Google Authorship was a shake-up for the online community. Suddenly, authors and their content could be tied together, and people could be recognized as authoritative entities on subject matter. But in all the excitement, focus has been put in the wrong place. In this piece, I look at why chasing the metrics surrounding the debated idea of author rank isn’t worth your time.
but First, some important history.
In 2005, Google filed a patent for something called “Agent Rank,” a method of essentially assigning a score to agents associated with pieces of content via digital signatures.
Then, in June of 2011 (a full six years later, and proof that not every patent gets put to use immediately—or ever), Google announced the arrival of authorship markup. In the same year, they filed a continuation patent for Agent Rank, this version outlined the inequality of authors and outlined how reputation could influence the significance of a reference.
If nothing else, this should prove author rank exists as a concept—one Google has thought of and liked enough to patent.
“But, is it a ranking factor?”
Nearly immediately after the announcement of authorship markup, the rumour mill got to work debating whether or not it would impact search results. We had one answer in the form of higher click-through rates on pieces with authorship. But what about organic ranking?
Google has denied that authorship has an influence on rankings for a long time—even up until October of 2013 when John Mueller said in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t a factor at that point. But they HAVE made statements about wanting to promote the content of more credible and trusted authors:
“We are doing a better job of detecting when someone is sort of an authority in a specific space. It could be medical, it could be travel, whatever. And trying to makes sure that those rank a little more highly, if you are some sort of authority or a site that, according to the algorithms ,we think might be a little bit more appropriate for users.”
The above quote came from Matt Cutts in July of 2013, which contradicted Mueller’s claim made months later.
And then something curious happened. As noted by AJ Kohn, the leads on the authorship project (Othar Hansson and Sagar Kamdar) made a relatively covert exit without any apparent replacements. It looks as though the project was, as AJ describes, “Shuttered.” Even so, perfecting authorship remains an important and valuable endeavor to undertake and the idea of Author Rank persists. People continue to ask the question of how to manipulate it to become more influential with the ultimate goal of improving search placement. They ask:
- Should I circle more influential people, and try to get them to circle me? (Manipulating circle counts in less scrupulous ways is also common.)
- Should I try to get more +1’s on my content, or dish out more +1’s myself? (Buying +1’s is a lucrative gig for more than a few folks on Fiverr.)
- Do I need to try and raise my page rank, or the page rank of sites I contribute to? (Link manipulation ain’t dead, folks.)
But in the same way, SEOs have had to learn to think outside of the algorithmic box and beyond link schemes/manipulation, authors need to rethink the way they approach building influence.
“Real Company Stuff”
Wil Reynolds made the phrase “Real Company Shit Stuff” (RCS) famous and helped to shift the thinking of SEO away from chasing the algorithm and toward doing the things your customers care about that have an impact beyond rankings.
The idea behind RCS is that when you focus on the activities that build a brand and an audience (not just rankings), search engine positioning will follow naturally. Rankings began to be thought of as an outcome, not a goal in and of themselves.
What’s challenging about that is connecting the dots between doing something like supporting a community charity and your search placement. Keep in mind, though, that Google’s goal is to try and mirror real-world authority.
Measuring metrics is still a valuable thing to do, especially retroactively as a means of understanding how influential you are at a given point in time. It’s how you generate those metrics that matters—and where you put your focus.
It’s time to bring that thinking into a new context: Authorship and authority.
If authors want to build their influence, it’s time to do some Real Author Stuff. Instead of making higher placement the goal, treat it like the outcome of establishing yourself as an actual authority on the subject. That means brands and individual authors alike need to abandon some bad habits and take on some new ones:
1. Hone your craft
Nobody’s asking you to pen a literary classic, but don’t let your message get trampled by the medium. It might not sound sexy, but a sure-fire way to up the ante on your influence is to refine your communication style, whether that’s improving your self-editing skills, eliminating your bad habits or hiring yourself an editor (one of the smartest and yet least common approaches). While your work needs to remain authentically yours, typos, garbled layouts and poor readability won’t do you any favors.
2. Find Your Voice (Go on, be somebody!)
Two million blog posts are going to be published within the next 24 hours. That is an avalanche of information and a cacophony of noise that can be incredibly difficult to break through. Consumers certainly care about the quality and relevance of the information you give them but providing that alone isn’t what establishes you as an authority.
It’s your voice! It’s the personality you bake in and the way you communicate that sets you apart and changes you from an information source into someone people respect. That voice needs to be:
- Unique – Don’t reinvent the wheel or be different for the sake of being different. Your voice should be your own, not ripped off of other successful people. You want to be a stand out, not a clone.
- Authentic – Your best voice is the one that flows from you naturally. Don’t try to be a comedian if you’re not. Don’t shoot for controversy if it’s not your style. Be you.
- Consistent – Don’t blow with the wind. Your offline voice needs to match up with your online voice, and from piece to piece, you need to maintain a consistent and predictable presence that people can latch on to.
- Memorable – This is really the combination of the previous three factors, but it’s worth noting on its own. If you produce cookie-cutter content, you have no hope of breaking through to become an authority.
It helps to document these things because documentation forces you to think them through and be deliberate about them. If you need a bit of help getting going, I’ve got you covered.
3. Guard Your reputation fiercely
Real authors have a sense of pride in their work; they wouldn’t be caught dead publishing something sub-standard because to do so would undermine the reputation they’ve worked so hard to build. Oddly, many people hold their reputation loosely, publishing anywhere that will have them and rushing through the creation process in hopes of meeting a production quota. Don’t.
- Be choosy about where you share your work. Yes, you need to start somewhere but don’t put your hard work somewhere it won’t be seen or appreciated. Set goals and deliberately choose targets for publication that you know come stocked with audiences of their own, but don’t neglect building out content on your own properties. For brands, this means not blindly outsourcing your work or having it flung up all over the place (something we saw cracked down on months ago when Google’s Matt Cutts lost his cool on guest post schemes).
- Be fanatical about quality. No, not everything you write is going to be a home-run hit. That said, there’s no reason it should read like a polished turd. Give yourself the time and space to research, create and promote your work, even if that means creating less. (Those fewer pieces are likely to be more memorable!)
4. Trade in faux-engagement for legitimate interaction (Build a village)
What is it that prompts people to buy fans, followers, likes and +1’s? Laziness and fear. Fear that your content won’t be good enough on its own. Fear of being left behind by the competition. Fear that things won’t happen fast enough.
Thankfully, most people don’t need to be told that it’s a bad idea to fake engagement. But what a lot of people still miss is that to be an authority, you can’t just command things from your ivory castle or produce content and expect people to flock to you for your sheer brilliance.
- Influencers: These are prominent people with a many-to-one amplification network. They can be great to have on your side, but they’re also the hardest to recruit because they are by nature rather exclusive and closed off. Instead of targeting them right away, work on building your own organic audience. The more people who can make noise to get their attention, the more likely you’ll catch their eye and open the door.
- Allies: This is author influence ground zero. You want to seek out and find both those who are already excited about you/your product as well as those in a similar situation as you are. A small but loyal fanbase is enough to get the promotional ball rolling, while branching out to others in your niche or even just others you admire can create grounds for cross-promotion you wouldn’t otherwise have. This is a natural entry point to building an audience.
- Hubs: These are the prominent places your audience goes to for information—or where others in your industry convene. It’s interesting, but authority can be built by people who aren’t your customers—your industry peers! Sometimes when you don’t have your own audience, you can leech off the authority of others. It’s also much easier to get published on a hub (where content is currency and they need it constantly) than on an individual influencer or brand’s website, making this a good alternative early on for building up your name recognition. That said, look for long-term relationships instead of one-off guest posts.
Authorship is a lot like personal branding.
In the end, the same principles that apply to building a beloved brand apply to becoming a well-respected author. Your product needs to be good, your promo needs to be exceptional, your voice needs to be unique and your interaction must be authentic.
None of these things are metrics in and of themselves; metrics can be used to gauge how well you’re doing, but are not the things to chase on their own. A subtle, but important difference that will make ALL the difference for you.