’s either great – or terrible – news. It would seem that Google's roping in the benefits we can reap from authorship snippets, but to understand why – and how to fix that - it helps to have a little bit of a history lesson.

Pull up a chair – this will only take a minute. Fair warning: I'm going to be quoting some patents. If you want to hop over that juicy info, just skip the grey text (you slacker!).

It all started in 2005.

That was the year Google filed a patent application for "Agent Rank" – when Google Plus was just a twinkling in Larry & Sergey's eyes.

A short excerpt from that patent:

"The techniques include […] receiving signatures each made by one of multiple agents, each digital signature associating one of the agents with one or more of the content items; and assigning a score to a first agent of the multiple agents, wherein the score is based upon the content items associated with the first agent by the digital signatures."

This patent wouldn't be given much press for another two years and wouldn't be known to the general public until six years later, when Google announced authorship markup in June of 2011.  Later that same year, Google published a new Agent Rank continuation patent, this time underpinning how not all authors are equal and that reputation could influence the "significance" of a reference. It hints at how reputation can be influenced by who is sharing your content and where that content lives:

"Not all references [..] are necessarily of equal significance […] a reference by another agent with a high reputational score is of greater significance than a reference by another agent with a low reputational score […] the reputational score assigned to the particular agent, should depend not just on the number of references to the content signed by the particular agent, but on the importance of the referring documents and other agents. This implies a recursive definition: the reputation of a particular agent is a function of the reputation of the content and agents which refer to it."

The Industry Reacts

When authorship was announced, SEO's got all hot and bothered about how authorship snippets would appear in search results, showing your photo next to virtually any content you'd marked up correctly.

Google was handing out author photos all willy-nilly! Now was the time to MARK UP ALL THE THINGS!

At the same time, speculation swirled surrounding the idea of "Author Rank" - was Google actively using the reputation of an author to impact search results? That speculation continues to this day, though as late as October of 2013 Google was insisting they don't use it.

But if you don't think they're going to, you're just not paying attention.

A couple quotes help to illuminate where this is all going.

From Sagar Kamdar, Director of Product Management on Search, July 2012:

"[…] the Authorship program was based on the premise that content associated with a real identity is often of higher quality than content published anonymously."

From Matt Cutts in July of 2013:

"We are doing a better job of detecting when someone is sort of an authority in a specific space. It could be medical, it could be travel, whatever. And trying to makes sure that those rank a little more highly, if you are some sort of authority or a site that according to the algorithms we think might be a little bit more appropriate for users."

Hmm – Matt's quote stands in direct opposition to Mueller's comments three months later, doesn’t it? But what if we keep going up the food chain, all the way to Eric Schmidt?

"Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance."

The patents are there. The heads of Google's team are alluding to author rank as a factor. It's only a matter of time.

There's one more piece: Google Hummingbird

I believe that, as Bill Slawski speculates (that link is a must-read for any serious web marketer), Hummingbird is a critical new component in Google's quest to understand and categorize concepts, topics and entities across pages and in social signals.

That we are seeing more and more of the Knowledge Graph should confirm that Google is improving their ability to understand and associate concepts. And if they can understand concepts, they can understand what you’re an expert/authority in based on the content you create, share and contribute to.  Which brings us back to the original question:

Why are authorship snippets disappearing – and what should we expect in the long-term?

 Let's kick this off with one last PubCon quote from Cutts:

"We've also been looking at detecting and boosting authority. So take medical, for instance. If you're an authority in the medical space, we want to know that and to push you up higher whenever a medical query comes along. […] It actually applies to thousands of different topic areas.

[…] If you are a topical authority, keep writing about it, keep developing, keep deepening the amount of content that you have. You really want to be a resource, you do want to be an authority, and if you turn out to be an authority, then you’re more likely to be boosted by that particular change."

So why are authorship snippets disappearing? Because they were never intended to be for the "Everyman." They're to denote experts and trusted sources – authoritative people and authoritative websites. If you're neither, your free ride is finished.

You might still think you're an authority.

And you might be right. But let’s look how Google is treating their "In-Depth" articles section: With very, very few exceptions, the big publications have a huge leg up. They can send far more authority signals than smaller sites.

Add in the fact that increasing your author rank is designed to be difficult to do. From one of Google's patents:

"A high reputational score need not give an agent the ability to manipulate web search rankings In one implementation, reputational scores are relatively difficult to increase and relatively easy to decrease, creating a disincentive for an agent to place its reputation at risk by endorsing content inappropriately. Since the signatures of reputable agents can be used to promote the ranking of signed content in web search results, agents have a powerful incentive to establish and maintain a good reputational score."

When everyone is an authority - nobody is. So Google's recent culling is only the beginning. In real life, the hard truth is that Gary Vaynerchuk is an authoritative influencer on social media, but a relatively quiet social manager from backwoods Fargo is probably not. Therefore, Gary's authorship snippets deserve to show up and give him a rankings boost. Fargo's probably don't.

Here's what Google is saying: Just because you mark something up with authorship, doesn't mean you should reap the benefit.

So... What Now?

It's time to start acting like an authority – and a real human being. Mike Arnesen compiled a list of possible "Author Rank" influencing factors, and having read through Bill Slawski's analysis of multiple patents, I tend to agree with them (most are supported!):

  • The average PageRank of an author's content.
  • The average number of +1s and Google+ shares the author's content receives.
  • The number of Google+ circles an author is in.
  • Reciprocal connections to other high Author Rank authors.
  • The number and authority of sites an author's content has been published to.
  • The engagement level of an author's native Google+ content (e.g. posts to Google+).
  • The level of on-site engagement for an author's content (e.g. comments and author's responses to comments)
  • Outside authority indicators (e.g.the presence of a Wikipedia page).
  • YouTube subscribers and/or engagement on authored videos (speculation: multiple-attribution author markup for YouTube videos coming soon).
  • Any number of importance/authority metrics on social networks that Google deems trustworthy enough (Twitter, Quora, LinkedIn, SlideShare, etc.).
  • Real world authority indicators like published works on Google Books or Google Scholar.

In other words, to ensure you're considered authority, you need to:

  • Publish the right things (relevance)
  • In the right places (authoritative websites)
  • That are shared by the right people (other influencers)
  • And received by the right audience (earned media/discussion)

Doing that means being an authority in the real world. It's entirely possible for those who will commit, but it's much, much harder than adding a snippet of code to your site. Only YOU can evaluate your current position take that proposed list of criteria and decide where and how to make changes and turn heads.

Maybe that means creating more content. Maybe it means taking befriending other influencers. Or, maybe it means putting a greater effort into your Google+ presence and participating in/generating more discussions.

But whatever it might mean for you, the time to act is now. Nobody becomes an authority overnight.

Good luck out there.

Author: Joel Klettke
is a copywriter with a history in digital marketing. He runs Business Casual Copywriting, working with businesses and agencies who are more concerned about creating awesome things than they are about word counts. Follow Joel on Twitter at @JoelKlettke.