Has Google Decided that you are Authoritative for a Query?

At Google and Bing, both search engines have been experimenting with relevance and search. Both have shown profile photographs of people whom you may be connected to at places such as Google+ (for Google) and at Facebook (For Bing) in search results that include them. Both may have changed rankings for those pages as well.

Google was showing authorship photos in search results for some authors who had set up authorship markup on their Google profiles and their web pages. Google also showed profile pictures in search results for some pages authored by some people that didn’t actually contain any authorship markup as long as those pages or domains were linked to by the author’s Google profile page as “contributors to”.

The author profiles would sometimes appear in front of articles appearing in search results for content written by specific authors from those “linked to” sources.

My links from my Google profile.

Then authorship changed.

Recently, Google Webmaster Evangelist John Mueller announced that Google would be no longer requiring authorship markup and wouldn’t be showing photographs of authors in logged out search results at Google. As Eric Enge wrote at Search Engine Land, “It’s Over: The Rise & Fall Of Google Authorship For Search Results.

Since then, you can sometimes still see author photos in search results when you are logged into Google for pages from Google Plus. You don’t see profile photos from non Google Plus pages within those results, but you might see pages from those authors from outside of Google Plus if the pages are relevant for the query used.

On a search for [agentrank] (no brackets) while logged into Google, the following page used to rank at number one and show an authorship photo:

search engine land agentrank article

On the same search for [agentrank] (no brackets) while logged into Google, the following page ranks on the first page in search results, but does show an author photo:

The Google Plus result with author photo

The display of or lack of display of the authorship photo appears to be immaterial as to whether either of these pages rank on the first page in search results.

Has Authorship Changed in Other Ways?

In a matter of interesting timing, a couple of days later, Google was granted a patent involving showing a page from an author connected to a searcher in Google+ if that author was determined to be authoritative for the query used by the searcher, or for a similar or synonym for that query. The patent doesn’t say that it require authorship markup. It doesn’t say that it will show authorship picture in search results next to that author. It doesn’t say that it will treat content on Google+ pages differently than web pages outside of Google+. It’s silent on topics like those.

The patent is:

Showing prominent users for information retrieval requests
Invented by Jun Gong, John E. Saalweachterm, Sheng Zhang, Wanda Wen-hui Hung, Bogdan Dorohonceanu, Yihua Wu, Sagar Kamdar, Jeremy Hylton, Othar Hansson, Kumar Mayur Thakur
Assigned to Google
US Patent 8,825,698
Granted September 2, 2014
Filed December 21, 2012


Implementations of the present disclosure include actions of:

  • Receiving a search query from a searching user
  • Determining that the search query corresponds to a trigger query and, in response
  • Providing data associated with the first set of authoritative users for potential display to the searching user
  • Determining a second set of authoritative users based on the first set of authoritative users, for each authoritative user in the second set of authoritative users
  • Receiving a contact status between the authoritative user and the searching user within a social networking service, and
  • Transmitting instructions to display data associated with authoritative users of the second set of authoritative users with search results responsive to the search query, the data including the contact status for each authoritative user in the second set of authoritative users.

The authors that rank in search results for a searcher they are connected to in Google+, do so because Google has decided that those authors rank for certain “Trigger Queries”. If that query is one used by a connected searcher. What the patent doesn’t tell us is how Google decides whether one or more people should have their content rank well for trigger queries.

The authoritative user data (from an authoritative user database) may include:

  • Query (Q) data
  • Authoritative user (AU) data and
  • Score (S) data, determined from one or more social networking services. In some examples, an authoritative user is authoritative for one or more queries with the score providing a relative measure of the authoritativeness of authoritative user for a particular query. For example, a first user and a second user can be determined to be authoritative users for a query, and a first score and a second score can be respectively associated with the first and second users for the query. The first score can exceed, e.g., be greater than, the second score or a threshold, indicating that the first user is deemed to be more authoritative on topics underlying the query than the second user or an authoritative user in general, respectively. In some examples, the authoritative user data is organized in triples (e.g., (Q, AU, S)), where each triple denotes that user AU is authoritative for query Q with the score. S

The patent does also tell us that queries to be used as trigger queries may be decided upon by popularity of those queries. If there are enough searches for a specific query, it might be chosen by Google to be associated with an authoritative author.

We don’t know if Google will be using an information extraction approach to attempt to identify who the “author” is of content found on the Web in the future, but it’s possible. Rather than Google relying upon authors who aren’t setting up authorship markup in many cases (see the Eric Enge article), Google may sidestep that approach completely.

If people aren’t paying much attention to authorship badges when they are searching and are logged out of Google Plus, showing those badges doesn’t make sense. If Google re-ranks a search result by boosting its ranking because it thinks the author is authoritative for a particular query, Google doesn’t need to display an author photo. Google doesn’t annotate pages in search results with things like PageRank numbers, even though Lawrence Page did show off PageRank annotations in the first provisional patent for PageRank.

If Google were to tip its hat in some way to show that it was ranking a page higher because it believes that page and its author is authoritative for a topic, that knowledge might potentially be abused by people attempting to manipulate search results. If Google determines that you are authoritative for a query, it may not let you know. It might hide that decision. I would if I were Google.

19 thoughts on “Has Google Decided that you are Authoritative for a Query?”

  1. This is interesting… I always thought showing the author pic put a lot of “pressure” on those whose pic were not showing and many times many “spam authors” were given that boost.

    I also noticed if i have a girl picture, the articles get that much more traffic than a boy picture (atleast in the niche i work).

    So it is good riddance but this new patent is good.

  2. This rocked my world, Bill, to say the least. So much to chew on here.

    I haven’t even finished the article but curiosity got to me. I tried a search for [authorrank] (sans brackets, of course). Logged in I don’t get your Google+ post, but I do get Google+ posts (with profile photos) at positions 8 and 9 (from Joshua Berg and Dustin Stout respectively).

    But here’s what really caught my attention. Logged in, I get an article from your SEO by the Sea site at #4 and an article from realsmo.com at #5. But when I do the search logged out, your article slips to #7 and the realsmo article takes the #4 slot.

    This left me wondering, is that boost in my personalized search because Google knows you authored the article, you’re authoritative on “authorrank,” and I’m connected to you on Google+?

    Of course, I’m also connected to Joshua Berg, the author of the realsmo article, but Joshua would probably be seen as less authoritative on authorrank than you.

    Anyway, I share this very tentatively. For it to be a case of personalized “authorrank” by query would require that what is described in this patent be already in action. There could be other explanations for this ranking shift. What do you think?

  3. Hi Mark,

    Happy to hear that you are finding this post interesting. 🙂

    I wonder if Google might think I’m a little more authoritative for “agentrank” than “authorrank” since I usually refer to the wording of the first version more than the second. The patent tells us that it might boost queries that someone is found authoritative for, but it might treat them somewhat differently for similar or synonyms of the trigger query.

  4. This is along the lines I was thinking. The patent approval time is not just coincidence! They’re not dismantling authorship, they’re actually turning the system on that they were testing/developing all this time. But at the same time trying to hide the fact from SEOs.

    I think Google will be silently integrating what they developed with authorship into their search algorithms. But it will only be when there is a clear connection between content-to-author through different sources AND only when the author is very authoritative on the subject (has written a large body of content on the subject that Google can connect). So only a factor for highly authoritative authors within the subject.

    In short, it looks like they’re dismantling their authorship system but actually they’re finally turning it on as an authority signal and trying to hide the fact in order to prevent possible manipulation.

  5. I would think that would be the case, Bill. But of course, that leaves us with the intriguing question of whether this patent (or some aspects of it, at least) is already in use, given the type of result I found this morning.

  6. Hi Mark,

    I’ve gotten so used to interacting with people in Google+ that I started looking for the plus button on your comment. It’s definitely possible that Google may have started using what is described in the patent already. It’s been around long enough.

    I’ve been exploring some implications and aspects of this patent, but it’s always more fun to do that as a collaborative effort.

  7. Bill, LOL, about the plus button!

    I am definitely going to be trying out some queries today where I know I’m connected with an author on Google+ whose web content ought to be authoritative for a certain query.

  8. We should note though that Google+ posts are not ONLY elevated and highlighted in personalized search for “queries in which the author may be authoritative.”

    In my testing, potentially almost any query could bring up a Google+ post from your connections if the Google+ content itself is highly relevant to the query and the Google+ member has good-to-high relevancy to you personally.

    For example, in this post I showed that a G+ post I did sharing photos from a recent trip showed up on page one logged-in for nearly everyone who has me in a circle and tried it for the query “marietta pa homes.” Certainly I have no authority for homes in Marietta, Pennsylvania!

  9. OK, I’m withdrawing my agentrank search as a possible example of this patent at work. At least, I can no longer say so with any conviction.

    Just noticed that when logged in, Google annotates the seobythesea.com result with “You’ve visited this page many times” whereas the realsmo.com result has “You visited this page on 8/14/14” (meaning, just once).

    It is probably more likely that it was the number of visits I made that elevated seobythesea over realsmo rather than the authors of those articles.

    Back to testing!

    PS Your comment system has gone wacky today. Half to try several times to get a comment posted. Sometimes I get dumped to a “no data” page.

  10. Promoting the sites by people you are connected to AND you’ve visited a lot absolutely makes sense to me. Would be interesting to know if Google would promote a site you’ve visited a lot but without any connection in your social media profiles over a site by someone you’re connected to but have only visited once. (Oh dear, what a phrase… ) Any findings about that in your further testings, Marc?

  11. Hi Mark,

    Sorry about the site misbehaving. I’m working upon making it a little more responsive. Interesting observations about search results. I’m going to have to try out more, too.

  12. Hi Gianna,

    The process in this patent isn’t personalization as much as its social search, which means that it could identify and find pages that are from people connected to you as a searcher, possibly using semantic markup such as FOAF markup.

    The number of visits you’ve made to their page could influence personalization, which is based at least in part on your search history.

    But this isn’t personalization. Let’s say that Google fulfilled the social part of this algorithm by finding people socially connected to you in Google Plus.

    It might next look to see if one of those page authors connected to you has been found to be authoritative for a trigger query that you might have searched for.

  13. Hey Bill,

    Zooming out a few degrees..how impactful do think this could be/is with so few people truly active and engaged on Google Plus?

    Please not I’m not questioning how Google could tie content to an author, but instead am curious about the impact since this patent (at least from my understanding) seems to suggest results could be adjusted based on your connections in G+.

    Personally, I know very few people even in the marketing and tech industries that are actively utilizing g+ to make more and more connections…is it possibly Google is making those connections for you in other ways even if you aren’t giving them the direct signal on the g+ platform?

    This doesn’t seem as valuable/useful to them unless they increased their activity on g+…accurate?

  14. Giana, see my previous comment. Sites I’ve visited frequently are indeed boosted in my logged in search. As I noted there, a post of Bill’s got elevated for me over how it appears in logged out search apparently not because Bill was the author (as far as I know) but because I had visited it many times, a fact which Google even notes under the result so I know why it is being pumped up in my search.

    Google also used to show an annotation for results that were elevated in your personalized search because someone (or someones) in your Google network had plussed them or shared them on Google+. They stopped showing that annotation the same day they removed authorship rich snippets from general search, but that doesn’t mean they still aren’t elevating such content.

  15. Hi Bill,

    This article (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/google-540m-monthly-users-lags-behind-facebook-article-1.1500403 . ) says they’ve got 540 million active users a month, and the econsultancy article is newer. Odd.

    The econsultancy article is also making an argument that only 35% active is a poor number. In fact, the article goes on to discuss how active users vs. number of total users as a percent is actually decreasing. Wouldn’t this imply that while they are gaining users (which we all know how that happens), that they aren’t really showing signs of tapping into the masses and generating engagement with the platform? I would also say active users still may not mean people are enhancing connections, but simply viewing content such as video. I didn’t see a definition they used.

    The econsultancy article also gives Facebook a 50% active with a much larger registered audience – that seems like that type of activity you need to be integrating this (patent discussed above) heavily for general public usage. Not that I don’t believe this (again patent above) could be impacting SERPs for people, nor do I think G+ is a “ghost town”, I just think the active users tend to fit into very specific demographics. It seems like that needs to change for this to really have a big impact.

    All that being said..I wasn’t trying to start a discussion around the activity level of G+, but rather understand whether or not you think they might be able to understand connections between individuals in other ways besides simply who they connect with on g+. From my comment above:

    “Is it possible Google is making those connections for you in other ways even if you aren’t giving them the direct signal on the g+ platform?”

    Thanks a ton for sharing your thoughts and insights as always. As I said on Twitter, I truly do appreciate the time you’ve invested and what you share with us. So enjoyable to discuss and grow!

    I am more than impressed with your work Mr Bill Slawski….Sincerely!

  17. Hi Ian,

    Thank you. I do think Google has to keep some aspects of how they rank pages and content quiet, or they do open themselves up to possible abuse and manipulation of their ranking signals. I suspect that they have been looking at a lot of ways to reward authority on specific topics, and they may even share some of those if they think those aren’t easily faked and can help to make the web better.

  18. Really intriguing, interesting and thought provoking post for me this one.

    I think you finished it by saying what I think in the respect of Google still using authority data, but probably not really shouting about it.

    The abuse is probably the main issue they are dealing with, but I am sure they are looking at other ways to establish and reward authority, I hope so anyway,

    Excellent post, very detailed.

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