Google is suffering from trust issues that developed from over a decade of the SEO community manipulating the link graph. In this article I will explain how Authorship and Google+ are two of the ways that Google is trying to fix this problem. I'll discuss what it means and what we should be doing differently in the future. Let’s start by looking at a brief history of how Google's views links. Back in the early days Google treated all links as being equal. A link in the footer was as valued as a link in the main content. A link found in bad content was just as good as a link located in good content. However, the new generation of SEOs arrived and started 'optimizing' for links. This meant Google needed to scrutinize the links to decide how trustworthy they were in reality. Every link would be examined for complementary signals and it would be rated according to these signals. It was no longer a case of all links being equal. Reciprocal links began to have a
diminished effect and links in footers were no longer as powerful. Over the last decade Google began using a wide range of new signals for determining the answer to determine how much they trust each link. Google has introduced an increasing number of signals for evaluating pages beyond the link based signals that created them. If you look at the ranking factors survey results from SEOmoz for 2011, you see that link based factors make up just over 40% of the algorithm. However, in the 2009 survey they were closer to 55% of the algorithm. In the last two years 15% of the algorithm that was links has been replaced by other signals in relative importance. The results are from a survey, but the survey was conducted using people who work in the industry and it seems to match up well with what the community as a whole already believes, and what we observe with the increasing importance of social signals. This reduction in the relative power of links seems to suggest that Google is not able to trust links as much as they once did. While they are clearly still the backbone of the algorithm, it is apparent that Google has been constantly searching for other factors to offset the over-optimization efforts that are plaguing links.
Are Social Signals the Solution?
The SEO community has been talking a lot about social signals the last couple of years, and whether they will replace links. I'd argue that social signals can tell you a lot about trust, timeliness, perhaps authority and other factors, but that they are quite limited in terms of relevancy. Google still need the links and they aren't going anywhere anytime soon. The Social Graph is sending signals over to the websites that are basically indicating that a person likes a particular site or shared a specific page. In other words, the social votes are signals about web sites/pages instead of about the links. They don't operate on the graph in the same manner as links. Although social signals do give Google an absolute wealth of information, they don't directly help improve the situation with links and how some links are more trustworthy.
It is time to put more focus on creating trustworthy links from trustworthy authors.
Google needed to find a way to provide people with the ability to improve the quality of a link and to verify that a link is trustworthy. Verifying the author of a link is a fantastic way to achieve this and it offers two important advantages:
- Knowing this is an authored link, by a human who they have data about will place far more trust in a link. It is likely that a link authored by a human is of higher quality and that a human is unlikely to claim responsibility for a link if it is spam.
- Furthermore it allows them to change the weighting of links according to the AuthorRank of the author who placed the link. So what does all of this mean to you? The two obvious things are ensuring that you (and your clients) are using authorship markup and becoming trustworthy in the eyes of Google. The big thing is that we need a shift in our mindset from where we are getting links from to who is supplying the links. We need to still do the traditional stuff, but we need to start thinking about the author. In the last few years, the industry has been discussing the importance of identifying influencers in a niche and about building relationships with people. Yet, there is an absolute abundance of information available about authors of links we or our competitors already have and we are not using it to our advantage. All of this data can be crawled and gathered automatically, exactly in the way that Google crawls the authorship markup.
AuthorCrawler - A tool for mining Author Data
AuthorCrawler is a free, open-source tool that pulls the backlinks to a URL, crawls the authorship markup on the page, and creates a report of who is linking to a URL. It is fully functional, but it is a proof-of-concept tool, and isn't intended to be an extensive solution. However, it does allow us to start experimenting with this sort of data in a scalable way. It pulls the top 1000 backlinks for the homepage, and then crawled each of them looking for authorship markup, which if found is followed to crawl for the authors data (number of Circles, Twitter followers etc.), and it also pulls the 'Contributes to' field from Google+ so you can see where else this author writes. It might be that you find people linking to your site that also write on more powerful sites. It is beneficial to build relationships with these authors since they are already aware of you and they could provide links from other domains. You can sort the report by the PA/DA of where the link was placed, or by the social follower counts of the authors. You can also click through to the authors Google+ and Twitter profiles to quickly see what they're currently up to. I'm sure many of you will know the link intersect tool, in the labs section of SEOmoz. It allows you to enter your URL, and the URLs of other domains in your niche (most often your competitors), and it examines the back links to each of these and reports on domains/pages that are linking to multiple domains in your niche. It also reports whether you currently have a link from that page, so you can quickly identify possible places to target for links. We are in the early days of authorship, but I think Google is going to keep on pushing Google+ hard and I think authorship's importance is just going to increase. The SEO toolkit is changing and those who are not focused on building trust will see it reflected in their ranking.
The SEO toolkit is changing once again and Authorship, Google+, and AuthorCrawler are the new must have tools for success.