Google giveth and Google taketh away (usually to the sound of a million complaining SEOs) with the latest upset being the once hyped, now unceremoniously dumped Google Authorship.
Authorship was, in a nutshell, a mechanism to connect a piece of content with its author. Its most visible features were the thumbnail images and Google+ links you saw with increasing frequency alongside search results.
Authorship was the subject of much interest and speculation over recent years (including by yours truly) as it seemed to signify a major innovation to search and SEO: that individual authors might have a quantifiable authority which could help determine the credibility, and therefore search rankings, for content they had created – think AuthorRank in contrast to the long-established PageRank.
But recent developments hinted at a reversal to these ambitious plans. Back in December SEOs noticed a sudden drop in the number of Authorship photos shown in the results; in June they disappeared altogether leaving only the author’s Google+ byline which itself has now vanished without a trace. In an August 29 post, senior Googler John Mueller confirmed that Authorship was dead.
The initial reaction from the SEO community was mixed, ranging from anger to weary resignation to more than a few wry smiles among the savvier crowd.
The fact is that Authorship was a flawed product, and for several reasons. It was based on a clunky, unfriendly markup that only the more technically-minded bloggers ever bothered with, while major media outlets and other publishers of objectively high authority content rarely made the effort.
Search queries on SEO or online marketing were sure to yield ten results perfectly optimised for Authorship photos, but I doubt that many particle physicists bothered fiddling around with their Google+ profiles and coding the required rel=author markup onto their research papers.
It was suggested that the profile images were nothing more than an incentive to get people using Google+, and a great many users ended up just chasing the profile picture rather than thinking about what might actually enhance their authority or credibility – “Real Author Stuff” as Joel Klettke brilliantly called it, shortly before the feature was pulled.
Neither did it seem to work out too well for Google. Apparently its usefulness to their users didn’t justify the development time and computing resources it consumed and, as the more astute among us have suggested, higher click rates on organic results means lower click rates on paid Adwords listings, so feel free to connect those particular dots…
In short, Authorship was broken and was a prime candidate for the Google glue factory. But despite the inevitable upset from SEOs who had spent many hours getting their clients’ sites optimised, is Authorship’s demise really as significant as it seems?
Babies and bathwater
It’s important to make the distinction between Authorship and the concept of AuthorRank itself. The AgentRank patent predated Authorship by many years and although those little profile pictures have now vanished, the emphasis on authority remains: you can bet that Google is still deeply interested in understanding the credibility of individual authors. As Danny Sullivan points out here, Google continues to talk about identifying subject-specific authorities, and is already promoting authority content creators in certain instances.
Of course killing off Authorship doesn’t mean that Google is chucking the AuthorRank baby out with the bathwater. It’s much more likely that they’ve developed better technologies to parse authors and algorithmically determine their authority in a particular field without relying on messy user opt-in and inconvenient markups.
Meanwhile all the original principles stand: credibility and authority remain absolutely central to SEO longevity. For content marketing this means a relentless focus on publishing material that is demonstrably high value: original, engaging and authentic. Not many brands have the internal resources to achieve this on their own, in which case build relationships and commission from the writers, bloggers and other content creators who have the legitimacy you’re seeking to project.
This goes way beyond the relatively narrow (and still largely hypothetical) subject of AuthorRank and into general best practices for effective content marketing: less focus on fads and gimmicks, more attention on providing authoritative content that audiences need and want.