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Has Google’s Author Rank Arrived?

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In this article I am going to provide a short review of the recent events related to Authorship and Google’s In-Depth Articles feature, and then provide my analysis as to what this means for Author Rank and the birth of “In-Depth Article SEO.”

Back in January of 2013, I predicted that Author Rank would become a real ranking signal during 2013. I wrote in more detail about Author Rank in March of 2013.

In case you haven’t seen Copyblogger’s recent articles about Author Rank, it all started to be something people speculated on when Google announced its rel=author intiative back in June of 2011.

It caused quite a stir in the online publishing world.

The rel=author tag was a way that authors could tag content that they created, and the short term payoff would be placement of the author’s picture in the search results similar to this one:

The benefits of having the author’s picture next to their article were obvious, but it also marked the moment when the world became aware that Google collects behavior on individual authors. People were fast to speculate — surely Google wants this information for more than just giving the ability to provide rich markup in the search results?

Not much was heard after that until Google announced In-Depth Articles. Here is how that looks in the wild:

What you are seeing is the bottom of the search results page for the search “US Constitution.” At the bottom you see a brand new search feature, a highlighted set of articles the address the topic in a comprehensive manner. Finally, there was an additional payoff to rel=author tagging!

A forewarning from Google’s Chairman

Just 19 days after my predictions for 2013, the Wall Street Journal published its comments on The New Digital Age, a book written by Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt. These comments included this quote (bold is mine):

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.

This is a powerful statement by one of the most powerful people in Google. Schmidt makes it clear that Authorship will be a very material factor in search ranking.

Analysis

In-Depth Articles was the first time Google clearly showed one way that they could potentially leverage Author Rank to impact search results.

Frankly, I cheered at Google’s statement in the announcement of the rationale for this initiative: “up to 10% of users’ daily information needs involve learning about a broad topic.” Yes, people actually do sometimes want to do real research, not just get a sound bite. Readers of Copyblogger and/or my writings know that we both have always believed that.

One of the more interesting statements about the initiative is on the Google Webmaster Tools Help page on in-depth articles:

Authorship markup helps our algorithms to find and present relevant authors and experts in Google search results.

This is the one statement made by Google in connection with In-Depth Articles that sounds like it is talking about Author Rank. Note though that the orientation of the statement has more of a “discovery” flavor to it. I think this is one big key to thinking about the true meaning of the in-depth articles feature.

From Google’s perspective, it is important that we think of in-depth articles as a new search feature, because this is what it truly represents.

The fact that they see 10% of user’s daily information needs demanding in-depth content is huge. How huge? Let’s compare that to other types of market segments that people normally think of as huge:

You can see that many market segments that we think of as having huge volumes (travel, education, insurance, real estate) pale in front of the 10% number. Yet Google has given special treatment to many of these smaller market segments.

Consider the results for a search on “rome hotels”:

This tells us something — 10% is a whale of a segment, and Google has ample reason to target it. It is not even out of the question that this was one of the primary initial reasons for creating authorship in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I think they will use it in other ways, but this use is a biggie.

The current implementation of In-Depth Articles, however, appears to be making more use of the publisher’s authority (“PublisherRank”) than AuthorRank. Personally, for a variety of reasons, I expect this to change in the future, but it is not playing a big role just yet. As Per Google’s statements, it looks like the current use is discovery oriented.

What does it all mean?

Let’s take a look for a moment at the local search segment. Here is an example result for a Google search on “rental cars”:

Hopefully, it will strike you the same way it did me. Google designed a unique search experience for local search, you can see that the results look different and where they show up in the overall search results page varies. In addition, what gets shown in the local search results is determined by a unique and different search algorithm.

Currently, the in-depth articles share all of these same attributes except the fact that they only show up at the bottom of the search page (i.e. their position on the page does not vary as it does with local).

The birth of in-depth article SEO

This is a new algo, and it looks like PublisherRank is the key to doing well in the rankings for this new category of search, and I would be shocked if Author Rank did not become a big part of the process going forward. That’s a mouthful right there, but it’s true. Why should you develop this expertise? Whatever market segment you are in, 10% is a huge chunk of it. Not only that, it is the particular chunk that communicates authority.

Would it be useful for your business, or your author, to be seen as the authority in your market? You bet. My last column here in Copyblogger was 21 Reasons Why You Must Become an Expert so you know where I stand on that question!

This new type of SEO will be extremely hard to game (hallelujah!). Claiming authorship for your site and establishing yourself as an authority in your topic are essential for success. Having a strong presence on Google Plus will probably also be a factor.

Google cannot easily pull comprehensive data from other social networks, but they can easily see all the data on Google Plus. Social engagement with content will represent a valuable signal for measuring overall authority of an author.

I am also going on record here to predict that over time you can expect the placement of in-depth article results to change. They will not always be placed at the bottom. If I am right — just like local search — you will have a unique type of search result pulled from a different data base, driven by a different algorithm, and with a different look and feel, and its position will be determined by Google’s sense as to how important in-depth articles are for that particular search query.

Consider the search query click through rate data released by Optify in 2012:

The 2nd postion in this study netted 12.5% of the clicks, and the 3rd position netted 9.5%. Compare that to the 10% figure representing demand for deeper levels of information and you will quickly see what I mean.

Conclusion

Taking Google’s statements at face value, Author Rank has indeed been born, albeit in a limited way, as its current application is as a factor for In-Depth Article SEO, but looking at examples of In-Depth Article results, the bigger factor appears to be Publisher Rank. It may be that Author Rank is a key driver of Publisher Rank, but we don’t really know.

As you consider these questions, keep in mind that Google does not rely solely on rel=author tagging to evaluate Authorship, or Author Rank. There is plenty of evidence that they use other sources to determine who authors are. After all, they can’t assume that all publishers know how to implement rel=author, or even that they know it exists. Also, keep in mind that Google has never used the term “Author Rank” or “Publisher Rank”, that’s a term that we in the industry like to use.

Over time, we will see Google experiment with the placement and presentation of in-depth articles. We will presumably begin to learn what some of the driving factors are in this type of SEO, but fortunately, these types of signals will be very hard to game.

Do you want to win at this type of SEO? Become one of the leading authorities in your field, and implement a smart strategy for promoting that expertise.

Author Rank will probably be used in other ways as well. As Eric Schmidt suggested in The New Digital Age, it may be used to determine who is irrelevant vs. who is not in way that can be a filter in basic search too. We will probably see some of these other applications in the coming months.

But, for now, know that demonstrating your (or your company’s) expertise is more important than ever.

About the Author: Eric Enge is President of Stone Temple Consulting, a digital marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) firm. He is also a speaker at industry conferences about SEO and Social Media. Get more from Eric on his blog, Twitter, or Google+.

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