The purpose of Google’s Authorship program was to establish, to coin an awkward phrase, authorial authority.
And if “Authorial authority” sounds tautological (ie. saying the same thing twice) and a bit silly, then perhaps it should. Because think about it, where else other than the author’s own reputation should one expect authority to reside?
First, definitions: Google Authorship was the technical process that put a little picture of an article’s author into search results. Like so:
In the world of search engines, authority is predicated on many different tangible and measurable factors *other than authorship* that are a kind of proxy for authority, such as domain rank, page rank, inbound links, and keyword relevance.
Google’s Authorship effort to focus attention on the actual individual creator of a piece of content was hoping to solve that problem, and mirror the way reputation and authority works in the offline world.
Alas, it wasn’t to be…
“This (author) information isn’t as useful to users as we had hoped,” blogged John Mueller at Google.
The program was quietly shuttered.
In the vast universe of technology experiments, Google’s authorship butterfly flapped its wings one last time and quietly expired.
But what if Google Authorship had flourished and evolved? What if it had led to Author rank as a new proxy for authority in search results.
That alternative universe could have been quite interesting.
But first, lets go back to the beginning….
2010 was a heady time for Google, it was both the zenith of search engine dominance and the nadir of online content. It was the era of the “content farm”.
Huffington Post and Demand Media (among many others) had successfully reverse engineered Google’s increasingly-dated search algorithm, and recognized its predictable, insatiable hunger for keywords, inbound links, and the appearance of being a recent “article”.
In order to both satisfy Google and appear attractive to brand advertisers, many publisher sites employed the “mullet strategy”, a term described and coined by HuffPo co-founder Jonah Peretti.
Like the haircut worn by Canadian ice hockey players and heavy metal headbangers, the mullet strategy created a website with content that was: “Neat in the front, and a party in the back.”
Mullet sites feature high impact, quality content written by luminaries like Arianna Huffington and Lance Armstrong on the front page, while deep within the site live thousands of pages with keyword-stuffed content of marginal quality, often written by “citizen journalists” for free or for variable compensation.
The mullet strategy worked both long enough and well enough for the early adopters to find nine and even ten figure exits in 2010 and 2011. Then just after Demand Media’s triumphant billion dollar IPO in January 2011, Google abruptly stopped the music.
Google introduced Panda, which among other things put a “governor” on the amount of traffic any domain would receive from search. The search engine also began to change their algorithm to incorporate engagement and social signals from the growing social networks.
And finally, they introduced the concept of Authorship, a longer-term initiative in which authors were asked to claim their content across the web and link it to their personal Google+ profile.
Once you understand the problem, one sees how authorship is an excellent way to combat the mullet strategy, by recognizing individual contributors as the primary source of ideas. If Arianna Huffington has a great reputation for content, then her content ought to rank well in search above other content on her site, but her tide should not necessarily raise all the boats in the Huffington Post harbor. The contribution to HuffPo by citizen journalists without reputation or authority would still rank lower in search, and the mullet would be defeated.
But there is another, unforeseen effect of author rank. If Arianna Huffington’s search reputation travels with her across the web regardless of domain, then author rank also makes her audience through search much more portable, and her more marketable as a freelancer.
A few things changed since 2010 that Google did not control. In 2010 the traffic mix to most websites, even media sites was overwhelmingly weighted to search – a breakdown of 50% traffic from organic search for publishers was considered normal; a few had as much as 70% to 80% of their traffic sourced from Google.
Today the global content mix has shifted , especially for media sites. Sites like Buzzfeed (with CEO Jonah Peretti setting the trend, once again) pioneered a model of content distribution predicated on sharing on social channels.
On Buzzfeed’s network of sites Facebook trumped Google as a distribution channel in 2014. Most online publishers now see around 20% of their traffic from social channels depending on how well they optimized for sharing. Search receded to roughly 25%-30% of the total traffic mix.
Now consider the data in another way, through the lens of how much traffic comes through the author himself.
First consider how much of social traffic is tied to individuals and not to brands. Lets say you want to follow the journalist Nicholas Carlson on Business Insider. Carlson is usually excellent, but Business Insider itself can occasionally be hit and miss and a bit of a mullet. So you might choose to follow @nichcarlson individually on Twitter rather than on @businessinsider. Generally, the social networks have been aligned with this approach; Twitter and Facebook vest the authority of social interactions more prominently with individuals, not brands.
Even today some percentage of a given article’s social traffic (perhaps well over 50%) comes through the author’s audience. That audience doesn’t really belong to the publisher at all; it “belongs” directly to Carlson.
If a journalist chooses to leave and hang up their own shingle (like Andrew Sullivan, Ezra Klein or Nate Silver did) or chooses to write directly for a brand (like Robert Scoble or Hamish McKenzie did) that part of his or her social audience can accompany him.
Now for the alternative present. Lets hypothesize that Author Rank had been broadly adopted by authors and publishers. Many have speculated that Google’s likely next step would have made authorship a key ranking factor in search results. In this new world, as much as 30 to 40 percent of the distribution to a particular article might now be the “author channel”, partially through social, and partially through search.
The power dynamics between the creator and the publisher would start to radically change: Once Carlson starts to own 25% to 40% percent of the audience for his articles on Business Insider and that audience is portable, Business Insider starts to need Carlson more than Carlson needs BI.
This alternative present for digital content looks exactly like the present day book publishing business, where the strength of an individual’s loyal following tends to be most predictive of success. So while book publishers seek out individuals who can bring their own audience, they also find themselves adding less and less value to authors beyond their initial imprimatur of quality. Which, in turn, makes them vulnerable to the disruption of self publishing.
If author rank had succeeded, the program might have been yet another serious blow to many publishers. The strongest individual contributors to Publisher sites would be in huge demand, with many more options to earn revenue from their own portable audiences (especially from brands who are willing to pay as much as 10x more for an owned audience), and far fewer barriers to leaving. Authorship could have completely changed the relationship between content creators and publishers.
That future hasn’t happened, but it seems pretty clear which of the two futures Google would have preferred. For now, publishers have (unknowingly, it seems, for the most part) dodged a bullet.