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The Game Changer: Google Authorship

The bowling ball of change knocking down the pins of the status quo - how's that for a metaphor?

By giving you the opportunity to stand proudly by your online content, Google Authorship offers you a new way to build trust with prospective patients. You are a trusted, esteemed expert in your field, and establishing yourself as a recognized author of quality content will reflect this. Just as importantly, Authorship represents another step Google has taken in the direction of weeding out disreputable websites and anonymous reviewers and leveling the playing field for true medical professionals, just like you.

By now, if you use Google with any regularity, you have surely noticed that many search results are accompanied by what appear to be tiny headshots, similar to those portraits of authors that are often found on the dust jackets of books. This similarity is no coincidence; these are, indeed, pictures of the people who are being credited by Google as the authors of various web pages, articles, and blog posts. The launch of Google Authorship has helped both to illuminate and to accelerate a refreshing change in Internet culture: what was once a refuge for those who wished to remain anonymous is quickly becoming a community of real people with real identities. People who are proud of the work they have invested in their content now have the opportunity to stand by that work in a very public way.

If your picture is currently showing up next to search results for your website and other online properties, then you - or your Internet marketing company - are doing something right. If not, then you will want to know not only how to remedy the situation but also why you should.

Fortunately, Google has made the how relatively easy. Google wants reputable authors to take credit for their content and to establish themselves as members of the Internet community in good standing. Your expertise - and, just as importantly, your willingness to assert that expertise publicly - enriches the quality of the results Google is able to produce for its users. The purpose of this article is not to educate you on how to sign up for Google Authorship; there is no shortage of Internet resources that do precisely that.

The goal of this article is to delve into the why of the matter: why the advent of Google Authorship represents one of the most significant, consequential events in the history of the Internet and why you should be very aware of it and the changes it will precipitate. This requires us to look both at the past and, using this history as our guide, into the future. Like most stories about how the Internet has developed, this one is filled with interesting twists and turns, but it comes to a point that is well worth knowing.

Catch me if you can

A cartoon roadrunner (no, not that one...)

Every day, in virtually every town in every country, people are trying to figure out how to attain that elusive number-one ranking on Google for search terms relevant to their interests. Google, on the other hand, employs an army of engineers to ensure that its search algorithm cannot be so easily manipulated. If the Internet was, at one time, the technological equivalent of the Wild West, then Google was more than simply the new sheriff in town - it was the entire cavalry.

That cavalry didn't arrive a moment too soon, either. Throughout the nineties, before Google even existed - heck, even before search engine optimization had a name - it was fairly easy to bully one's way up the search engine rankings. Want to be number one for a given phrase? Just make sure that phrase appears more times on your website than on your competitors'. Don't worry about such pleasantries as readability and clarity; stuff that keyword phrase into as many nooks and crannies of your website as you can, and you'll be just fine. If you don't want to be too obvious, you can even hide some of your keywords by making them the same color as the background and cramming them into the bottom of the page. Neat trick, huh? You will, to borrow a word used far too often in those days, "dominate."

One of the biggest problems inherent in this dubious method of marketing is that the quality of the search results was often abysmally poor. Users had to wade through dozens, if not hundreds, of "spam" sites - sites that incorporated keyword stuffing and other distasteful practices to hijack the top positions on search engines while delivering little, if any, valuable content - simply to arrive at a good source of the information they were searching for. The Internet developed a quick reputation for being an untrustworthy resource - a place where "anyone can write anything about anything, whether it's true or not."

The various search engine companies that existed at the time put forth valiant efforts to combat the anonymous tricksters, cheaters, and con artists that were blocking reputable websites from rising to the top of the rankings. Unfortunately, every time one method of exploitation was defused, a hundred more would take its place.

In short, it was a good time to be an outlaw.

Turning the Page

Google building

When told their ideas are "impossible," most people become immediately discouraged and eventually abandon the idea. Others, however, take the word as a challenge, as a shorthand version of "put up or shut up."

Larry Page falls squarely into the latter category.

Page, one of the founders of Google, synthesized a number of "impossible" ideas into the dissertation he co-authored with Sergey Brin while attending Stanford University. Chief among these was that the value of a web page could be determined in much the same manner as the value of an academic paper: through the number and quality of citations contained within the paper, as well as the number and quality of citations of that paper in other academic papers. Links, he theorized, were the Internet equivalent of citations; if a search engine were able not only to count these links, but also weigh them objectively in terms of their importance and credibility, it could organize the Web into a dramatically more useful and trustworthy information resource. After achieving several other "impossible" milestones, Page and Brin founded Google, Inc., and an Internet giant was born.

Of course, every birth is followed by growing pains, and Google's was no exception. Many Internet marketers, used to being able to bend search results to their whim, tried to develop new tricks to compete with Google's more sophisticated link-based ranking algorithm. In an effort partly to assert their prominence and partly to thumb their noses at the up-and-coming search engine, several of these marketers banded together to create "Google bombs." Google bombs exposed a vulnerability in Google's patented PageRank system ; namely, that by embedding a given phrase into a large number of web pages, and then linking all of those pages to one specific page on an outside domain, it would be possible to artificially elevate the latter page in the search results for that phrase. While the most notorious Google bombs had no commercial impetus (as in the movement that led to George W. Bush's profile on the whitehouse.gov website being pushed up the number-one result for "miserable failure"), savvy marketers applied the concept to their attempts at search engine optimization. Link farms sprouted up by the thousands, and marketing companies around the globe began to boast that they had the secret for "beating" Google.

As link-building services became increasingly mainstream (not to mention profitable), Google was working all the while to improve its search algorithm, not simply to catch up with Internet marketers, but to anticipate future attempts to exploit the search engine's weaknesses. The company wasn't about to allow rogue, self-professed search engine experts to fatten their wallets while eroding its bottom line. No company founded by the likes of Larry Page was going down without its guns blazing.

Boil the frog

Deep diving frog

Google's initial response to what it judged to be "black hat" websites was to remove them from its index altogether. One such website, Kinderstart.com, filed a lawsuit against Google in 2006 when its PageRank was set to zero, causing the search engine targeted to parents of young children to disappear from Google's results. Although Kinderstart.com did not win the lawsuit, Google recognized the dangerous precedent that would be set if it ever found itself on the losing end of such an action. As a result, the company adopted what one might call a "boil the frog" approach to penalizing websites that don't play by its rules.

As the old legend goes, you cannot kill a frog by dropping it into boiling water - the frog will simply jump out. However, if you place a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly heat it up, the frog will be lulled into such a complacent state that it will allow itself, eventually, to be boiled to death. Likewise, with a few notable exceptions, Google has refined its algorithm slowly and methodically, ensuring that offending websites gradually fade from the search results before their owners realize what's happening. These websites eventually disappear completely from the results without ever having been explicitly blacklisted by Google.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to identify this change in Google's philosophy as an epochal one. As the twists and turns of its algorithm were becoming more cryptic and difficult to predict, the most foolproof method of achieving strong long-term rankings was becoming clearer: substantive, relevant, timely content delivered via multiple media types in an easy-to-navigate website would trump any SEO "trick" out there.

Of course, that didn't stop some marketers from looking desperately for new ways to beat the system.

Pick a side, partner

Cowboy with guns drawn

As Google started to become a household word, the burgeoning SEO industry began to attract more and more profit seekers, many of whom were trying to rebuild lost fortunes in the aftermath of the dot-com bust at the turn of the century. The black-hat marketers continued to reach into their bag of tricks while their white-hat counterparts tried to assure their clients that playing by the rules would yield the best long-term dividends. Many of the newcomers to the industry, however, chose to inhabit the grey middle ground, never flagrantly flaunting Google's rules the way the black hats did, but adopting shortcuts that the white hats steered clear of.

The thing about shortcuts is that sometimes they actually work, if not for long.

Seemingly overnight, a new wave of search engine marketers emerged from this grey soil, declaring that they had the special technology (which we at Einstein Medical derisively called "special sauce") or inside knowledge to bend Google's algorithm to their will. These marketers purchased multiple domains, all registered for a year (and only a year - this is an important point), and parked variations on the same plagiarized content on every one of them. The theory was that, by flooding the Internet with this content, Google couldn't possibly flag all of it. And, indeed, Google could not.

This was a particularly trying period for white-hat companies such as ours.  Since 1995, Einstein Medical had been operating on the principles of fair play and being aboveboard in our strategies; yet, we now found ourselves competing with marketers whose illicit tactics were providing good short-term results.  While we stuck to our principles, it was often difficult to convince clients that we were operating in their best interests while they watched their competitors rise in the search engine rankings due to some unsavory, if temporarily effective, SEO practices. Unfortunately, many medical professionals were lured in by promises of first-page Google rankings, entrusting a key element of their marketing to companies that figured there would always be a way to trick Google. Some of these surgeons, physicians, and other medical professionals, however, were swiftly penalized: one month, they were at the top of the Google heap; the next, they weren't even being found for their names.

Google works in mysterious ways…

The "secret" is out

Two people with a secret - shush!

…but nowhere near as mysterious as many people believe. Indeed, Google has gone to great lengths to be transparent about how to achieve strong rankings on its search engine, going so far as to publish a highly specific set of Webmaster Guidelines. Unsurprisingly, if certainly to the relief of white-hat companies that had always followed a certain common-sense template, the guidelines revealed that fair play would always be rewarded over trickery. Google continues to make money by offering a limited number of paid listings that appear above the organic results that are returned for a given search query. Those organic results, however, are now - far more often than not - populated by websites that allow Google to provide its users with comprehensive, relevant, timely information related to their search terms.

Despite the fact that Google had published its guidelines in 2008, essentially instructing webmasters how to retain good rankings regardless of changes to its algorithm, there remained countless poorly constructed and downright black-hat websites.  With each new algorithm update, more and more of these websites were swept into oblivion. Complaints (some valid, most not) came from all corners. Officials from Google responded with professionalism and restraint, but the company's overall message boiled down to "We told you so - and we're still telling you so."

Nevertheless, there are still SEO professionals out there who are turning deaf ears and blind eyes to Google's warnings and fairly detailed roadmaps to the future, and they continue to guide their clients down a dangerous, potentially very costly path. In the meanwhile, Google is continuing to search for ways to reward those who play by the rules while making those who don't basically vanish.

That's where Google Authorship comes into play.

The Human Algorithm

human network

You will recall that a key element of the black-hat strategy was the purchase of domains for one year, and usually only one year. These domains were like cheap sheds that could be used to store illegal goods for a short period and then burned to the ground before the authorities could locate them. Before Google could penalize these domains for containing plagiarized content, they were long gone, and the black hats had moved on to new domains.

Of course, not every person who registers a domain for one year is looking to deceive Google; however, the company came to the reasonable conclusion that someone who had invested in registering a domain name for, say, ten years most likely does not have any dirty tricks up his or her sleeve. After all, why would anyone invest that kind of money into a domain only to risk its banishment from the search engine?

Google has taken a number of similar steps recently to discern the genuine from the deceitful, with an emphasis on improving the visibility of the former rather than punishing the latter. Most of these steps involve the measurement of trustworthiness to some degree. For example, if you went to the trouble of composing original, compelling content with a good signal-to-noise (i.e., substance-to-junk) ratio, along with unique photos and video, you are probably not a spammer. If you take active measures to keep this written and visual content up-to-date and relevant, then you're almost certainly not a spammer. If you are willing to associate your personal Google+ account, which features your photograph and a network of friends, family members, and colleagues, with your professional website, then you are putting your reputation and livelihood on the line to market your practice. As far as Google is concerned, your hands must be pretty darn clean.

In return for your going to this extent to prove that you're playing by the rules, Google has provided Authorship as a way for you to further establish yourself as a trustworthy resource of information among prospective patients. Not only will your website be more likely to turn up for a wider variety of search terms, but your picture will accompany the result when it does. This photo indicates to users that Google recognizes you as the author of the content on your website and, perhaps even more importantly, that Google has a certain amount of trust in you as a result. While Google Authorship is still in its infancy, relatively speaking, we at Einstein Medical have noticed a substantial improvement in the click-through rates of clients whose results are accompanied by their photos.

It is worth noting that, when you participate in Google+, you are essentially giving Google permission to use your data in its development of a "human algorithm." The company laid the foundation for the human algorithm as early as August 2005, when it first filed a patent request for Agent Rank, a system in which original content would be associated with an author through a digital signature. Based on the content produced by that author, he or she would be assigned a reputational score that would be relatively difficult to maintain or increase, but easy to decrease. This reputational score would strongly influence the rankings of an author's published content, encouraging reputable authors to continue to produce excellent content and dissuading them from attaching themselves to substandard content. Agent Rank not only set the precedent for Google Authorship, but still looms on the horizon as a further weapon that Google can use against black-hat marketers. The current iteration of the system, now known industry-wide as AuthorRank, could be used as a powerful adjunct to PageRank in measuring the quality of content.

For all of its potentially positive effects, the development of the human algorithm does force the issue of privacy among Internet users back into the public arena, where opinions are certain to be sharply divided. After all, Google already knows who your friends are and whether they, too, are part of the Authorship program. The company is keeping tabs on how and when you communicate and interact with your various circles of acquaintances. This can be unnerving, of course, and is something we will address in an upcoming blog post. For now, however, do keep in mind that Google's primary objective is to weed out the fakes, the snakes, and the sharks and, ultimately, to make the playing field more level for real flesh-and-blood people - like you.

What's porn got to do with it?

Woman shocked by the content on her computer

If the Internet has proven one thing to be true about the human race, it's that anonymity can - and often does - bring out the worst in people. You know that guy who cut you off on the freeway last week, and then had the audacity to flip you off as he sped away? That's the same guy who goes online routinely just to bash every business he comes in contact with. Force this fellow to accept the consequences of his actions, and chances are that he will recoil. If he cuts in front of you at a grocery store, he'll sheepishly apologize; if his name and face are attached to his review of a business, he'll be more fair-minded in his criticisms, assuming he dares to post a review at all.

The Internet has always allowed an anonymity that other media cannot afford to, not even in a free society. Both print and television news media must verify and document their sources in order to indemnify themselves from lawsuits. There are strong governmental regulations in place regarding the proper outlets for what is, as defined by law, indecent or obscene content, such as pornography and graphic violence. To date, attempts to regulate Internet content along similar lines have been largely unsuccessful, epitomized by the legal challenges to Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Title V, the Communications Decency Act, specifically dealt with the issue of pornographic content on the Internet and its availability to children. The Act, when it was eventually passed, established two important regulations. The first criminalized the transmission of indecent or obscene materials to minors; however, the indecency (though not the obscenity) provisions were ruled a violation of free speech, and thus unconstitutional, by the Supreme Court in 1997. The second regulation unwittingly created an avenue for those who wish to use abusive, hateful, and irrefutably obscene language while remaining anonymous, an avenue that remains mostly open to this day. Per the Act:

No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.

Google Authorship, in a manner that does not violate any established Internet regulation, may signify the end of the line for those who hide behind a mask of anonymity while spewing vitriol at whomever they please. Many experienced and highly respected medical professionals have sat helplessly by while their stellar reputations were eroded by a scathing review or two on Yelp - posted by, you guessed it, Anonymous. The Communications Decency Act protects such reviews - which could well have been fabricated by a competitor of the victimized doctor - as free speech. Content that would be considered libelous if published in a newspaper or broadcast on television is legally acceptable on the Internet, and very non-anonymous people and businesses are suffering very real losses as a result.

As Google Authorship and Google+ become more prevalent, it is possible - likely, even - that our not-so-dear Anonymous will lose his or her (or its) voice. Reviews from actual people may be prioritized above reviews from anonymous users, and content that people are unwilling or unable to claim as their own may even be discounted altogether.

The Takeaway

Chinese Takeaway Sign

Most SEO marketers will tell you that Google Authorship is a great way to set yourself apart from the competition, increase your conversion rate, and inject new life into your online strategy. And, indeed, it is all of these things.

Now, however, you may have a deeper understanding as to why you should sign up for Authorship. The value of standing by your content and attaching your name to it publicly goes beyond the immediate bottom line. The best way to guard your reputation and your life's work against the wrecking ball of anonymity is to be as non-anonymous in your Internet presence as you can be. You're not simply another medical professional in a community filled with medical professionals. You have a name and a history and a message that you are willing and eager to deliver from the rooftops, white hat in hand.

If you're ready for the spotlight, Google is ready to shine it in your direction.