Google launched its authorship program last year and, using the “rel=author” markup, authors are given a more prominent listing in the SERPS. 

Implementing this is relatively easy to do (some useful instructions here) and it has the potential to improve CTR through enhanced search results. 

But how significant is this now, and how will Google use this in future? 

I asked several search experts for their views….

Why did Google introduce its authorship program?

Andrew Girdwood, Media Innovations Director at Bigmouthmedia:

It’s a trust signal for both their users and their algorithm.

Peter Handley, SEO Director, the MediaFlow:

I suspect that this is all part of their integration of Google Plus into the main search functionality. First of all, to get your picture appearing in the search results, you need to have a Google Plus account, and jump through Google’s hoops to qualify. 

It can then use all this personal information to link up the various properties that writers are contributing content to, and determine a writer’s authority.

Teddie Cowell, SEO Director, Guava:

As I mentioned in the 2012 predictions, Google has an agenda around authenticating content. Authorship tags are one way of doing that authentication. 

For individual authors authorship tags are great, however personally I am not such a fan of authorship tags because I think they aren’t always in the interest of publishers and give to much control to individual authors.

I don’t like the fact that the author link from the search results page can only be linked to the Google+ profile, and not an author’s profile page on the publisher’s website, apparently Google is aware of this as a general concern and is working to address it.

Personally, I prefer Direct Connect and publisher tags.

Since August 2011, Google has toned down the display of the profile image a lot, and also removed the link from the image so it’s not quite so bad now as it was in the first iteration.

Tom Anthony, SEO Consultant, Distilled

Linking a specific author to a page provides Google with a lot of data. It uses Google+ as the identity service to verify an author but that normally leads you to the other social profiles for that user.

You can then use that to adjust the ‘trust’ in that link and alter how much juice it passes, and you can also use it for personalisation (see this for how much data Google is are compiling on who people are connected to).

In short – it is a powerful data point for both adjusting the trust of authored links and for improving personalised search (the big /threat from Facebook). I believe Google+ is as much about defending search territory as it is about attacking social.

Shelli Walsh, Director at Shellshock UK:

I would consider that part of the reason for rel=author is Google forcing more integration of it’s products on the search results and to drive more people to having a G+ account. That is the cynical view.

I also believe it is an attempt to combat scraped content ranking higher than the original article, so that low value scraper sites can be hit.

Kevin Gibbons, Founder, SEOptimise

Google has added a more human element over who owns a specific piece of content. Google has realised how important social is as a indicator towards assessing the quality of a website, and because in many ways social media is more about personal branding than it is company branding this change starts to make more sense.

So that means Google doesn’t want to just measure the influence of a brand profile on Twitter/Facebook/Google+ – it wants to know about it’s employees, it’s fans and followers.  

How does using rel=author benefit a website?

Andrew Girdwood:

It can have a pretty significant impact on CTR. Websites benefit if they manage to land well known “Google authors” too.

The attribute certainly helps the author build their personal brand.

Peter Handley:

If the Google Webmaster Tools Labs statistics were to believed(before they were removed) then there was some good uplift in click through rates, particularly when that was the only face visible on a page.

This is about making your search results snippets stand out more from others on the page, and the increases in click through rates were comparable to what we’ve seen with review and recipe rich snippets.

Edward Cowell:

The author tag helps Google determine content which is authentic, and helps the listing stand out in the results page. However, I believe the benefit varies depending on the type of website.

For single owner blogs it is massive because you have one author who publishes the content on their website, but for big news sites and larger publishers with lots of authors I am not so sure the benefit is as cut and dry.

There are important considerations about whether their content should be linked with author’s personal profiles.

Tom Anthony: 

At the higher level, e.g. for Econsultancy, I think there is a lot to be gained from adopting it.

You have well-respected and well-trusted authors, Google already tracks this but adding authorship and verifying these authors will enhance its ability here.

Google can see that you have a range of authors who all have authoritative inbound links (with authorship it can see how many inbound links different authors on your site are getting) and who are all engaged and respected socially. 

At the lower level there is also the benefit that you should see an uptick in CTR for authored posts where the rich snippet is appearing, as well as appearing more in personalised search results.

Shelli Walsh: 

The author tag will become an important trust signal for a website (or individuals will build up power through their influence) so it will become essential to have influencers contribute to your site and for you to contribute to influential sites.

Having quality content is now on everyone’s mind. The old ranking approach has died with the recent changes to algorithms and we now have to embrace a networking approach to building links.

The author tag will help by leaving a footprint of an author, so they take more care of where they tread. Having the strength of an industry authority footprint behind your G+ account will create power users and their value will increase greatly.

Kevin Gibbons:

The two obvious answers at the moment are to:

  1. Increase CTRs by getting your listing to stand out more. 
  2. To promote your Google+ profile within Google’s search results and as a result increase your visibility and following. 

Of course it’s also a very nice promotion for Google itself, by integrating profiles straight into its search results. This is going to help build traffic and increase user numbers/potential market share, which I’m sure hasn’t gone un-missed as an opportunity.

This also provides users with a reason for going back to Google+, which is something early adopters have struggled to find so far with far more interaction and ‘stickyness’ on Twitter and Facebook.

How significant will this be in future?

Andrew Girdwood:

Many are predicting it’ll be pretty significant. I’m inclined to agree but for it to be used heavily then a lot of bloggers/authors will have to be use it. Once a lot of people are using it then the impact lessons.

It’s possible to create hundreds pages of pretty good but computer-generated text these days. It’s also easily possible to maintain hundreds of sock puppet accounts.

What’s not easy to do is maintain lots of popular sock puppet accounts or have the same 100 sock puppet accounts all write about the same content at about the same time without Google noticing.

Authorship, therefore, is well positioned to be a safe signal for Google.

Peter Handley:

I think for blogs and news, there are clear reasons for this to become significant.

Author Rank seems to be one of the new industry buzzwords at the moment, and you can see why Google want to link this data up.

No longer would it just be enough to create an article using any old made-up name, if you wanted that to rank, reputation and authority will matter. There of course could be ways to fake that, but it would to add to the workload.

For other areas of websites, I’m not so sure. Would it matter that a trusted author had written a product description or sales copy? Probably not, although clearly this isn’t its purpose.

I think for this to have real significance though, I think it needs to tie up social properties beyond Google Plus.

Edward Cowell:

Authentication, massive. Underlying everything we do online.

Tom Anthony: 

I think Google’s perfect world is one where all links are authored; that is obviously never going to be the case but I think they will reach a threshold where authored links have a significant impact on the search results.

Google is already aggressively embedding Google+ into its wider range of services, pushing it hard on users, and I can’t imagine we are going to see any reversal in this.

I believe old school media would be foolish not to adopt it. The internet has eaten away at the idea of the ‘respected journalist’ that people follow but this could help to restore that a bit.

What I am hoping we see is that there is somewhat of a revolt due to this being tied to Google only, thereby making it not accessible to any other search engines or services.

However, if there was a way to use, for example, OpenID as the identify service instead of Google+ then this would allow social tools and all sorts to really start doing some cool stuff.

In short, I can’t see it going in reverse, and so it’ll only increase in importance over the next 12-24 months. If social signals did overtake links as a ranking factor in the future, then authorship markup is perfectly situated to cross that divide.

Shelli Walsh: 

I really think this is going to be huge, probably bigger than anyone else in anticipating.

It will probably take a least 12 months to get started but I think in a few years time those who have built up a strong, trusted footprint of authority with their author contributions will become power players in terms of the influence they can have on an article/site.

It is going to be very difficult and time consuming to create false personas for authors to use them for marketing. It may well be you start to see more personality led sites becoming stronger in rankings.

Kevin Gibbons:

In my opinion, very.

Google is aware that the importance of a website shouldn’t just be based around links. Social is a huge indicator of influence and many people will now share great content instead of linking to it.

That makes things harder for Google as it means that by ignoring social it’s missing out on a huge part of the big picture when reviewing how authoritative a website is.

This means that brands now struggle to rank so highly if they just hire copywriters to publish content for them. If Google is going to measure a the influence of a writers social profile when ranking content, you should do the same when looking to hire them too!

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