Authority Building: Demystifying Authorship and Authority

Dave Snyder

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August 22, 2023 (Updated: January 19, 2024)

Authority Building: Demystifying Authorship and Authority.

This week, I wanted to explore how Google looks at authorship and authority to demystify some of the nuances behind these essential components to building your brand and site as an authority in your niche.

This week’s newsletter is a background on the foundation of Google’s interest in authorship, where authorship stands today, and what the theories are on its value in optimizing for Google.

Introduction to Google’s History With Authorship

Google has always cared about who is publishing content and has used this info as a core of its algorithm. The original PageRank was built on the concept of the authority of one webpage being able to validate the authority of another webpage. With the roll-out of Google Plus in 2011, Google started taking an interest in going beyond the concept of “authority” for a website through links, to actually connecting authors and writers as “entities” via their Google Plus profiles.

The rel=”author” markup was designed to create a bridge between authors and their work, illuminating author information in search results. With this move, Google took its first step toward forging meaningful connections between authors as entities — rather than the website as entities — and their articles. While a fair number of SEO-aware authors marked up their content, the overall small adoption of the protocol led to Google sunsetting that particular markup. But the concept of Google understanding entities has continued.

Since 2011, more groundwork has been laid for web-wide data structures that can help us understand entities, pages, and other metadata better by using schema.

Keep in mind: As we discuss items like Author Rank, you’ll note that I say, “If it’s implemented.” No one knows what’s in Google’s current algo, we just have best guesses based on the results and data we have.

It’s completely reasonable to believe that Google is using an author-based authority signal at some level already, and it’s also possible that it isn’t. Let’s think of the factors that rank content as “dials.” I believe the author-based authority dial isn’t currently turned to where it could and probably should be.

The Significance of Google’s Agent Rank Patent and the Emergence of Digital Signatures

On the utilization of Google’s 2007 Agent Rank patent the great Bill Slawski wrote:

Agent Rank introduced the concept of “digital signatures” and its potential utility in search. The patent provided a method of linking authors with their work, ensuring the correct attribution of content. Based on the patent and later updates, it was clear Google was looking for solutions to two issues that still remain problems today:

1️. How do you know if the person creating content is an actual person?

2️. How do you expand your authority attribution system beyond websites, which are easily gamed, into more spam-resistant entities?

Those questions, and the questions Bill Slawski noted, are how Agent Rank came into existence. The concept wasn’t new to Google. PageRank is an authority attribution system as well, but Author Rank gives the potential for online verification that’s too difficult to game at scale.

Keep in mind: When I say something is difficult to game at scale, I’m discussing the potential for something to be exploited by spam. That’s not to say it won’t be, but Author Rank in particular would be difficult to manipulate, mainly because:

  • To get the most value from an author entity, you would need the author to have a very niche expertise.
  • Publications that would establish the highest value authors would be under stricter control. So, for instance, Forbes wouldn’t be the hub in this ecosystem, it would be scientific journals and industry media outlets.
  • To reach that level of publisher with consistency to post content, you would need a highly detailed outreach system. This isn’t a mass spam operation.

Spammers will always find and manipulate holes in the system, so Google’s job is to mitigate those threats as much as possible. Remember, Author Rank would conceptually mix into the current algorithm, so this is one more wall to climb.

Author Rank allowed for digital signatures for authors with metadata, allowing authors to indicate that they were the creators of specific content on a page. This could be a blog post, a comment, or even an ad.

The use of digital signatures was a step toward ensuring the authenticity of the content. It made it more likely that the person claiming ownership of specific content was indeed the owner. This digital signature could also be used in places like blog comments, enabling a search engine to understand the owner of a comment on someone else’s blog as the author of that content.

The Agent Rank approach also provided a way to indicate using metadata that content syndicated elsewhere was done so with the knowledge and permission of the original author.

Even though Author Rank was written in 2007, it’s staggering how many of these issues we continue to deal with. The rise of AI has now made it more likely, in my opinion, that we see Google begin to assess something similar to Author Rank.

It’s the most straightforward way to quantify content validity, and as we’ll discuss, the data needed to implement the change already exists.

The Remarkable Progression in Google’s Approach to Authorship

The initial implementation of the rel=”author” markup was eventually phased out. To me, it was a miscalculation by Google in their ability to get webmasters to implement changes. The rel=”author” concept needed mass adoption on the level of rel=”nofollow” or schema markup, but it didn’t get it.

Google forgot about providing a carrot — like the ability to get into rich snippets with schema markup, or the stick of penalties with rel=”nofollow.” They tied the concept to a single Google product (G+) that had a questionable future upon launch.

Google shifted its focus towards structured data and schema markup, providing a more sophisticated way to connect authors with their work.

This meant that authors were now able to provide structured information about themselves and their articles, enhancing the way search engines understood the relationship between the author and their content.

The last reliable data I could find estimated the use of schema markup online to be as high as 31% of the web in 2015. Schema markup is still pretty manual to set up. Whether it’s installing a plugin or having to manually add the schema to the page, the experience needs some kind of technical ability.

This is a barrier to adoption, but I think the use of schema markup in the SERPs properly incentivizes ongoing adoption at a rate that could sustain the Author Rank concept.

Revamping Articles With Structured Data and Schema

Now, let’s break down an example of a structured data snippet for a news article:

In this example, the structured data is tucked away in the HTML of the webpage, using the application/ld+json script tag.

Also:

  • @context: This is the vocabulary that your data uses. In this case, it’s https://schema.org, a common set of schemas used by Google and other search engines.
  • @type: This defines what your content is. Here, it’s a “NewsArticle”.
  • headline: This is the title of your article.
  • image: These are the URLs of images that are representative of the article.
  • datePublished and dateModified: These represent when the article was published and last updated.
  • author: This is an array of objects representing the authors of the article. Each object has a @type (which should be “Person” for individuals), a name, and a URL (a link to a web page that uniquely identifies the author).

For more detailed information about structured data and how to implement it, check out Google’s guide on structured data.

Why Adding an Author’s URL to Article Schema May Be the Key

The Author URL property is basically assigning the author entity a digital signature. This URL represents the one URL the author would use across the web as they write. It links back to a property to verify that the author is who they say they are.

My advice on the URL optimization for this property is to use an author “About” page, where you store links to all of your articles to create this digital signature.

Even Google spokesperson John Mueller backs up this approach: “Use that [URL] across the different author pages that you have when you’re writing so that when our systems look at an article and they see an author page associated with that, they can recognize this is the same author as the person who wrote something else and we can kind of group this by entity.”

In 2021, Google added the following to its changelog:

August 6: Added a new recommended author.url property to the article’s structured data documentation. The URL property helps Google disambiguate the correct author of the article.”

This doesn’t say that they intend to use author.url in a system similar to Agent Rank. I believe this update is related to simply assigning content to the correct entity. However, it does provide more data for the implementation of an Author Rank style system long-term. The URL property adds a much-needed layer of verification to tie all the content together.

It also allows for a potential way to manage spam, because the true test of a valid author would be the article linking to the author bio, which would also be present on the author bio page.

Jon Henshaw at Coywolf provides an example of how to add an author’s URL to the article schema. It’s a simple addition, but it can make a world of difference in helping Google identify the correct author. Jon has used it to help Google classify him as a journalist.

Jon Henshaw: International man of mystery, and journalist, I guess.

So, the takeaway here is clear: adding an author’s URL to the article schema isn’t just a good idea, it’s a recommended practice. Regardless of its current and future potential for ranking content, it can give you value in the SERPs today.

You Can’t Talk Authority Without Talking E-E-A-T

If you remember the latest update to Google’s Search Quality Guidelines (E-A-T), we now have that extra E to contend with, where E-E-A-T stands for:

  • Experience
  • Expertise
  • Authoritativeness
  • Trustworthiness

John Muller from Google has commented on how E-A-T may or may not be used:

“So… from that point of view, it’s not something where I would say Google has an E-A-T score and it’s based on five links plus this plus that. It’s more something that, our algorithms over time…we try to improve them, our quality raters try to review our algorithms, and they do look at these things.

There might be some overlap here, but it’s not that there’s a technical factor that’s involved — which would kind of take specific elements and use them as an SEO factor. But it is definitely something I would look into, especially if you’re running sites that map into the broad area where Google has mentioned E-A-T in the quality rater guidelines.”

I think it’s important to dissect what he’s saying here:

  • Google doesn’t have an E-A-T (now E-E-A-T) score. This isn’t a concept tied to page-level data that you can optimize for.
  • It’s using data that would overlap with E-E-A-T in some format in the algorithm. That’s why quality raters are specifically giving feedback here.
  • Certain niches, like YMML niches, are likely to already have these signals turned up.

If Google were to evaluate expertise specifically, it would likely be using the author.url property to help with entity identification. This is a theory, but its recommendation, alignment with E-E-A-T, and its heavily integrated use of schema markup make it a solid one.

Over the next three weeks, we’re going to get past the theory and dive into the practice of using authority in your marketing plan. Authority has always been the backbone of Google’s algorithm, using interlinking to attribute that authority across the web.

Social media also runs on an authority-based structure. So, even if Author Rank or a similarly developed concept never takes a larger role in Google’s algorithm, the practice of building an authoritative presence online has incredible value across multiple channels.

Join me next week as we continue breaking down authority and authorship and the importance of these elements in your content marketing and SEO. Looking for the most up-to-date info on authorship and authority? Sign up for the CopyPress newsletter and you’ll be the first to know.

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Dave Snyder

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