Is having an active Google+ profile and linking it to the content you post online, an identity-verification process known as Google Authorship, worth the effort?
"Yes," say some search engine optimization (SEO) experts. Among SEO trends anticipated for 2014, it will be "absolutely critical" to invest in your Google+ presence, says Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of content marketing/social media marketing firm AudienceBloom.
DeMers cites Moz's 2013 SEO ranking factors study, which suggests Google+ is playing an "increasingly significant" role in search engine rankings. "Establishing Google Authorship of your content and tying it to your Google+ account," DeMers says, should be "an immediate area of focus."
"Yes," says Google CEO Eric Schmidt. In his 2013 book, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, Schmidt writes about the importance of being a verified, trusted author in the eyes of Google's search engine: "Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results." Schmidt writes. Here"s the kicker: "The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance."
"Not so much," counters Shari Thurow, founder and SEO director of Omni Marketing Interactive and author of When Search Meets Web Usability. "I wish someone would put a gag on Eric Schmidt and shut him up," she joked during a session at September's SES 2013 San Francisco conference.
Thurow says Google+ and Google Authorship aren't necessary to achieve high Google search result rankings and increase click-through rates to your content from search results. She also says Google Authorship tends to elevate people who are better at self-promotion over true subject matter experts, which is who Google Authorship is supposed to showcase.
So what's the fuss about? Here's what you need to know about Google+, Google Authorship, Google Author Rank — which isn't the same thing — and SEO.
The Back Story on Google Authorship and Google Author Rank
Google introduced its Facebook competitor, Google+, in 2011. The same year, it came out with Google Authorship. Link your Google+ profile to your content via Google Authorship, the idea goes, and you help Google verify your identity — and build your brand as a subject matter expert.
Google Authorship adds a thumbnail of your Google+ profile picture to the search result "rich snippet" for your content, such as a bylined blog post:
A rich snippet provides more detail or context than a standard snippet. (Google's Webmaster Tools offers more explanation about rich snippets.) In theory at least, the presence of a person's photo in a rich snippet can encourage searchers to click through to the content, thereby helping it gain more exposure.
In short, Google Authorship tells Google who wrote which articles, says Eric Enge, CEO of digital and content marketing firm Stone Temple Consulting. The biggest known, current benefit to Google Authorship, he adds, is having your picture show up in your content's search results.
Then there's Google Author Rank. It's a term the SEO industry uses, but Google does not. As Enge explains, the thinking goes that Google Authorship is now, or in the future will be, a valued search engine algorithm signal, not unlike PageRank, that can impact search result rankings. (Google uses hundreds of algorithm signals that determine how a piece of content should be ranked based on a search query.)
If Author Rank exists, or will exist, down the road, then linking your Google+ profile to your content could help elevate that content in search result rankings. "But to date, there is no evidence Google has truly begun to use Author Rank, and Google also publicly denies [it's] using it," Enge notes.
In other words, Google Authorship is simply the linking of your Google+ profile to the content you publish online. Google Author Rank is a possible algorithm signal that may impact the search engine ranking of content verified via Google Authorship.
It stands to reason that Google+, a Google product, offers some benefits to its users in terms of search engine rankings. "Google+ is the social network Google has direct access to," Enge says. As a result, Google+ posts tend to get indexed in real-time by Google search engine crawlers.
By comparison, Enge explains, Google doesn't have full API access to Facebook and Twitter. "Google will use Google+ data first as it begins to use social signals more to determine search engine rankings, and it'll use Google+ to help verify author identity."
The Arguments Against Google+ and Google Authorship
Google Authorship "is a form of validation," Thurow says, but "that's all it's good for." Otherwise, she says she doesn't see the benefit.
As an example, Thurow cites a test with a healthcare client with a nationally known website that attracts 10 million unique visitors monthly. Thurow's client was an early Google+ adopter and had linked the Google+ profiles of doctors contributing to the site to their content via Google Authorship.
"We measured everything to a 'T,' and we found there was no difference in click through rates" as a result of Google Authorship, Thurow says. In terms of driving click through rates, the presence of a relevant keyword in search result snippets was far more important than author thumbnail photos, she adds.
Aside from not delivering more traffic to your content, Google+ and Google Authorship seems to be saying that, "in order to rank in Googles search engine, you have to do what we say. You have to use Google+ and link your profile to your articles," Thurow says.
"But most experts have more important things to do, like being experts in their fields," she continues. "So in order for Google Authorship to succeed in its mission, genuine experts have to participate. And guess who doesnt care about Google+ and Google Authorship?"
Instead, Google Authorship tends to showcase people who aren't true subject matter experts — but are expert at building their own online profiles.
With Google Authorship, There Are No Guarantees
Of course, there's no harm in being active on Google+ and linking your content to your profile. For some people, Thurow says, being active on Google+ and establishing Google Authorship might make sense. Examples include entertainment industry professionals and those whose clients are big Google+ users.
If you're truly an expert in your field and you publish good, useful, original content, your articles will most likely rank well on their own, Thurow adds — without Google+ and Google Authorship.
On the other hand, just because you have a Google+ profile and link it to your content, Enge says, that doesn't mean you're guaranteed better rankings — or even that your Google+ profile photo will accompany your search results. That's because many people are using Google Authorship to promote spammy or useless content in search results.
Matt Cutts, who heads Google's Webspam team, recently announced that Google is working to keep authors who publish low-quality content from receiving the "rich snippet" treatment in search results. Cutts estimated this would affect about 15 percent of Google+ profiles authenticated with Google Authorship.
When in Doubt, Stick to SEO Basics
SEO tactics such as using Google Authorship come and go. The best long-term strategy, Thurow says, is staying focused on the four SEO basic building blocks:
- Keywords and labels for content, navigation, and documentation should be easy for both humans and search engines to understand.
- Site architecture, design and accessibility should make sense to people and computers.
- Your site should receive validation from objective third parties, such as links and social shares from other sites.
- Take into account searcher behavior when developing your site and its content. Know the most common searcher behaviors and create content and a labeling system that allows searchers to easily complete their goals.
These building blocks haven't changed since the early days of the Web, Thurow says. She recommends that marketers and online publishers always "look at the big picture" instead of getting distracted by such things as thumbnail profile pictures in search result snippets.
James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter @james_a_martin and on Google+. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.