AuthorRank is one of the hottest topics in SEO for 2013. The potential is huge and the advent of AuthorRank as a major factor in Google search ranking seems imminent. There’s one big unanswered question here, though. What about AuthorRank for brands? I wrote an extensive post about How to Prepare for AuthorRank on SEOmoz last year and, by far, the most common question was “can my business or brand get AuthorRank?”. In this post, we’ll explore the idea of AuthorRank for brands, whether it’s real, what we can expect in the near future, and what we can or can’t do to prepare for something like it.
A Concise Overview of AuthorRank
In 2005, Google filed a patent for something they referred to as “Agent Rank” (which the SEO industry has more or less rebranded as “AuthorRank”). The idea was to identify online “agents” and rank them according to how well their content was received (originally within the confines of the Google Knol project). This would allow Google to highlight content by people who were trusted and offered real value. However, the whole thing hinged on a “digital signature system” and, for a while, there was no easily scalable solution for that. That was before Google+ launched and, interestingly enough, Google made a big announcement about Google Authorship (the apparent prerequisite for AuthorRank) on the same day that Google+ launched; Google+ became the “digital signature system” that was needed. Now that all the pieces are in place, it seems only a matter of time before Google rolls out this idea that’s been eight years in the making.
AuthorRank has the potential to revolutionize the SEO game in the very near future.* People who write great content that’s well received online will have a distinct advantage over low-trust, low-authority authors, and also over unsigned, anonymous content. The authority and performance of a website will cease to be the primary consideration in ranking, but will be combined with the authority and performance of the people who contribute to that site. For more information on AuthorRank, read my full post on SEOmoz.
* It should be noted that Google does NOT currently use author authority as a ranking factor (source).
Won’t Somebody Please Think Of The Company?!
Of course this is great for the individuals who are writing kick-ass content, but what about AuthorRank for companies or brands? What about AuthorRank for online retailers, agencies, news sites, and social networks? If we adhere to what Google has told us about authorship from the beginning, we know that this is explicitly NOT for brands. The goal of Google Authorship is to highlight the people who create content in search. The reason that Authorship and AuthorRank exist is because search users trust and value content written by real people.
Not an anonymous author.
Not a corporate entity.
It’s clear that Google Authorship and AuthorRank is definitely not for brands or companies, but what about BrandRank? Would Google be interested in developing a system to identify and rank brands according to how well they could potentially fulfill a searcher’s needs? They could, but as of yet, there is nothing concrete from Google to indicate that they’re heading in this direction. However, we do have rel=publisher and that is very similar to the rel=author attribute-value pair that makes AuthorRank possible. Let’s explore this idea.
Rel Publisher for BrandRank
Rel Author semantic markup allows us to identify the person who authored a specific piece of content. Using this line of code, I can tell Google that this post was written by the person at end of that link; me.
<link rel=”author” href=”https://plus.google.com/103088929047917831453″ />
<a href=”https://plus.google.com/103088929047917831453?rel=author”>Mike Arnesen on Google+</a>
This is an integral part of the digital signature system that Google needs to make AuthorRank a reality. My content needs to be linked to my online identity (my Google+ profile) so that my content can be attributed to me.
When we look at Rel Publisher, we can see in a second that it’s strikingly similar. This line of code identifies the entity that published this blog post.
<link rel=”publisher” href=”https://plus.google.com/108851261961717150177″ />
<a href=”https://plus.google.com/108851261961717150177?rel=publisher”>SwellPath on Google+</a>
Yet, beyond a similar presentation, is Google actually using these tags in the same way? The short answer is “no” but the longer answer is “not really, but kinda”.
- It enables PPC ads to feature a brand’s Google+ page so that you get more followers on Google+.
- It makes “Direct Connect” possible so that users can follow the brand’s Google+ page directly from the search results.
- It allows Google to group together posts by the same publisher in order to show users additional content after they read a first post from the publisher.
- It “gives Google information we can use to determine the relevancy of your site to a user query in Google Web Search“.
- It allows Google to verify a connection between a brand’s site and their official Google+ page. This gives that “verified site” notation that shows up on a brand’s Google+ page.
The first four items are well and good, but it’s the fifth point that stands out as particularly relevant to the AuthorRank for Brands (BrandRank) discussion. Using that verified connection, Google can connect a website (with its authority, trust, PR, etc.) and its content to an established brand identity (via Google+). Rel Publisher has the potential to be comparable signature system to the one used for traditional Google Authorship. Theoretically, Google has all the pieces in place to create a ranking system for brands and determine how relevant they are to specific topics. If we want to grasp at straws, take a look at #4 from above – Rel Publisher makes it possible for Google to “determine the relevancy of your site to a user query”. We could assume that, as with AuthorRank, Google would be using Rel Publisher to identify which topics that brand has credibility for and, therefore, rank them higher for related queries. For some, that might be as much as is needed to believe in the possibility of BrandRank.
Is the Existence of Rel Publisher Enough to Facilitate AuthorRank for Brands?
Of course not! Just think about the adoption of Google Authorship for standard AuthorRank? It’s embarrassingly low! As of August 2012, only 9% of tech blogs had Authorship configured. I’m sure that percentage has only increased since that statistic came out, but it’s hardly progressed to the point where Google has enough participants to make AuthorRank a major part of search ranking.
Now, think about how many peers you have who have Authorship set up compared to how many of your clients voluntarily set up Google+ pages and verified them using Rel Publisher. There you go. If Google’s going to seriously consider something like BrandRank in the future, there’s going to have to be some serious increase in adoption.
But can’t Google just identify brands on its own without Rel Publisher? It’s possible, though not likely. For example, search “ABC Consulting” in Google and see how many different brands are returned in your SERPs. Even Google isn’t good enough to develop a scalable solution for correctly distinguishing all those identically named brands. Rel Publisher seems to be the only reliable way of establishing a one-to-one relationship between a website and a brand entity.
So I suppose it’s more accurate to say that while the adoption level of Rel Publisher isn’t sufficient to even think of AuthorRank for brands in 2013, it remains the only viable solution for bringing brands into search in a meaningful way.
Let’s Get Speculative About BrandRank
For the rest of this post, let’s disregard the obstacles to rolling out something like BrandRank and think about how an idea like this would actually work. We know that Google definitely likes (dare I say, favors) brands, so I don’t think there’s any reason to rule out BrandRank. In fact, Google’s Eric Schmitt has said “Brands are the solution, not the problem…brands are how you sort out the cesspool.” so it follows that if Google could implement an idea like this, they would.
How Would BrandRank Be Calculated?
Considering what we know about how Google calculates PageRank, what would logically factor into calculating AuthorRank, and some things that already help brands establish good standing in search, we can make a pretty educated guess as to what signals will be used by Google to determine BrandRank. Below is my shortlist of factors that Google could potentially look at in order to establish BrandRank for any given brand.
- Participation in a brand-signature program (like Rel Publisher)
- A custom Google+ URL (perhaps simply correlating with higher BrandRank and not a determining factor)
- The number of +1s on the homepage of the Brand’s website
- The PageRank of the brand’s verified website
- Existence of a Wikipedia page and the PageRank of that page
- Quantity and quality of brand mentions in Google News results
- Volume and velocity of brand name searches in search
- Good standing with Google Panda
- The AuthorRank of founders, partners, employees, etc.
- The percentage of external links using branded anchor text
- Schema.org organization markup on the brand’s verified site (simply a verification signal)
- The presence of physical locations/headquarters present on Google+ Local
- The existence of a Twitter profile with “verified profile” status
- A company page on LinkedIn linking to the same verified brand website
- Controversial – Participation in Google AdWords and/or Google Shopping
Those are just some possible signals. The extent to which Google would look at third party sites (Twitter or LinkedIn) in determining BrandRank is debatable, but they do seem pretty confident in the information they get from Wikipedia, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.
Just like AuthorRank, BrandRank would be different on a topic-by-topic basis. Nike would be a terrific brand to return in searches related to sportswear, but it wouldn’t make sense to give them much of a boost for searches related to enterprise-level productivity software. Keep this in mind as well.
Tactical Plan to Build BrandRank
Sure, BrandRank may not be a reality today, but we know Google has a reason to want something like AuthorRank for brands and they have the technology to do it (it just lacks adoption). However, like any exercise in branding, building BrandRank will take time, so it won’t hurt to build your company’s ahead of time. Here are some concrete tactics that you can run with right now that will help make sure your brand has strong online authority if/when BrandRank comes into play.
- Set up a Google+ Page & Verify Your Website
If you dont’ have a Google+ page for your brand, head over to google.com/+/business/ and set one up. This will be the official brand identity that Google will tie everything else back to. Fill out the profile completely. The next step is to link your website to your Google+ page. You can find out here in Google’s documentation. It’s quite simple, but this step is probably one of the most important things to do.
- Work on Growing Google+
This post isn’t about building a following on Google+, but doing as much could be a large part of building BrandRank. Being active, helpful, and engaged with the community on Google+ is what gets you +1s, followers, and eventually the coveted custom URL for your page.
- Don’t Forget SEO
The PageRank of your website will be a large part of BrandRank, so traditional SEO is still going to be important. This is 2013 though, so make sure to focus your campaign on leveraging your brand’s value and what you offer users. Avoid chasing exact match anchor text; it’s becoming less relevant and, for BrandRank, you want to work on having a healthy percentage of branded anchor text anyhow. Another thing to consider: make sure your brand name is a clear part of your title tags and that it’s visible when people land on your site. You want users to form a positive association with your brand, which will hopefully increase the volume of searches your brand name gets.
- Earn the Knowledge Graph for Your Brand
If you can get your brand to appear in the Knowledge Graph, it’s highly likely that you’ll be looking at a powerful BrandRank. While the Knowledge Graph is still in its infancy, there are a few things you can go after to make sure your brand is as attractive and accessible as possible for this new program. The first is #1 on this list. Google+ is a common source of information for the Knowledge Graph. Another huge data source is Wikipedia (you’ll see it on almost all Knowledge Graph displays). Establish a stable page on Wikipedia, and you’ll be one step closer. Make sure to research what it takes to get a successful Wikipedia entry going. The last one (for now) that you should look into is Freebase. Check it out, learn it, and add your brand to the data base.
- Apply Organization Semantic Markup
Using semantic HTML markup like microdata to highlight information about your organization allows Google to retrieve detailed brand data directly from your site. I personally like the organization schema at Schema.org, but Google’s data-vocabulary.com examples (here) are extremely helpful, too.
- Make Your People Part of Your Brand
One thing that can bolster your BrandRank is the cumulative AuthorRank of the public people who are part of your team. With the authorship program, Google’s shown the extent to which they value resources on the web created by real people. A brand that isn’t afraid to show their team to the world and that lets those people be a part of their identify will likely do well with BrandRank. A company blog can be a great brand tool for highlighting people and letting them build their own AuthorRank, while helping build the company’s BrandRank at the same time.
- Do Real Company Shit
Google isn’t looking to help brands out just because. Google is looking to help brands because, in a lot of cases, brands provide a better experience to searchers because they do real stuff. They’re well-known, they’re trusted, they delight their customers. That’s the kind of brand that Google wants to promote in search with BrandRank. If your company rips people off, gets terrible reviews on a regular basis, doesn’t create content or otherwise engage with customers online, and/or has to pay money to get the majority of its links, you’re doing it wrong! The term #RCS was coined by Wil Reynolds and there’s a great video I highly recommend checking out.
Authorship and AuthorRank are exciting concepts that are getting a ton of attention these days and it only makes sense for brands to want a piece of the action, too. Interestingly enough, we can see that there’s a system in place that would enable some kind of AuthorRank for brands to be put in place and it definitely seems like Google is down with promoting brands in search. What is lacking at this point is either sufficient adoption or, possibly, just a final push to make Google pull the trigger and commit to ranking brands.
Still, there are many steps we can take right now to work on establishing our companies and our clients as trusted brands in ways that search engines will pick up on. If we put in the work now, we’ll be well on our way to seeing solid BrandRank for ourselves when/if Google makes its move.
What are your thoughts on the concept of BrandRank? Let me know in the comments. Good luck and happy optimizing!