Like many other online writers, I was intrigued by the recent buzz surrounding the implementation of an HTML tag that lets search engines, like Google, know who the author of a webpage is.
The idea is that if someone is a good writer who publishes lots of useful and well written online content, then perhaps the other things that person writes should be considered in that context.
When Google has information about who wrote a piece of content on the web, we may look at it as a signal to help us determine the relevance of that page to a user’s query.
The offline world implements this same concept in the form of a byline or other authorship credit. For example, newspaper articles written by Bob Woodward have a byline at the top of the article so that everyone knows that the article was written by Bob Woodward, highly respected journalist, and not Sally Smith, a 14 year-old middle schooler up past her bedtime. (Not that what Sally writes is inherently bad, just that until she earns some credibility, one might want to give Mr. Woodward a little more benefit of the doubt than one might give to Sally, depending upon the subject matter.)
Some websites also give writers a byline or a little bio in a author section of some sort. Many times, that writing credit includes a link to the author’s own webpage. The new author tag is implemented as a rel= attribute on that link (or other link) and informs the search engine that the link points to the web page creator’s page as opposed to any other link.
To implement the authorship tag, you just at rel=”author” inside the <a href=”webpage.com”> tag.
Author Tag Must Point to SAME Website
Here is where the engineers at Google get it wrong.
The guys at Google are neither writers nor editors. Nor are they website publishers. They are engineers who build a very complex, very fast, indexing, searching and ranking system. Their goal is to present a user with the most-relevant, highest-quality online publication of information based upon any search query. Unfortunately, their ideals and motivations do not always match up to the way the real world of high-quality publishing and writing works. See How Google Made Me a Worse Writer.
In this case, the search engine company has decided that to be valid, an author tag must point to the same domain as the content page.
From Google Webmaster Central:
rel="author"link must point to an author page on the same site as the content page.
That only works for a very small subset of writers, and is utterly worthless for every website with a single author since every page could only point to the same place.
There are two kinds of professional writers, those who are employed directly by a publication and those who are not. The latter work either full-time or part-time as freelance writers or other article-for-hire type writers.
For example, many magazines are written, in full or in part, by writers who pitch an article idea and write that one article for that one issue of the magazine. That author may also write an article for another magazine during a different month, a newspaper column, and maybe even articles for online publication. There are many fine authors who do this for at least some of their writing.
The value in the author tag would be in finding, and ranking all of this particular writers publications and determining their quality. Then, one could accordingly boost or degrade online content published by this writer. But, with Google’s implementation of the author tag, the writers work will be linked and compared only across a single website, in stark contrast to how the real world works.
To go back to our example from the beginning, the author tag lets Google group and rank the writings of Bob Woodward on the Washington Post website and give them their due, but no value is passed to any other forum where Mr. Woodward publishes. For example, his books would not be linked to his work at the newspaper, even though that is exactly what people do in reality.
As another example, consider Stephen King who has written books for multiple publishers. His work would be grouped, linked and ranked separately based upon each publisher – and corresponding domain – despite that they are linked and raked in real life by readers, critics and everyone else. A Stephen King book is a Stephen King book, no matter who published it.
For a professional freelance writer like me, the author tag is worthless. I write on the freelance writing blog here, on my personal finance website and on many other websites. However, the Google author tag does nothing to help find, group, and link that content because each location can do nothing but link to itself. So, if you think I am a helpful writer with an easy to read style, the Google author tag will do nothing to help you find more of my writings unless you want to read more here on ArcticLlama.com. Of course, everything here is written by me, so you don’t really need a tag for that.
What would actually be useful is a tag that lets everyone know that everything I write anywhere online is written by the Brian Nelson at arcticllama.com. The author tag doesn’t do that. Another tag does.
Google me Tag
There is another tag Google uses called the me tag. It is used in the same was as the author tag:
<a rel=”me” http://arcticllama.com”> … </a>
The me tag can link to another domain. Of course, now you have to implement two tags, which are primarily valuable to the writer and not the publisher, in order to get any benefit. I’m sure in the naïve, happy, all for one and one for all, world that Google pretends the web lives in this is no big deal. But, out here in the real world where websites routinely nofollow any link that points off-site, most publishers aren’t going to be racing to implement a two-tag system to ensure that the writer gets all their due credit.
Additionally, there is no direct indication from Google that the me tag is used to “as a signal” for improving search results.
Unfortunately, with all of the headlines going to the author tag, it seems that there is a rush among online writers to use it as often as possible with visions of finally getting credit for the quality content they write in Google’s search results pages. I wonder how many of them are getting no benefit at all because they are linking off-site, disqualifying the information they provided in their tags.