Author Rank – The Debate Continues

The author rank debateIs Author Rank Here or Not

For a couple of years now SEO types have debated whether Google’s author rank has been implemented or not.  For this discussion I’m defining Author Rank as a process in which Google scores an author and uses that score as one of the signals in determining where to rank the author’s content in the search results.  Most of the SEO community doesn’t think it has been implemented yet and two knowledgeable SEO pundits, Mark Traphagen and Eric Enge, presented a hang out today to tell why they don’t think author rank or any variation is live.

I watched the hangout and Mark Traphagen is utterly brilliant with an encyclopedic command of the facts. He is articulate and he and Eric made a very reasonable presentation why theybelieve that author rank or any kind of author scoring isn’t active yet.  However, as good as there explanations were, it is not conclusive and in some cases based on flawed knowledge. At the very least it deserves some more discussion.

Rand Fishkin’s Brush With Author Rank

Mark Traphagen did acknowledge a post shared by Rand Fishkin recently that definitely points to the distinct possibility that authorship or author rank may influence search results.  To briefly recap, Craig Addyman posted an interview with Rand Fishking on his “unauthoritative” blog and it didn’t rank very well in the search results, bouncing between 9th and 12 position for several months. However, when Craig Addyman added authorship markup for Rand Fishkin to the blog post, the article jumped to the number one position in the search results.  Rand Fishkin coyly commented, “Authorship isn’t supposed to impact rankings directly, right?”

But, this authorship markup obviously did impact the search results.  Before authorship it was ranking between position 9 and 12, after authorship position 1.  However, I’d like to insert here that it probably wasn’t authorship that caused the post to move to the number one position.  Most people will agree that the mere existence of authorship will not impact the search results.  If it was just authorship this would work for anybody that has authorship markup.  But it doesn’t. Rather, it was the author represented by the authorship markup, which points more to author rank than authorship.  Rand Fishkin is definitely an expert in his field with a ton of content that receives positive social signals and frequent resharing, all of the suspected ingredients for building authorship.

Mark Traphagen dismisses this saying it could have been something else.  He suggest that  maybe Google thought an interview about Rand Fishkin by Rand Fishking merited top billing.  Although this idea still includes the idea that Rand Fishkin has some klout (author score) it is possible.  But then again it presents just as powerful argument for author rank. And here’s why.

The Core of Google’s Ranking Algorithm

Matt Cutt’s, chief SEO guru, at Google tells us that there are two main elements to ranking content in the search results.

The first is relevance. For content to rank in the search results it has to be relevant to the search query.  This is most easily demonstrated when the keywords in the query are also in the content.

The second is reputation or reliability.  In the past this has often been determined by things like page rank.  If the content is on a web page that has a strong page rank, and it is the content that appears to be the most relevant to the search query than Google can have some confidence that the content is quality content and give it top rankings in the search results.

So let’s look at the Rand Fishkin example again.  The content was positioned between 9 and 12.  The content was probably relevant to the search query to even be this high in the search results, but as Craid Addyman says, it was on an unauthoritative blog.  The blog didn’t have enough juice to give Google the confidence it needed to position this content higher in the search results.

However, when authorship markup for Rand Fishkin was added this content moved from number 9 to number 1.  The content didn’t change.  What changed was the reliability factor.  That reliability or reputation factor was content attributed to Rand Fishkin.  There was something about Rand Fishkin that gave Google the confidence they needed to give this content top billing in the number one position in the search results.  That something could very easily be Author Rank.

More Possible Flaws in Mark and Eric’s Argument Against Author Rank

Also in this hangout Eric Enge told us that Google isn’t broken and reminded us that search was Google’s bread and butter and Google wasn’t going to do anything that would diminish the quality of the search results.  He also said that implementing author rank right now while so many experts aren’t using authorship mark up isn’t likely.  He said it just wouldn’t be fair for a writer who has had authorship mark up to outrank a leading expert in the field, just because the writer had taken the steps to include authorship mark up in his blog.  As esteemed as Eric Enge is I think this is a complete misunderstanding of the ranking process. or at least he spoke without thinking this through.  But before I address that I just want to suggest that possibly Eric is making author rank much more complicated than it needs to be.

Let’s go back to the two core elements of author rank; relevance and reliability.

Obviously author rank falls under reliability.  Author rank isn’t a ranking of authors against each other.  It is a reliability or trust score for specific content that is also relevant to the search query.

Again, Google is going to start with relevance.  Is the content relevant to the search query?

Then is the content reliable.  Google needs some confidence in the content to rank it at the top of the search results.  That confidence can from page rank or it can come from author rank.  I have seen many instances (just like the Rand Fishkin story above) of content immediately ranking high on page one of the search results in the absence of page rank where author rank could have been the only thing creating a reliability score. This does not have to be a major upheaval of the search results.  Google is going to look for a reliability score and if they can’t get it from page rank why not pull it from author rank.

As far as author rank being unfair to established experts who have not implemented Google authorship, that’s a misunderstanding of both Google’s ranking process and author rank.

Google needs a reliability score. That score will either come from among other things page rank or author rank.  For the expert without authorship to rank he will need his content to be on an accredited source, a website or blog with a high decent page rank.  If Google is already ranking him or her because of who they are, than that is just more evidence of author rank.  Now as far as Eric’s concerns about a possible injustice of author rank allowing a regular person to outrank an esteemed expert just because the regular person embedded some authorship code, that’s not going to happen.  That’s not what author rank is.  That is authorship.  For a person to develop an author rank score that will outrank other content, that person will need a significant body of work with positive social signals to demonstrate they are indeed an expert or authority on that top.  And if they do have these positive signals that have built up their author rank than they are just as viable authority as the expert who isn’t using Google authorship.  And before semantic search the expert would have little chance of ranking if he or she didn’t have a strong reliability signal in the form of page rank.

Author rank is not like to upset the apple cart of quality search results because search in most cases search is so specific, especially so with advent of semantic search.  A person will usually be searching for some specific piece of information.  Only limited content will have the exact answer to the query.  With ten search results per page there will be room for both the established expert with no authorship and other experts with high author rank demonstrating their expertise and author.

Let’s Not Forget the Why of Author Rank

Finally, let’s go back to one of the original goals of author rank  Google wants to display the best content, the most relevant and reliable content, for any search. If Google limits themselves to just accomplished website with high page rank, they know this may not always be the best content.  Page rank determined by inbound links is often flawed.  There’s the well known problem of fake purchased links, but there is also the problems of webmasters determining who get a link and who doesn’t.  This isn’t always the best indicator.  And if it is the only indicator, lots of great content on low page ranking websites would be ignored.  However, identifying and scoring experts on a topic eliminates this problem.  It is what caused Rank Fishkin’s content on an unauthoritative blog to jump into the number one top ranking.