This time last year, I took some time to research the topic of rel=”author” for a quick fire talk at BrightonSEO.

This led me to some interesting conclusions around the future of Authorship and its relationship with search engines, particularly in the realms of authors being ranked within a system, which has come to be known as ‘AuthorRank‘.

It has been a full 18 months since we saw the release of Authorship, but in that time, it appears many people in the industry genuinely believe that AuthorRank is in effect.

In reality, they are two different things, and the latter has actually been coined from within the SEO industry – taking from an earlier patent named “Agent Rank”. My argument is that AuthorRank’s role has been overstated, and any potential effect is being overhyped.

The AuthorRank myth

A number of US commentators have suggested that AuthorRank is going to be massive. Indeed, AJ Kohn opens his extremely thorough explanation of the system with:

“AuthorRank could be more disruptive than all of the Panda updates combined.”

But whatever wobbles are likely to come with the full rollout of the system, they certainly haven’t come yet, and I would argue that claims of turbulence are over stated. There are two key reasons why a meaningfully impactful existence of AuthorRank cannot occur in the short term. 

1. Complexity in creating a viable ecosystem

Google filed the Agent Rank patent as early as 2007. At the time, Bill Slawski wrote on Search Engine Land (in what I still find the most well rounded explanation of an AuthorRank style ecosystem):

“Imagine a system that instead of ranking content on a page level, breaks those pages down and looks at smaller content items on those pages, which it associates with digital signatures.”

Authorship is effectively a signature system, with Google+ serving as an identity card, but the creation of an ecosystem effective enough for an algorithm to accurately rank authors relies heavily on third parties to implement. Technically changing websites to meet particular systems is significantly more expensive than creating hyperlinks, but to realise the full potential of AuthorRank, I would expect to see significantly more complex markup than a link to and from a far from ubiquitous social network. Indeed, Slawski points out:

“Content pieces can have multiple signatures based upon roles an agent may take involving the content, such as author, publisher, editor, or reviewer.”

Such a system would make better sense in a thorough and professionally based editorial process. Yet this system would be expensive to create – you could probably do it using Schema – but there is no accepted method of doing it in a similar manner to Authorship Markup.

Bearing in mind that three of the largest publishing sites in the world, in the BBC, The Guardian and Mail Online do not have correct basic authorship markup, we can consider it very unlikely that Google will be able to roll out a serious AuthorRank contribution to its algorithm soon.

It would frankly be absurd for Google, for all of its boldness, to roll out a major ranking factor designed to favour authoritative publishers, if the world’s most authoritative publishers were not implementing it. The quality of the search results would be ruined.

2. Not everything should or will have an author identity

A huge chunk of information that most hyperbole pumped AuthorRank articles miss, is that a vast proportion of the commercialised internet should not have Authorship Markup at all: product pages. It would be similarly absurd to have a system where an author stamps their authority on a 250 word description of a children’s playpen, as if this will give the said author more collective authority in the vertical of kindergarten toys.

It is possible that an author’s face can show up in a SERP for a product page with the correct markup on, but this has nothing to do with AuthorRank. It is only that the markup exists for Google to (incorrectly) show an author for a product page.

Potentially, well trusted authors or individuals endorsing products may help their ranking, but this isn’t a system very far away from what we have today. Celebrities can endorse of products on any media to help boost sales, while links towards favoured product pages helps their ranking anyway.

A massive step change? It’s simply the same thing on different media – not a big deal really.

Three myths and realities about AuthorRank:

  • Myth #1: Your AuthorRank is dependent on the number of Google+ circles you are in.
  • Reality: Even if AuthorRank did exist (which I will stop stipulating from here), Google wouldn’t create such a poor system given its knowledge of webspam. Since YouTube contributors also have Authorship Markup, you could just as easily say that it is entirely dependent on the number of video views you have.
  • Myth #2: Your Authorship Markup showing in search results (and the power of your AuthorRank) is heavily reliant on how much you post on Google+.
  • Reality: Take a look at the below image from my Google+ profile: 

I haven’t updated it since either, yet my Author Markup shows clearly on every posts I’ve ever published.

  • Myth #3: AuthorRank exists… at all…
  • Reality: Well it didn’t according to Web Master Trends Analyst John Mueller in a Google Hangout on 18th January. Here he is explaining that he is:

“not aware of anything specific around that at the moment”

Will AuthorRank ever be important?

For the reasons stipulated above, it’s difficult to say whether or not AuthorRank will really become the game changer it’s being touted as – and almost certainly not during 2013. It seems likely that it will become a more relevant signal at some stage, but creating a viable system around online identity that also creates a ranking system is an extremely tricky business, and relies very heavily on third parties getting the implementation correct.

This will also be a significantly more complex system than the relatively easy method of linking content to Google+ that we’ve grown more used to in the last 18 months. What makes it even more difficult is that the creation of a central online identity system is controversial.

Facebook and Google appear antagonistic to online privacy and anonymity, a position that Christopher Poole, the creator of 4chan believes, ‘is… again… like just completely… nuts.’  

Is identity really authenticity? That debate is still being had, and for as long as it rolls on, we probably won’t be seeing the watershed moment of transparency that a system as complex as AuthorRank will demand.

Further Reading: