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How A Search Engine Might Determine Author Authority for Rankings

John Doherty —  September 17, 2011
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*This post is very similar to the one published yesterday on SEOmoz*

The past months in SEO have been dominated by the news that social influences rankings. But how do the search engines calculate who is authoritative and who is not? How do they know who is trustworthy? I’ve been digging through some patents recently and trying to find the ways that this might happen.

There are three concepts that I want to familiarize you with that, according to patents, could help determine whether or not your social shares are going to impact rankings.

Definition of webspam

The original definition of webspam, from a 2004 patent application, is “The term web spam refers to hyperlinked pages on the World Wide Web that are created with the intention of misleading search engines.” Aside from the fact that they refer to the Internet as the World Wide Web, this outdated definition can be updated to say something like:

Webspam refers to any activity occuring on the Internet that intends to mislead search engines and unfairly influence search results.

Topical Trustrank

The first concept you should be familiar with is “topical Trustrank”. The orginial Trustrank was first mentioned in this Yahoo patent from 2004. At the time, it seemed underdeveloped, since it relied on sites to label themselves. And worse than underdeveloped, it was open to spam since it relied on websites to tag themselves (not unlike the meta keywords tag).

The patent was granted in 2009 as a way to rank sites based on labels given them by people, according to this article called Google Trustrank Patent Granted.

Another take on Trustrank is Topical Trustrank, which was introduced in 2006. Because Trustrank seemed to be biased heavily towards larger communities that could attract more spam pages (without tripping a spam threshold, maybe?), Topical Trustrank aimed to build trust based on the relevance of the connecting sites (and I would argue now, the topical relevance of those sharing links via social networks).

Author Rank

According to one Yahoo patent application, “…author rank is a ‘measure of the expertise of the author in a given area.'” Since this is delightfully vague, here are some specific areas (taken from Bill Slawski’s How Search Engines May Rank User Generated Content) that the search engines might look at to determine if you are authoritative:

  • A number of relevant/irrelevant messages posted;
  • Document goodness of all documents initiated by the author;
  • Total number of documents initiated posted by the author within a defined time period;
  • Total number of replies or comments made by the author; and,
  • A number of [online] groups to which the author is a member.

We can take these and apply them to social as well. If they are calculating author rank based off of content taken from around the web, why would they not also use this author rank for your social shares?

Here are some more questions a search engine might ask about a user (according to an email I received from Bill Slawski):

  • Do they contribute something new, useful, interesting?
  • Are they tweeting new articles, or recycling old articles? Are they sharing articles from just one site, or are they sharing articles from a number of different sites? What’s their engagement/CTR?
  • Do they participate in meaningful conversations with others?
  • Are they replying to others through @replies or others (DMs. maybe?)? What topics?
  • Do those others contribute something new, useful, interesting?
  • Are they themselves keeping the cycle going and replying to various others, or always responding to the same users?

Agent Rank

According to this article from Search Engine Land, Google applied for a patent around a way to determine an agent, or author’s, authority in a specific niche. According to the article:

Content creators could be given reputation scores, which could influence the rankings of pages where their content appears, or which they own, edit, or endorse.

Also according to the article, here are some of the goals of Agent Rank:

  • Identifying individual agents responsible for content can be used to influence search ratings.
  • The identity of agents can be reliably associated with content.
  • The granularity of association can be smaller than an entire web page, so agents can disassociate themselves from information appearing near the information for which the agent is responsible.
  • An agent can disclaim association with portions of content, such as advertising, that appear on the agent’s web site.
  • The same agent identity can be attached to content at multiple locations.
  • Multiple agents can make contributions to a single web page where each agent is only associated to the content that they provided.”

Does the following sound like the new rel=author markup that we’re seeing in the search results? I think it does:

“Tying a page to an author can influence the ranking of that page. If the author has a high reputation, content created by him or her many be considered to be more authoritative that similar content on other pages. If the agent reviewed or edited content instead of authoring it, the score for the content might be ranked differently.”

“An agent may have a high reputation score for certain kinds of content, and not for others – so someone working on site involving celebrity news might have a strong reputation score for that kind of content, but not such a high score for content involving professional medical advice.”

The article goes on to explain that authority scores will be hard to build up, but easy to harm. This would be one way to keep authors producing high quality content.

Some more factors that may influence authority:

  • Quality of the response
  • Relevance of the response
  • The authority of those who respond to what you post

Actionable Bits to Keep in Mind

We hear a lot of talk around automating your social stream. This seems like an oxymoron to me, since it undercuts the whole purpose of “social” media. Here is an interesting statistical graph for you:

Manual tweets get twice the clicks on average!

Next, if you’re interested in whether automating your Twitter stream will increase your followers, take this next graph into account:

Less automation = more followers

Since we were talking about topical trustrank earlier as well, you might want an idea of which topics the search engines might consider you authoritative about. I think that Klout Topics is a good place to start.

Other tools you should use to establish your online brand

Disqus is a way to increase your author authority. Your profile works across all sites that have it. Your reputation goes with you. This is a good thing if you’re whitehat!

Gravatar – Ross Hudgens wrote a great post a few months ago called Generating Static Force Multipliers for Great Content wherein he talked about the importance of a consistent personal brand and image across the Internet. If you have the same photo across many different sites, how could the search engines not use this in determining trustworthiness?

KnowEm is a website where you can find if your username has been taken across many different social networks. This is a great place to go to learn where you need to sign up to protect your username, and therefore your personal brand and author trust.

John Doherty


Founder of Credo, I'm formerly the Senior Growth Marketing Manager at Trulia Rentals. Previous to Trulia Rentals I ran marketing at HotPads.com. Previous to that I worked at Distilled for 2+ years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter account.

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