Agent Rank, or Google Plus as an Identity Service or Digital Signature

What does it mean to call Google Plus an Identity Service? Might that have implications for how web pages might be ranked by Google? If we believe that Google might start incorporating authority signals into those rankings, it very well could.

At the Edinburgh Intl TV Festival on August 28th, 2011 at a Q&A with Eric Schmidt, Andy Carvin from NPR asked about Google’s insistence on the use of people’s real names, and received a prolonged response that pointed out the use of Google Plus as an identity service with the possible use of a ranking signal built into it.

But my general rule is people have a lot of free time and people on the Internet, there are people who do really really evil and wrong things on the Internet, and it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed them out. I’m not suggesting eliminating them, what I’m suggesting is if we knew their identity was accurate, we could rank them. Think of them like an identity rank.

The Return of Agent Rank and Portable Digital Signatures

One of the few places where I recall a Google patent describing the use of a digital identity was Google’s patent filing involving Agent Rank, which I wrote in 2007 over at Search Engine Land in Google’s Agent Rank Patent Application.

The patent describes how authors can mark the content that they publish on the Web with a digital signature, whether that content might be a web page, or article, or blog post, or even comment, and how their authorship might influence the rankings of that content by associating a reputation score with it.

The patent also describes ways of using meta data to provide information about whether or not that content has been syndicated elsewhere, somewhat similar to the syndication metadata tags developed for Google News. (See also, Google on Duplicate Content Filtering and News Attribution Metatags.)

Google published a contination patent filing this summer that provides updates to the reputation scoring system described in the Agent Rank patent, which makes it more likely that could be used with an authorship markup approach and a system like Google Plus. It’s not the first continuation of the patent. An earlier version was published in 2009.

Both continuations of the original patent contain substantially the same description, but the newest version of the Agent Rank patent adds an interesting element within its claims.

Here is the first of the claims listed in the new version of the patent filing:

1. A computer-implemented method comprising: evaluating a document that is hosted on a site, the document including a content item to which a maker of the content item has applied a digital signature; determining whether the digital signature is portable; if the digital signature is portable, using a reputation score associated with the maker in calculating a quality score for the document; and if the digital signature is not portable, using the reputation score associated with the maker in calculating the quality score for the document only if the digital signature is fixed to the site.

Note the use of the word “portable.”

That seems to be one of the more significant updates to the patent – and I think it makes it more clear that associating a Google profile with content authored by someone is like applying a digital signature to that content.

Note that someone doesn’t have to be using Google Plus to use authorship markup, since they need only link their profile page with their Google Account under the processes described by Google on their help page for using the markup.

Reputation Scoring under Agent Rank

In addition to using authorship markup to identify who the author and possibly originator of content might be, the Agent Rank process also involves adding a quality score to a document based upon the reputation score of its author.

It’s quite possible that Google might use information that it finds on the Web and at Google plus that it can clearly associate with specific authors to create a credential score of the type that I described in the post How Google Might Rank User Generated Web Content in Google + and Other Social Networks.

Google might also issue Authorship Badges as well that we could use in other places such as comments on Blog posts, or upon guest posts on blogs where we might not have an author profile page, or upon a site where we might submit articles.

Google’s Panda updates emphasized the “quality” of content found on the Web, and an authorship reputation could easily be another signal of quality in ranking pages.


As I noted in my last post, Google’s New Freshness Update: Social Media Has Changed the Expectations of Searchers, there are a number of reasons why Google might look more closely at social signals, including the ability to surface fresher content faster.

If Google is to do that, it needs signals other than PageRank to rely upon to find very fresh content since PageRank tends to work best for content that has had time to attract some links. Adding an author reputation score, based upon contributions to social networks and through very recently published content, and meaningful interactions with others in social networks and through comments adds an element that doesn’t necessarily rely upon a link graph the way that PageRank does.

Adding authorship markup to the content that you create would be a first step in this process because it would enable Google to associate a digital signature to content that you might create at multiple places on the Web.

Google has taken some steps to implement authorship markup on their own, and in a June post about Authorship Markup on the Google Webmaster Central blog, they tell us:

We wanted to make sure the markup was as easy to implement as possible. To that end, we’ve already worked with several sites to markup their pages, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNET, Entertainment Weekly, The New Yorker and others. In addition, we’ve taken the extra step to add this markup to everything hosted by YouTube and Blogger. In the future, both platforms will automatically include this markup when you publish content.

So, if you publish content to Youtube or Google Blogger or one of the organizations that Google has worked with, you’re already using authorship markup.

Some other recent posts elsewhere that discuss Agent Rank and Google Authorship markup:

How do you feel about Google Plus as an identity service?

Will you be adding authorship markup to your pages if you haven’t already?


Author: Bill Slawski

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