The concept of author authority (or “author rank”) in Google Search has a long and somewhat muddy history.
To many of us, it makes sense that Google would value the “EAT” (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) of content creators in its quest to judge the quality of content. After all, wouldn’t you rather get medical advice from a properly credentialed M.D. than from some blogger who keeps WebMD open in a browser tab?
But does Google actually care about who created a content piece? And does it currently use that as an active factor in its search ranking algorithms?
TLDR Spoiler Alert! I’ll give you my conclusions right up top. For my supporting evidence, read the rest of the post! Bottom line: I don’t think we have sufficient evidence to say whether Google is using any kind of author authority in search. However, we do have evidence of an increasing (and renewed) interest by Google in identifying authors. If your content is meant to project the authority and reliability of your brand, then it makes sense for users to see that it’s written by credible subject matter experts. (Bonus: you’ll be all set if Google ever does crank up “Author Rank”!)
A Brief History of Author Authority and Google
Agent Rank / Author Rank
The origins of the concept of using a content creator’s authority and reputation go back to the agent rank patent granted to Google on July 21, 2009. The patent proposed a means of evaluating the contributors to various elements on a web page by determining the identity of each of the contributing “agents” with a “digital signature” and assigning a score to each one based on other content associated with it. (For an in-depth explanation of agent rank, see this post by Bill Slawski.)
The agent rank patent probably would have faded into the obscurity of Google history had it not been for a new Google project unveiled in 2011: Google Authorship.
On June 7, 2011, Google announced authorship markup for web search. Authorship was a development that allowed publishers and authors to create a digital signature for authors using Schema.org’s rel=”author” and rel=”me” structured data markup attributes.
Simply described, publishers could link an author byline to an author’s identifiable profile on another site, and authors could link back to the publications. That two-way linkage created a digital signature that would give Google more confidence about the identity of authors, and it created a connection with their content across the web.
While there were no initial benefits announced for using Authorship markup, there was a blockbuster tease in the last paragraph of the Google blog post: “We know that great content comes from great authors, and we’re looking closely at ways this markup could help us highlight authors and rank search results.”
It’s very rare that Google even hints at something it might use to influence search rankings, so the SEO community immediately sat up and paid attention (including this author).
Little did we know just how prepared Google was to move forward with putting Authorship into action. Just 22 days after the authorship blog post, Google unveiled Google+.
Google+ and Google Authorship
I’ve always believed that one of the chief reasons Google threw so much weight on Google+ in its early days was its hunger to be able to identify individuals on the web. This was a needed step for authorship to work, but it went far beyond that.
Google highly incentivized (some would say coerced or even forced) individuals to create Google+ profiles. For a span of time, it was almost impossible to use many Google services without one. I think the primary importance of this was for advertising. If Google had a trackable identity for nearly every web user, it would make targeting advertising to those users many times more accurate. That’s why I always laughed when people said Google+ was not “monetized”!
But this also meant that a lot of the web’s authors would have Google profiles. Now Google had the anchor it needed on the digital signature side to put Authorship into action.
Authorship Goes Live
Authorship leaped from something Google might use someday to an active part of search in August 2011, when Google’s Matt Cutts and Othar Hansen (then head of the Authorship project) released a YouTube video encouraging authors to connect their published content across the web to their Google+ profiles. Those profiles started showing a special section where authors could list links to their author bios or archive pages on the publications for which they wrote.
Aside from the useful instructions on how to implement Authorship markup, this video also introduced Google’s plan to begin showing the profile images of authors next to search results for their content. And Hansen also affirmed that “at some point” Google might use this markup to influence search rankings.
Soon after that, Authorship rich snippets started appearing in search.
The appearance and components of Authorship rich snippets changed constantly over Authorship’s three-year presence in the SERPs. The example above shows them at their most robust, with an author photo, byline, and the number of Google+ circles (followers).
At times, the byline was a link, leading to a dedicated search results page of that author’s content. For a few months, clicking on a Google link with Authorship and then clicking back to Google opened up a dropdown of more content by that author.
Authorship results were never guaranteed. They didn’t show for every author (even if the markup had been implemented), and even for those that got it, it didn’t show for every result for their content. There seemed to be some algorithmic thresholds for an Authorship snippet to show.
The Decline and Fall of Authorship
The first indication that Google was pulling back from Authorship came in early December 2013, when the number of Authorship snippets showing in search plunged overnight. Then, in June 2014, the author profile photos disappeared forever, leaving only the bylines.
On August 27, 2014, I got a phone call I never expected to get. Google’s John Mueller messaged me to ask if he could speak to me under a temporary NDA. After a quick electronic transfer of the paperwork, John called me to let me know that in 24 hours Google would be shutting down Authorship snippets in search.
John’s call was a much-appreciated courtesy to me, in recognition of the leadership and guidance I had shown to the Authorship community. It allowed Eric Enge and I to work through that night to create a 2,500-word article about the rise and fall of Authorship, which Danny Sullivan published on Search Engine Land minutes after John Mueller made the official Google announcement on Google+.
Why Was Authorship Abandoned?
I won’t go into depth about the reasons (both known and speculative) why Google gave up on Authorship in search, because Eric and I covered them well in the aforementioned Search Engine Land article. However, here they are in brief:
- Uneven adoption by authors and publishers. A study we did looked at Authorship markup adoption by authors on major publications, and it found less than a third of them had the necessary linkage. Google won’t use a signal that’s out of balance — one that potentially gives favoritism to some authors over others simply because they did some extra coding. Adoption also seemed skewed toward certain verticals, such as marketers (surprise!), and real estate and insurance agents.
- Lack of value to searchers. During our phone call, John Mueller told me that their testing showed that Authorship snippets did not seem to be valued by searchers.
- Emphasis on mobile-first. In interviews and Webmaster Hangouts post-Authorship, Mueller frequently blamed the rise of a mobile-first philosophy at Google for the death of Authorship, apparently meaning that the Authorship rich snippets didn’t fit well with that initiative.
In the end, whatever the reasons for the abandonment of the Authorship project, I think it was significant that it lasted as long as it did (three years). Most search experiments, especially those as prominently displayed on search pages as Authorship was, don’t last that long.
To me, that means despite the problems noted above, the idea of author authority in search was one Google thought had high potential.
Did Authorship Include Author Rank?
First, Author Rank was never a term used officially by Google. Instead, it was a popular concept in the search marketing community, based in part on Bill Slawski’s posts about the agent rank patent, but fueled by the hints from Google in 2011 that it “might someday” use Authorship as a search ranking signal.
Indeed, many in the search community simply assumed it must be in play, but they offered only anecdotal evidence. (“We got an authorship snippet for one post and three days later it went up three places in search!”) Eric Enge detailed the reasons why it was unlikely Google was using any sort of “Author Rank” back then, and I agreed with those reasons.
I believe Google knew it would have been premature to activate any kind of author authority in ranking algorithms during its tenure. However, I also believe it was in part a “training exercise” for any future use of author authority. I’m betting that Google learned a lot during the life of Authorship. More on that later.
Did Author Authority Die with Authorship?
Short answer: we don’t know.
But there are a number of hints and clues that indicate Google remains interested in the concept, if not as a ranking factor, then as an indicator of content quality and reliability. And we do know those things are more and more factoring into what Google likes to show users in search results.
Evidence That Author Authority Still Matters to Google
1. Content creators and the Google Search Quality Raters Guidelines
Renewed speculation about author authority began with the July 20, 2018, update to Google’s Search Quality Raters Guidelines (SQRG). The SQRG is the training document for the Search Quality Raters, which are the Google contractors tasked with evaluating actual web pages that could be served up by Google search in response to a given query.
The raters are told that the purpose of their work is “to evaluate search engine quality.” They do this by scoring the pages they are shown according to the overall quality of the page and how well it meets the needs of a typical user. Google sometimes uses the raters to test proposed changes to its search algorithms.
To get the highest score, a page must rate highly in Google’s three attributes of content quality, Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness (known by the acronym EAT).
SQRG update. A major addition to SQRG in the July 2018 update was the inclusion of “content creators” as part of the measure of content quality. Raters are told to look for a named creator associated with the content on a page, and then research where that creator shows up online. Specifically, raters are told to evaluate the EAT of the creator(s).
So at least as far as Google’s SQRG is concerned, the reputation and expertise of the creator(s) of a piece of content is an important component of the overall EAT rating of the piece.
In fact, the raters are told a low content creator score is enough to give the content piece itself a low-quality score.
It is important to note that Google has been very clear that the work of these raters does not affect particular search results. In other words, even though the raters are given real-world examples of content that shows up in search for a given query, their ratings are never used to affect the results for that query. However, as noted above, their findings may be used to improve the overall algorithm.
Also, Google has stated clearly that something appearing in the SQRG does not necessarily mean it is a direct ranking factor. However, at the same time, Google recommends we read these guidelines to gain a good idea of what it wants to see in its search results (which is why it now releases them publicly).
Google pushback? In a live YouTube video on August 21, Google’s John Mueller was asked about author reputation in search. The question was inspired by speculation by some prominent SEOs (such as Marie Haynes) that author reputation may have been a factor in the August 1 Google update that affected many “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) content publishers.
This speculation was fueled by a tweet from Google Search Liaison Danny Sullivan suggesting that SEOs affected by the update review the SQRGs, which of course prominently mentioned creator reputation.
However, John Mueller’s response to the question about author reputation being a factor in the update seems, at first glance, to contradict that idea:
“I wouldn’t look at the Quality Rater Guidelines as something our algorithms are looking at explicitly and checking out the reputation of all authors and then using that to rank your websites.” – John Mueller
To me, a significant word in this quote is “all.” I tweeted the following:
“Glad for this confirmation of what I was sure was the case. IF Google is using any author EAT in search, I’d imagine it is with a limited set of well-known creators (starting with KP [Knowledge Panel] entities) and used as what I call a “confirmatory signal.” By confirmatory signal, I mean it is not a ranking signal in and of itself, but if the algo is comparing two sites with content that demands expertise, and all other things are equal (VERY hypothetical situation), the site using a known high-EAT author might get the nudge.”
For what it’s worth, John Mueller himself liked my tweet.
Related: Dale Davies has a nice summary of Google author-related patents.
Significance: While we still can’t say there is at present some sort of “creator quality score” in Google’s search rankings, the major change to the SQRG is our strongest indication to date that who created a piece of content matters to Google.
2. Machine-Readable Entity IDs
As explained by Mike Arnesen in his excellent post Leveraging Machine-Readable Entity IDs for SEO, Machine-Readable Entity IDs (MREIDs) are unique codes in the form of a string of characters that identifies a particular entity anywhere on the web. An entity is any unique person, place, thing, or concept. So, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, is an entity, as are New York City and transcendentalism.
MREIDs are necessary for search, because the nouns we use to describe entities are often ambiguous. For example, even though my name is fairly uncommon, there is another Mark Traphagen whom people search for because he is a prominent intellectual property attorney. A machine can’t tell the difference between that Mark Traphagen and me by our names, but if we each have a unique code associated with us, then a machine can tell us apart.
As Mike explains in his article, Google originally sourced MREIDs from entries in Freebase, a massive database of entities that Google acquired in 2010. But these days, Google uses many sources to find and tag entities with MREIDs, if they’re significant enough to merit one. Based on Bill Slawski’s evaluations of Google patents, it appears that Google is likely already using MREIDs for many search features, including Google Trends, Google Lens, and Google Reverse Image Search.
Significance: If Google wants to identify and evaluate the EAT of authors on the web, something like MREIDs would be absolutely necessary. As I mentioned above, one of the fail points of Google Authorship was its dependence on authors and publishers voluntarily coding in the necessary connections. MREIDs allow Google to find, associate, and disambiguate entities such as authors at the scale of the web.
3. Interesting Finds Author Boxes
Early in 2018, Google introduced Interesting Finds boxes for some mobile search queries. These expandable boxes displayed content relevant to the search query that might not show in the top 10 traditional results but might still be of interest to the searcher.
For a brief period in August 2018, I noticed Google showing Interesting Finds boxes for searches of the names of some web authors, including yours truly. After about two weeks, I no longer saw the boxes for the authors who were getting them, which led me to believe this was a search test by Google.
Here’s what many Interesting Finds box looked like:
Clicking on “10+ more stories” at the bottom of the box displayed a long list of content, all of it authored by me.
Here’s where it gets interesting. I do not currently have an MREID with Google, nor does a Knowledge Panel display for my name. But clearly Google had high confidence that I was the author of all of the articles displayed.
Why were these boxes shown only for some authors? I believe that Google chose to show them in cases where people searched for a name that created some ambiguity (in my case there is another Mark Traphagen who is a well-known attorney), but where the prior behavior of searchers showed they were often looking for content by or about a particular author.
Significance: Even though this was a brief test in mobile search and no longer shows, it is another indication that Google thinks content authors might be significant for search.
4. That Gary Illyes Tweet
This isn’t recent, but it was a significant moment that kept me on the path of watching Google’s behavior toward authors even after the death of Google Authorship. At Google Webmaster Trends Analyst Gary Illyes’s session at SMX Advanced 2016 I asked him whether Google was still paying any attention to the rel=author tags we had coded in during the days of Authorship. Michelle Robbins recorded his response on Twitter (@methode is Gary’s Twitter handle):
— MichelleRobbins (@MichelleRobbins) June 23, 2016
There are two significant concepts in that brief response.
- “We are smarter than that” – an indication that Google was developing machine intelligence methods to identify and track authors at the scale and pace of the web.
- “Thanks for all that data” – something many of us tracking Authorship had speculated on was that Google had used the Authorship experiment as a training set of data for a supervised machine learning program that would learn how to identify and track authors, as well as for data on how searchers respond to indications of author reputation.
Again, we can’t leap from this to say conclusively that Google is using such an algorithm at this point, or if they are, to what extent. However, it is another strong indicator that they are working on such a project.
Bonus: Reranking Content Based on Content from an Original AuthorBill Slawski on (coverage of a new Google patent, as well as the diversity of opinion in the SEO community about how similar content from the same author is ranked in search).
Summing It Up
So what can we say about Google Search and author identity and reputation today? Here are my takeaways:
1. Something is in the works. While I can’t definitively state that author authority and reputation has any bearing on search results today, I am convinced that it continues to be something that Google is not only interested in, but is actively working on, and perhaps even testing in limited ways.
2. Not all authors. While Google Authorship was open to any author or publisher who bothered to implement the code, I believe one of the things Google discovered during the experiment was that not all authors matter. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. It’s likely that people are only swayed to any extent by who created a piece of content if they happen to recognize the author and already understand that author’s significance.
3. Not all content. In a similar fashion, I wouldn’t expect that Google would care about who authored every single piece of content on the web. In recent years, Google has given us many indications that YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) content merits significantly more scrutiny than other types. This is content that could affect either people’s finances or their well-being. It matters a lot whether investment advice is written by a trusted financial advisor, and even more if medical information is written by a legitimate doctor or scientist.
4. The company you keep. Even in cases where users might not care or pay attention to who created a piece of content, the reputation and relevance of the author still might matter. This is where my idea of confirmatory signals for search comes in. Again, a confirmatory signal is not a direct ranking factor in and of itself. Rather, it could be used to “tip the scales” so-to-speak where Google needs some extra confirmation that a piece of content is high quality.
The most important takeaway though is that whether or not author authority affects search in any way now, it’s still a good idea to apply two things to the content published on your site:
- Seek out the best possible authors for your content. Don’t let just anyone write for you. Before accepting a content submission, check out where and what the author has already published. Are the publications and topics relevant to what this author is writing for you? Is the content high quality, filled with accurate and significant information and original thought? What do others say about this author?
- Clearly identify the authors of your content. Give each author their own bio page on your site with important information about their qualifications and experience. Link your article bylines to that bio page, and link out from it to other places where the author has published.
Here at Perficient Digital we go above and beyond in vetting the authors we use to create content for our clients. We do that for many reasons, but one benefit we have found is that it makes our content much more likely to be accepted for publication when we pitch it to third-party publishers.
But why should you care about your authors if it isn’t (yet) certain that Google is using authorship as a search factor? For at least two reasons:
- It’s the right thing to do for your visitors and your brand. People form impressions of your brand based on the quality of your content, and one way to ensure higher quality content is to only use the best, most qualified authors.
- It future-proofs your SEO. As I hope I’ve demonstrated, Google is showing that they remain interested in author expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. Even if they are not using that as a search factor now, I expect they will be ramping it up in the years to come. Using high-quality authors on your site now will make you ready if Google ever flips that switch (or more likely, turns up the knob a bit).
Mark Traphagen was our Content Strategy Director for Perficient Digital until February of 2019. He has been named one of the most influential content and social media authors in numerous industry listings.