Authorship and AuthorRank in the Post Panda SEO Landscape

The Internet has been abuzz recently over the rel=author tag and Google’s impending AuthorRank update that will reward individuals who are social influencers and write sharable content with higher organic search rankings. As such, Phong Chieng, Sr. SEO Strategist, and I thought we would take a moment to review the history of this impending change and provide insights on how it will fit into the larger search environment.

History of Author Verification and Reputation

It’s said that past is prologue, so when discussing rel=author and Google’s AuthorRank, it’s important to know the history to fully understand the potential. Early indication of associating content with an author began in August 2005 when Google filed a patent with the USPTO for what was then called Agent Rank.  Described in part as the “methods and apparatus, including computer program products, implementing techniques for searching and ranking linked information sources,” Agent Rank was a way to associate content with the author.

Some of the many listed benefits of Agent Rank included:  The identity of agents can be reliably associated with content; one Web page can have multiple agents contributing to the page’s content; and an agent identity can be attached to multiple locations or websites.

Implementation of Agent Rank was completed via the WWWC XML-Signature Syntax and Processing, which provided integrity, message authentication, and/or signer authentication services for data of any type. Clearly, even at this early date, Google saw the importance of assigning a quality score other than inbound links to page content and so the foundation was laid to rank authors.

With the launch of Google+ in June 2011, Google created a platform to authenticate author identity.  Soon after the launch of Google+ in August of that same year, Google began promoting the rel=author markup. These two pieces eliminated the need for the XML-Signature Syntax – a method that was difficult to implement and often manipulated. The benefit for the author was the addition of author photos in search results and an increase in click through rate (CTR).

Increased CTR Based on Implementing Rel=Author

Of course one assumes that the addition of a profile image in Google’s results will increase CTR, but by how much? Due to the nature of organic search results, it’s difficult to conduct a scientific study with scientifically quantified results – and the “studies” we have seen are more personal observations on CTRs. We’ve read reports claiming an increase in CTR ranging from 38% to as much as 484% after the installation of rel=author tags.

Instead of relying on non-scientific studies, we believe it is much more insightful to look at scientific tests completed on the impact of visuals on paid advertising where variables can more successfully be controlled. One such study is “The Impact of Visual Appearance on User Response in Online Display Advertising” presented at the WWW 2012 conference in Lyon, France.

Major findings of this study conclude: “Results show that we can perform up to 3.27 times better than Weighted Sampling policy in predicting CTR from visual features only. This result demonstrates the non-trivial impact of visual appearance of the creative on its advertising performance.”

Extrapolating this data to organic search, we could expect to see an increase in CTR of up to 327% if rankings remain the same and other results do not include an author profile photo. As the use of the rel=author tag increases, more profile photos will be displayed in the search results, decreasing the impact. To increase your CTR when other profile photos are displayed, the study found that images that follow the rule of third (have good color harmony and have a small number of salient components) have the highest CTRs.  Using these guidelines, one could expect an increase in CTRs when many profile images are displayed.

By enticing authors with higher CTRs through implementation of rel=author markup, Google increased its database of verified authors and also moved forward on refining the algorithm that uses this data to effect search results. When fully implemented, AuthorRank will weigh the “who” of the content (the author) more heavily than the “where” of the content (the website) in search results. In effect, AuthorRank will be a human PageRank.

Calculating AuthorRank

We know that Google considers more than 200 ranking factors in determining search results. We also know that social signals and quality content are gaining in importance among these factors. Knowing these two key pieces, we believe AuthorRank will rely on:

  1. Social Signals:  The number of +1s or shares per blog post, the number of Google+ members who have you in their circles, Google+ engagement level, and authority on non-Google social networks.
  2. Content Quality factors: The number of comments per blog post, posting frequency, and the authority of the website.

From all indications, it’s clear that Google+ will play an important role in calculating AuthorRank and, as a result, continue to gain influence in organic results.  It’s also important to note that AuthorRank will not be static – an author will have many ranks based on the topic of the content.

Authorship Bounce – Driving User Engagement with Good Content

In addition to increasing your AuthorRank and CTR for your listings, Google is beginning to reward authors who really focus on creating unique and compelling content. If a user clicks through to your article and actually spends the time to read the piece, Google will provide additional links to related articles by the same author when you click back in the SERPs.

Google has already confirmed this new feature:

If a user visits an article by an author and it seems like they’d be interested in finding more articles by this author, when they click the “Back” button to return to the results page, we’ll show more results by that author.

It has been speculated that Google considers time on site and bounce rates as metrics to determine the relevancy of a piece of content. By altering the SERPs with additional links based off the amount of time you’re on the previous site, this gives you another reason to write good content. Google did not confirm the exact time that a user needs to be on the page, but Matt McGee of Search Engine Land determined that two minutes is long enough for Google to return additional articles from the same author.

What’s also interesting to note is that the “More by Author” feature will return additional articles by the same author from other domains, outside of the site you just visited. A.J. Kohn of Blind Five Year Old found a great example of Google returning additional articles from multiple domains. Guest blogging is a common way to build links back to your site. Now it should give you even more reason to start (or continue) building your author profile and authority, increasing the chances of articles you’ve posted on other sites being found.

What happens if you click back to the SERPs before Google’s two minute threshold? You may see a link underneath the Title and URL that allows you to block all results from that domain:

This feature isn’t new.  Google announced this back in March 2011: Hide sites to find more of what you want. What you should take from this is to always create useful content for users, while also making it long enough to trigger the new “More by” feature.

However, this doesn’t mean you should create content for the sake of creating content. That’s exactly what Google has been working so hard to prevent with the constant Penguin and Panda updates.

Another ancillary benefit of authorship bounce is the (slight) increase SERP real estate you gain from it. You get about eight additional lines of text that essentially push down the rest of the search results on the page. When searchers click back to the SERPs, they usually try and pick up where they left off by finding the next highest ranking site in the results. The dynamic shift in the SERPs with new articles should draw their attention and hopefully lead them back to another article by the same author – and away from the other listings.

Getting Started – How to Connect Your Blog with Google+

Since the introduction of authorship markup almost a year and a half ago, Google has made great strides in the simplification of verifying your blog with Google+.

Option 1: Link your content to your Google+ profile using a verified email address. This is actually a newer method that Google began providing for authors with a verified email address. If you have an email address under the same domain that you’re posting on, all you need to do is go to the Authorship page and enter your email. There are some minor details that you need to confirm (profile photo with recognizable headshot, all posts contain your byline, and your name matches). Once you have confirmed your email address, you can head over to Google Webmaster Tools to see how your blog posts will be displayed in the SERPs.

Option 2: Set up authorship by linking your content to your Google+ profile. This was one of Google’s original methods of connecting your blog and Google+ profile. There are some nuances involved, but the concept is pretty straightforward. You’re essentially vouching for each entity by linking your Google+ account to the blog (and vice versa).

When you create the link to your Google+ account from the blog, you need to add the following tag within the link element of the HTML code: rel=”author”.  And then when you’re linking back to the blog on Google+, just go to the contributor section and add the link back to the blog. Similar to the previous method, you can go into Google Webmaster Tools to verify the data presented.

Actionable Insights

The rel=author tag is another example of Google+ expanding its inroads in the social media sphere through its dominance in search (Search Plus Your World, Google+ Local and Google+ custom URLs are other examples.)  This represents an opportunity for companies, bloggers, and authors to expand their reach through organic traffic.

However, increased rankings will only happen for quality content. The old adage that content is king still holds true and may be more important now than ever. Covario encourages everyone to take the time to complete the rel=author process and grow their circle of influence, but this alone will get you nowhere. Only with quality, shareable content will the rel=author increase your rankings and traffic.