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Google Author Authority in Search Gets Personal

With the recent announcement by Google that they were bringing their three-year Google Authorship program to an end, many have been proclaiming two assumptions on social media and in blogs and blog comments: that this means both the death of author authority in search for Google and is another coffin nail in the Google+ casket.
However, a couple of things I’ve observed seem contrary to both those assumptions:

  • the increased emphasis on personalized “authorship” results for Google+ content from people and brands, and
  • a recent patent granted to Google about personalized, query-specific author authority as a ranking factor.

Google+ Authorship

As I wrote recently on LinkedIn, even though we no longer see Authorship rich snippets (author photo and/or byline) in regular search results, we do see very similar-looking results for Google+ posts from people or brands we have circled on Google+ (or who are in our Gmail contacts, according to some testers). For example, this morning searching while logged in to my Google+ account for “authorrank,” I got the following on page one of my results:
Google Plus authorship-style result in personalized search
Look carefully at the URLs under each of the link titles in those results. These are Google+ posts. That’s the only place from which we are seeing these types of results now. Even though I call this “Google+ Authorship” this isn’t really Google Authorship, strictly speaking, These results are not dependent on any links or markup. Google already knows the direct connection between Joshua and Dustin and their posts (of course), and it knows they are connected to me (i.e., I have them in my Circles).
By the way, on the same day author photos disappeared from regular Google search (around 28 June 2014), I noticed that for the first time in the US we started getting some brand rich snippet results when searching logged in for something about which a brand we have circled has relevant content on Google+. For example, if I search “rv storage tips” while logged in to Google today, I get this on page one:
Google plus branded search result rv storage tips
I don’t see those results ranking at all if I’m logged out, and Extra Space Storage‘s only ranking for that term in global search is for a YouTube video…on page two of the SERPs. To be clear, I have Extra Space Storage circled on Google+.
(For some hints on how powerful this type of result can be, and how it might be useful for those trying to be influential in search, see my article on Google Plus in personalized search.
Implications for Google+ and Author Authority: Those sorts of results, still showing weeks after Google discontinued use of rel=author markup for search, demonstrate that while Google may not have thought Authorship results were, in the end, useful for searchers, personalized author results from people with whom you have a connection can be useful. And of course, Google+ provides Google with clear data on those connections for anyone who uses it.
So…might the future of any kind of “author rank” in search be personalized (i.e., relative to the searcher’s probable connections to a given author)? Don’t touch that dial! There’s more just below!

Personalized, Query-based Author Authority in a New Google Patent

Earlier this week Google patent expert Bill Slawski published news about a patent granted to Google just a couple of days after the announcement that the rel=author Authorship project was ending.
According to Bill, the new patent, titled “Showing prominent users for information retrieval requests” describes a method by which Google might identify users of a social network as being authoritative for certain “trigger queries.” The system would then elevate in search content from those authors when searchers who are connected to them in a social network search for the trigger queries (or related synonyms of those queries).
As always, we must caution that having a patent does not obligate the patent holder to actually use any or all of the patent. But might there be evidence that Google already has this in play to some extent?
The patent does not specifically mention Google+, nor does it specify that the elevated content has to come from Google+ (or from any social network). However, since Google has full access to all data from Google+ (and much more limited access to many other social networks), it makes sense that if Google were starting to test the elements in this patent, they would begin with Google+. It is possible the Google+ “authorship” results I showed above are a first move in this direction.
Is Google Using This Now as a Sort of Author Rank? It’s intriguing to think that Google might already be using ideas from this patent to boost web content for logged-in searchers whom it knows are connected to the author of the content. In fact, I thought for a moment I might have spotted such a boost this morning.
In my search for “agentrank,” I noticed that a result from Bill Slawski’s site was showing at #4, while a result from was showing at #5:
agentrank search result logged in
When I did the same search logged out of Google, however, the page jumps up to #4, and the page drops to #7. Aha, I thought! AuthorRank! Even though I’m connected on Google+ to both Bill Slawski (seobythesea author) and Joshua Berg (realsmo author), Google sees Bill as more authoritative on the trigger query “authorrank” (a conclusion with which I’m sure even Joshua would agree!), and therefore his page gets an extra boost in my search!
Not so fast. Take a closer look.
When I’m logged in, Google sometimes adds an annotation to search results that appear in my browsing history. As it turns out, I’ve visited both of those pages in the past. Take a close look at the annotations for each:
agentrank results personalized with annotations
As you can see, I’ve visited Bill’s page “many times” whereas I’ve visited Joshua’s only once. (Actually twice; the original date was much earlier, but I had clicked through to it the day I was writing this post, hence a recent date showing. Not enough, apparently, to trigger the “many times” annotation.)
So it is just as likely, perhaps more so, that Bill’s result got jumped over Joshua’s in my personalized search simply because I’ve visited it many more times. This makes sense as a personalized search result. It’s very likely that if I’m searching a query I’ve searched before, and there is a page I’ve visited many times that is relevant to that query, that I may actually be trying to find that page again.
Another factor that could be affecting personalized rankings is engagement with content (by +1’ing or sharing) on Google+ by people in your circles. Google used to show that as an annotation in personalized search, but stopped showing it at the time they removed Authorship from general search. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still having an effect on your logged-in searches.
Conclusion on the Patent. While this new patent holds out intriguing possibilities for a connection between personalization, personal connections, and query-specific author authority, it would be difficult to prove that it is in use for those purposes at this time. Certainly it could be a factor for non-Google+ web pages, but if it is it may be so mixed in with other signals that it is difficult to discern. There are a lot of things that factor into personalized rankings.
On the other hand, it is possible that the personalized Google+ results may be evidence of an implementation of ideas from this patent, as the patent has been around long enough (filed in 2012) and we see very clear evidence of the importance of author connection in those results. However, it is difficult to discern any query-specific authority even there. For example, in this blog post I showed that I could rank a Google+ post for the keyword “marietta pa homes” for people who have me circled. Dozens of people from around the world who have me circled on Google+ confirmed that they got the same page one result. Smashing…but I can hardly claim to be authoritative for homes in Marietta, Pennsylvania, a place I’ve visited just once in my life.

Overall Implications for Google+ and Author Authority

Google+. I think the results we’ve shown here, along with the intentions in the patent Bill Slawski unveiled, speak in favor that, in the case of Google+, to paraphrase a classic Monty Python line, “It’s not dead yet!”
While Google may have withdrawn for now from pushing authors in search the way it did for three years with Google Authorship, they have not at all pulled back from emphasizing authorship of content when they are sure of its relevance to a query and the connection of that author with the searcher. And all of that happens best for them right now within Google+.
Takeaway 1: If you have worked hard at building a significant following on Google+ and have been posting well-optimized content there that is likely to be relevant to topics for which your audience searches, you may gain a significant advantage in search exposure to that audience.
Author Authority: The continuance of authorship-style results for Google+ in personalized search, along with the continued issuance of author-authority-related patents like the new one mentioned here, would seem to indicate that Google is far from finished with the concept of using author authority in search. It may still take some time for them to develop a more universal and fair entity-based system for identifying authors and their content, but once they do, we might expect to start seeing content from authoritative authors performing higher, at least in personalized searches.
Takeaway 2: Continue to build your authority in your niche via your content, your social web presence, and your real-life opportunities. Google is working on ways to figure out who matters in topical areas. You want to be one of those people. For helpful advice on this, see AJ Kohn’s “Build Your Authority Not Your Author Rank.”

Thoughts on “Google Author Authority in Search Gets Personal”

  1. I still see no reason for going this way. The problem with Authorship always was that not enough niches used it, only techy stuff.
    But with the things you discovered here it gets even more ridiculous in my opinion as looking at the bigger picture nobody uses Google+ or circles people besides people like us that are into SEO or internet marketing or something else very techy…
    So why would they go through all this trouble.
    Haha, never saw the publisher markup in search results till your Extra Space Storage example 😀
    Wasn’t really surprised by the removal of the Authorship snippet but this is kinda weird. Wondering what Google is gonna do about their “social” network…
    Greetings from Austria,

  2. Hi Alexander. Your comments are a bit all over the map, so difficult to respond to, but let me make a general response. It’s easy for us now to be what we call here in the US “Monday morning quarterbacks.” The expression comes from when the big football games of the week were on Sundays. A Monday morning quarterback is the guy at the office water cooler on Monday morning who, with the power of hindsight, seems to know exactly how his team should have run their plays the day before.
    My point is that three years ago Google could not have predicted how Authorship adoption would go, and obviously considered it an experiment worth trying. It’s easy for us to castigate them now because we are looking back from the other end. But as the old saying goes, you never know until you try.

  3. Mark, you described well how Google fits the authority/influence ranking into the search results.
    There is a complementary side to it which is actually encouraging those users having highest authority/influence to generate the content in the first place (the content which would later transform into the highly ranked reference in Google+ personalized search results). To this extent, Google filed a patent, currently pending, named ‘Bidding on users’.
    For more see:
    1) Google pending patent ‘Bidding on users’ (US 20100228631)
    2) Slideshare – “3 disrupting pending patents in online campaigns by Google, Facebook and Yahoo”

  4. One of the topics that Google wants in a website is quality content and transparency of intent. Google needs to embrace the perceived weakness in their social platform and say “We’re going to reward really great and genuine content. And we are going to be transparent in how Google+ will benefit your brand.” If they did that, and kept their word, people would be flocking to it. Why? More and more people are frustrated with Facebook and most people are still stumped about Twitter. LinkedIn has a clear benefit, ad this is what Google+ must adopt if it to be relevant and leveraged by the average online denizen.

  5. I hear you, Edwin, and agree that Google has never made a clear case for the benefits of Google+ for businesses. They’ve never answered the question of why G+ would be worth the extra effort. Of course, if much of the benefit is in search, Google has always been very reluctant to discuss anything that influences search results.

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Eric Enge

Eric Enge is part of the Digital Marketing practice at Perficient. He designs studies and produces industry-related research to help prove, debunk, or evolve assumptions about digital marketing practices and their value. Eric is a writer, blogger, researcher, teacher, and keynote speaker and panelist at major industry conferences. Partnering with several other experts, Eric served as the lead author of The Art of SEO.

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