Notes on Google+

Authority, authorship, and organic search

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One of the most hotly-debated issues on Google+ from webmasters’ perspective has been the usefulness of Google+ profile and authorship in influencing Google organic search results. In my view, it is very unlikely that Google can or will use authorship mediated by a Google+ profile to establish author or agent rank in organic search results, because (i) it may be construed that Google is abusing its dominant market position in organic search to promote a product in a different market, and (ii) any authority invested in a Google+ profile can be manipulated to distort the search results. This is a highly speculative post, and should rightly be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Furthermore, I add here that I am neither a lawyer, nor well-versed in competition / anti-trust policies, nor an SEO. As with other posts that deal with Google+ or SEO, the premises may be wrong.


Before proceeding with the substantive part of this piece, I would like to clarify what I mean by the words or expressions I use, in order to lessen the likelihood of misunderstanding. By author I mean the natural person who actually writes an article or piece in question. Authorship refers to the mechanism by which Google ascertains which Google+ profile is associated with the piece by a bi-directional link, established between the Google+ profile and the written piece. It only relates to authoring the piece, and does not include other modes of involvement with that piece, such as editing or publishing. Authority or authorial authority is a loose term referring to a value that is associated with the author of the piece, and such a ranking system has been named author rank or agent rank. As it will be discussed later, authority or an author rank as a concept can exist independent of authorship, but for the most part in this piece, it is taken that such author rank will be invested in the authorship, that is it to say the Google+ profile with the authorship mark-up, and not directly the author. Organic search results are those search results that are returned by Google without any form of personalization, that is to say without influences attributable to Google identifying the individual who has signed into his or her account, but they include localized and other pseudonymous influences.

Market regulation

In this section, I would like to discuss the implications of Google using authorship in organic search. As noted initially, I am not a lawyer or an expert in competition or anti-trust law, so it is merely an observation of an interested person.

It is undoubtedly the case that Google enjoys a very strong market position in organic search in many countries, particularly in Europe. There is no problem with that: Google provides a better search engine in comparison to other competitors, and people are choosing to use Google over others. Google has not closed off the market, and if a competitor were to come up with a better search engine, then users of organic search could conceivably switch from Google to that competitor. However, there is a problem when Google tries to use its dominant market position in organic search to promote a product in another market, in this instance Google+. If webpages were to be ranked higher because of authorship, or author rank attached to Google+ profiles, then Google would be (ab)using its strong – even dominant – market position in organic search to encourage website owners to set up Google+ accounts. In other words, website owners will have to create Google+ profiles, lest they cede competitive advantages to others, and not because they are interested in Google+ as such. It is arguable which market Google+ is in: does it occupy the same grounds as Facebook or Twitter, or is it sui generis? It is however clear that Google+ is a different product, operating in a different market, from organic search.

The foregoing refers specifically to organic search, but Google+ is and can be used for personalized search, for example, when a Google account holder is signed in to his or her account. This is already happening with SPYW (Search, plus Your World). Google search results do not solely consist of organic search results, as there are advertisements shown on the page as well. In the search results, being an AdWords customer does not influence organic search, and it would similar for personalized search. But like advertisements, perhaps personalized search could be presented alongside organic search. The main point is that authorship mediated by Google+ cannot influence organic search, and must be presented in a sufficiently distinct manner, so that a normal user can distinguish between organic and personalized searches, as much as between organic and paid searches. Naturally, it is arguable whether a normal user would be able to distinguish them, but that is a moot point.

User manipulation

An authorship tied to a Google+ profile is an imperfect method of verifying who the author is, unless Google were to establish the actual identity of the Google+ profile owner, enforce the use of real name, and ensure the maxim of one person, one profile as well as one profile, one person. At this moment, there is no reasonable way for Google to establish that the person who is represented in the Google+ profile is indeed that person, so long as the name sounds plausible. Enforcing policies of a genuine person using Google+ with a genuine name would require strenuous efforts on the part of Google, and it is likely to create false positives, where genuine users are deemed as false, and it is unlikely that Google will be able to catch all those who attempt to use Google+ in a manner contrary to Google+ policies or ethos.

A person can have multiple Google+ profiles, and many people can collectively manage a Google+ profile. If any sort of author or agent rank were to be topical, then authors will rightly try to make sure that the topical authority is concentrated on one particular area. This may mean one person creating separate profiles for separate areas of expertise, or multiple people creating a joint profile for the purpose of pooling topical authority. Perhaps these are not such a big problem, so long as the profiles, whether it represents a part of a person or a group of people, were to interact naturally as if a whole and integral person. A situation that is likely to be more problematic is when multiple people pool their authorities. Let’s say that a group of experts in a field were to create a fake account under a plausible name that would pass off as a real name, and any article that any member of this group is authored by the Google+ profile, then the article will benefit from the topical authority of the Google+ profile, and the article will count towards this Google+ profile’s topical authority. Rather like links from high PR pages were and still are sold and bought, the same could happen with authorship: a site owner may pay for the authorship for a Google+ profile with a high author rank. Naturally, the risk for the collective owners is that the piece is utterly horrible, and that damages the Google+ profile’s topical author rank. This kind of trading in author rank can happen with a Google+ profile attached to one person, as the person can be paid for the authorship of a piece, or even sell the Google+ profile after amassing author rank.

Authorship and authority will probably matter, but not for organic search

The preceding sections ought not to be read as a dismissal of the utility of Google+ profiles. While in my very speculative opinion it is extremely unlikely, Google may push out topical author rank in organic search based on authorship therefore Google+ profiles despite the restrictions and shortcomings mentioned above. If that were to happen, I will have egg on my face, those who had invested will reap some reward, and those who had not will be at a competitive disadvantage. Leaving aside the possibility of Google implementing author rank in organic search, there are many good reasons why Google+ profiles should be cultivated. As mentioned above, my observations above refer to organic search, and not to forms of personalized search, or searches within and in relation to Google+. I have been of the opinion for some time, that personalized search, distinct from organic search, will become increasingly more important and more widely used. In the context of Google, it would rely heavily on the information stored and shared on Google+, and as such it makes sense to invest in Google+ profiles and in Google+ generally. And in this context, author rank of some sort tied to a Google+ profile may be something that Google will introduce, as it judges the risks of manipulation are a price worth paying for investing in personalized search.

Finally, as another speculative point, authority or author rank does not have to be mediated by authorship or the use of Google+. Establishing an authority requires establishing, within reason, that the same person, or perhaps even a thing, has written or produced something. If Google could find a way to do so, then it would be able to incorporate it in organic search. This would seem a much more complex task, compared to the artificial and controlled environment of Google+ in which authorship plays a prominent role, and it would be seen as invasive by those who value privacy.

Corrections and clarifications

15 July 2013 – I have changed one sub-heading in this article from Google+, authorship, and authority will probably matter, but not for organic search to Authorship and authority will probably matter, but not for organic search. I am indebted to Jim Munro for pointing this out in his Google+ post. The original sub-heading gave the impression that Google+ did not matter in organic search, which was not my intention, however, it was likely to mislead, and as such, it has been amended. Google+ does influence organic search like any other site, even if not above and beyond others, and authorship may increase the CTR when a profile photograph is displayed next to the search results. However, authorship does not influence websites’ rankings, and author rank is not yet introduced. It has been argued in this piece that author rank through authorship thus Google+ is very unlikely to be introduced in organic search for regulatory reasons as well as for its manipulability.