Authorship is hot, so it’s no surprise that SMX Advanced would devote an entire session to the topic. Billed as “Authorship: The Deep Dive,” the session did not disappoint. The speakers delivered the goods on what authorship is, why and how to implement it, and challenges along the path to implementation, including the perspective of a publisher from the news industry who managed the process for 1,000 authors. Good stuff! Read on for all the juicy details.
Moderator Elisabeth Osmeloski, Executive Features Editor for Search Engine Land, kicked things off and welcomed Mitul Gandhi, Chief Architect of seoClarity, to the stage. Mitul started things off by discussing his study of Google+ pages appearing in the SERPs. For a 300,000-keyword sample, there were 13,000 occurrences of Google+ pages in top 10 results, and these aren’t just long-tail keywords. “Google+ pages are ranking for money keywords,” Mitul said. 30 percent of the keywords Mitul saw had authorship markup, and tended to cluster in the 3-8 positions in the SERPs.
“Does this help my rankings?” Mitul asked. This is the wrong question. The right question is, “Does it help improve my traffic?”. For author markup, the answer appears to be yes. Ranking #1 is cool, but Mitul says it’s the clickiness that matters. In other words, how click-worthy is your content in the SERPs? Authorship snippets can vastly increase click-through rates, even if the ranking doesn’t change. After Mitul implemented author markup and the snippet began appearing in SERPs, the same piece of content (which ranked in the same position with and without the snippet) generated twice the traffic for the same keyword.
Bing and Yahoo are a bit behind the times. Mitul tested a keyword showing an author snippet in Google, but the same listing for the same keyword did not show anything about the author in Yahoo and Bing SERPs, although this should be coming soon, Mitul said, citing Duane Forrester. Closing out his presentation, Mitul advised implementing authorship markup now. We’re in the early ages of authorship, but it’s soon going to be essential to be competitive.
Up next was Mark Traphagen, Director of Digital Outreach for Virante. Mark’s presentation explored whether Google+ profile PageRank is the real Author Rank. Eye tracking and click tracking studies show that people’s eyes are drawn to author snippets, even if they’re further down the page in positions 5, 6, and 7, for example, and that users are more likely to click on results with author snippets. So basically, authorship can increase CTR.
That’s great, of course, but does authorship affect ranking? Google says authorship is not a direct ranking factor. In other words, Author Rank is not yet a reality. Mark pointed to several factors that count as “strikes” against Author Rank as reality:
- Low authorship adoption: In a lot of verticals, there’s still few entities using it
- Social signal parsing infancy: Understanding these signals and user intent is still a work in progress
- Misattribution: Google can make mistakes and credit the content to the wrong person, meaning their technology is far from perfect
In some cases, Google+ posts from individuals who have implemented authorship can outrank more popular sources who may not have implemented authorship. This begs the question, are rankings rising because of Author Rank or because CTR on results with author snippets is increasing? The latter situation is known as CTR feedback, in which a lower ranking result getting higher click-throughs could rise in the ranking.
The big secret, Mark reports, is that Google+ profiles have PageRank. PageRank can be built for G+ profiles via internal and external PR. Internal PR means that other influential users engage with and/or share posts, which probably builds authority. External PR refers to links from websites outside Google+ to G+ profiles. Mark offered as a case study the Google+ Fitness & Nutrition Community. Following the publication of 3 posts on high PageRank blogs, the profile jumped from page 8 of the results to page 1 for the term “fitness and nutrition.” (It’s now ranking on page 2). Those who use authorship seem to have full point higher PageRank than those who don’t, Mark said, and the reason for this is simply that authorship is link building: Every post creates a link back to your profile.
Janet Driscoll Miller, President and CEO of Search Mojo, followed Mark with a presentation that dug into the problems associated with the tactical implementation of authorship, as well as one of the issues Mark mentioned: misattribution. Google is inferring authorship from content, in some cases incorrectly. Janet offered as an example a page that contained an archived webinar, on which she had used video markup. The page contained the text “presented by Janet Driscoll Miller,” which led to an authorship snippet appearing in the SERPs, instead of the video snippet. Removing that phrase from the page changed the snippet back to a video.
It’s not just HTML from which Google is inferring authorship information. PDFs, PowerPoint presentations, images and Microsoft Word documents can all have authorship associated with them. Regarding PDFs and slide shows, Janet said that Google won’t infer authorship from the metadata. The phrase “By [name],” a close variation or something similar (such as “About the Author”) had to appear in the text. Strangely enough, books are not yet showing authorship snippets. Check out Janet’s article on Google’s experiments with authorship for more on inferred markup.
What’s important, Janet said, is to be thoughtful about how you’re implementing authorship. Ensure that you get the snippet you want. If you don’t (and you’ve implemented the desired markup correctly), alter the text of the content. Look for “by” followed by a name. Google could also pick this up from other places within the content, such as “comments by,” “edited by,” etc. Also keep in mind that only the first author listed for a piece of content with multiple authors will be given the authorship snippet, so make sure you list the most “valuable” author first. Finally, understand that your author snippet will only appear once on a page of search results, even if multiple articles you’ve written show up on that page.
Part two of Janet’s presentation focused on what authorship means for communications and public relations professionals. As an industry, PR folks need to change their way of thinking. Traditional offline methods for choosing a reporter to work with may not generate the best SEO benefit online, particularly as authorship has become more prominent. You want to work with people who have authorship implemented, Janet instructed, as links from articles could have more value in the future as Author Rank becomes a reality.
How do you go about identifying good online authors/reporters/bloggers? It’s fairly straightforward. Check on whether the site allows for authorship, and whether the author has a G+ profile. If so, look at what sites are listed in the “Contributor to” section and other links in the “About” section. In terms of outreach, weigh the SEO value. Does the author have authorship cred with Google? If not, weigh that against other factors such as the readership value.
The final speaker to take the stage was John Carcutt, Director of SEO and Social Media with Advance Digital. John brought a unique perspective to the panel, in that he was responsible for actually implementing authorship for a news media organization with more than 1,000 authors. As a publisher, what do you do to get authorship implemented, he asked. For his team, it involved the content strategy team, technical service, local publishers, local editorial staff, and the authors themselves. Along the way, they faced several hurdles.
First, early adopters were a problem. In John’s case, that was the photographers. The photogs love G+, he said. The reporters? Not so much. Early adopters naturally get caught up in the early issues, and email verification was a problem in the early days of authorship.
Technical implementation was also a challenge. John requested implementation in mid 2011, but it didn’t actually happen until Q1 2013. Sound familiar? John joked that 50% of an SEO’s job is to convince people that they need to act and then get them to actually act.
Mass training was also an issue. After all, how do you train 1,000+ individuals, at varying states of awareness, who are spread out across the country? Advance Digital already held annual in-person training for each market on things like SEO and social media, so they incorporated authorship into that. Authorship training included:
- Creating a G+ account
- Connecting the account to the site
- Managing “contributor to” links
- Using/optimizing G+ overall
- The effectiveness of G+ communities
- Why all this matters
Author pushback was the final, albeit quite significant challenge. “Why are we adding one more thing for them to worry about?” was the common complaint. Reporters already had too many social accounts to manage, and thus didn’t have the time. There’s no one on Google+, they’d purport, so there are better uses of what spare time they do have.
One of the negative factors John touched upon was authorship ownership. When an author leaves the organization, what happens to that authorship? The policy at Advance Digital, John shared, is that bylines are never changed. Authors that have moved on will continue to build Author Rank, which will improve their site, too. In fact, at some point, John predicted, authorship/Author Rank will become a hiring consideration. Finally, the policy strongly suggests no “hybrid” social account names that combine the personal and brand name. It recommends authors use personal accounts. If the author leaves and they have a hybrid account, the account belongs to the organization.
Lacking WiFi, Q&A coordinator AJ Kohn kicked it the old fashioned way and ran around the room, fielding questions from the audience. Two of the most fascinating questions delved into the tactical implementation of authorship markup. First, should you use the brand or the individual for authorship? Opinions varied, but the majority favored trusting employees to represent the company well. Don’t worry about what happens should that employee leave. People move on. That’s natural. Don’t let this prevent you from implementing authorship. If employees are already blogging on the company’s behalf, you wouldn’t change their byline if they leave, as John mentioned, so don’t change authorship markup. Mitul reminded the audience of publisher markup, although there seemed to be more pessimism regarding whether we’ll see publisher snippets in the SERPs anytime soon. John mentioned that publisher markup seems to be appearing in the news media space, although what’s causing it remains to be seen. It could be a multiple author issue, as Janet discussed during her presentation, but he’s studying it further. Janet mentioned that Google’s take is that there’s an individual who authors the content, so they should take the credit.
The second question concerned the actual image used that would appear as the author snippet. What works? What doesn’t? Have there been any tests showing which elements increase/decrease CTR? The photo that shows up as part of the authorship snippet is pulled from Google+, so make sure your profile photo is the photo you’d like to display in the SERPs. Using a photo that Google may not be able to recognize as a person could be problematic, so it’s advisable to use a headshot, preferably of just yourself (sorry, kiddos!). Cyrus Shepard of Moz tested how different images impact CTR and found that replacing his unoptimized Google+ pic with a professional headshot increased traffic by about 35 percent.
Bonus: During the “Crazy, Complicated Technical SEO Issues” session, Google’s Maile Ohye answered a question from the audience about authorship snippets disappearing from the SERPs. She said that the snippet could disappear, even if it has been appearing in the past, if your implementation violates the reasons it was set up in the first place. Authorship is for articles, she said. It wasn’t intended to be used on a home page, product pages, and the like.
So there you have it. The authorship session certainly delivered on its promise of a deep dive. We started off with a springboard into the topic and why we should care, and ended with a 10-meter platform dive full of twists and turns that led to a clean entry into the pool of implementation. Thanks to the presenters and session organizers for such a well rounded overview of authorship. Stay tuned for more coverage from SMX Advanced 2013!