Is Google in danger of losing out to Bing in the race to implement a robust relevance engine for content authors?
For over a year, talk of Google Author Rank (based on the search giant's Agent Rank patent) has been fueling speculation of how it might operate and affect search rankings for content authors.
As quoted by AJ Kohn in the seminal article "Author Rank", the patent sets out that:
"The identity of individual agents responsible for content can be used to influence search ratings."
Identifying authors and then associating them with their content (Authorship) is just half the story, however, but many continue to think that Author Rank and Authorship are interchangeable, assuming that setting up Authorship will improve their ranking in search results.
The key concept behind Author Rank is that people will be associated with, and ranked on, given topics based on their knowledge or expertise. Ranking involves building reputation and trust using, amongst other things, a combination of peer review, links and citations. Again, from the patent we have:
"an agent should have a higher reputational score ... if the content signed by the agent is frequently referenced by other agents or content"
Not all links are equal as the patent goes on to say that links from those with a higher reputational score will carry greater significance - it is, therefore in the interests of authors to gain the attention of recognised experts in any given field whilst those experts will, obviously, get a high ranking themselves.
Rather than relying on Page Rank content will be linked to the author, anywhere on the web, using a "digital passport" - using an online identity such as a Google+ profile is such a passport: a way of reliably connecting people to their material.
But do we need Authorship?
Google and Bing have different strategies when it comes to providing social data within search results; the former feels that consumers benefit from having their results tailored using social signals whereas the latter presents social data separately from the normal blue links results enabling users to more easily distinguish (and ignore) those social signals.
By creating this distinction between search and social is Bing able to bypass the Authorship stage and dive straight in to Author Rank?
As social results are not included within the main search results there is less of a need to establish an explicit authorship structure to identify authors in a sea of links. Instead, relevant news authors are listed as "People Who Know" in the social sidebar (in a manner not too dissimilar to Google's Knowledge Graph information) implying that these authors - and, consequently, the links listed - are knowledgeable, relevant and topical.
Indeed, on Bing Blogs the addition of news authors was introduced in a post with the following:
"Behind every article is a journalist, writer or author who has worked hard to research and report on a story. These professionals are experts in their fields, sharing the latest news, developing events and information out with the greater world."
This sounds very similar to Google's plans with Bing's sources stated as including "friends you know and experts and enthusiasts you may or may not be familiar with" who frequently write articles related to the search query.
Bing is utilising its partnerships with Facebook and Twitter in conjunction with standard ranking signals to provide extra information from authors who already appear to be ranked based on relevance. The roll-out of Facebook's Graph Search, including the addition of Open Graph data, coupled with an effort from Twitter to make content more discoverable may serve to give Bing even stronger signals on which to base any ranking.
Identity not a factor
While Google is seeking to instil trust in authors by linking them back to a standard identity service (Google+) Bing is relying on a combination of authors producing consistent output and social signals to determine what we might like to see without restricting itself to any single identity scheme.
One doesn't want to accuse Google of fiddling while Rome burns but the latest Agent Rank patent was filed almost two years ago (expanding on an original application from 2005) and is one of the most eagerly anticipated developments in search for content authors.
By taking a different approach Bing is stealing a march and potentially beating Google to the Author Rank punch?