Searching For Authority: Google Posts and the Semantic Web

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Google Posts are the latest foray by the Search Giant into social media, albeit their approach resembles embedded Tweets without the social layer, more than it resembles a social network in the usual sense.

Below you can see, in order: A) Google Posts in Search Results, B) Embedded Tweets in Search Results. As the feature is currently limited to candidates for the U.S. Presidential Election (and unofficially to some cricket players and businesses), both are drawn from the Google Posts and Tweets for Democratic Frontrunner Hillary Clinton.


Hillary Clinton's Google Posts


An Example of Tweets Embedded in Google Search Results

As you can see, the two are virtually identical, except that Google Posts look nicer… and (at least sometimes) appear higher up in Search Results, as well, in what is surely no coincidence. You can also see that, unlike true social posts, Google Posts lack any native commenting or following system, and its Share button only Shares a link to the Post and is therefore completely different from Sharing Posts on a social network to that same social network (e.g. Retweets).

Google Posts Sharing Options

While I have previously drawn comparisons between Google Posts and embedded Tweets in Google Search Results, the defunct Google Realtime Search, and even Google+ Recent Posts in Google Search Knowledge Boxes and Local Knowledge Panels, there is perhaps an even more instructive comparison I haven’t made very directly: Google Authorship.

As Mark Traphagen noted in It’s Over: The Rise and Fall of Google Authorship For Search Results, Google Authorship first launched in 2011 as a feature tied to the fledgling Google+ Social Network / Social Layer / ‘Network Thingie’. The idea may go back even farther, as suggested by a 2007 ‘Agent Rank’ patent awarded to the company, which described a system for connecting content to an author or authors via a digital signature.

Google Authorship was also built on the foundation of Semantic HTML markup, used to convey structured data such as Events, Contact Information, and (most relevant to this particular purpose) Authorship, A.K.A. rel=”author”. Google tied their implementation of this markup to Google+ Profiles, in what was an obvious attempt to force the two things to ‘rise together’: if web content creators wanted to benefit from Google Authorship they would need to at least create, if not actively use, a Google+ account as well.

For those who used Google Authorship with their content, there was a reward: ‘Rich Authorship Snippets’ in Search Results. In smaller words, their Profile Picture, Name (with a link to all of their other connected pieces of web content), and other things like their Google+ Follower count would appear along with links their content in Google Search Results.

Over time, Google experimented with the feature, increasing and decreasing the number of Authorship Snippets in Search Results, removing Profile Pictures from Snippets, etc…, and even reducing it eventually to a mere authorship byline (i.e. their name), but in the end, after a little more than 3-years of testing, the feature was finally retired. The takeaway from this is that, as good as the idea itself was, in practice it added nothing of value to Search Results.

Googlers have continued, albeit inconsistently, to encourage people to use Authorship Markup, but have never again used them as a major part of any product. A version of it has survived in Google Personalized Search, but only when social Posts by Google+ users with whom the Searcher is connected appear in results. Some other version of Authorship seems to have been used, and may still be used, for ‘In-Depth Articles’ in Search results, but otherwise it vanished.

We could rehash the reasons why it failed… poor adoption of Google+, poor adoption of Authorship Markup, and abuse and misuse of Authorship Markup (e.g. using it on product pages, or on business sites and pages where Publisher Markup is more appropriate)… but it failed.

The idea behind Google Authorship, Authorship Markup in general, and the so-called Agent Rank patent, however, is too good for any self-respecting Search Engine to let die so easily. Authorship is, in fact, a necessary component in the development of Semantic Search, by which Google not only recognizes specific Search Queries as strings of words and phrases (and related words and phrases), but also knows the Entities and Objects of those queries and their associated facts and data.

For example, when you Search ‘Barack Obama’, Google not only recognizes this as a pair of words to crawl for on the open web , it actually knows that Barack Obama is a person, that he is President of the United States, husband of Michelle Obama, that he is a certain age, a certain height, etc… It can even answer queries about him conversationally, e.g. ask it who Barack Obama is, then ask, “How old is he?” right afterwards and it knows that ‘he’ refers to Barack Obama.

This is sometimes described by the phrase, “Things not strings,” i.e. knowing the Objects and Entities and their associated data, and not just specific words or phrases to Search for on the web.   Semantic markup like microformats and rel=”author” in particular is part of this evolution of Search and the web. Google Authorship attempted to give web content creators a role as Entities for the purpose Semantic Search, one linked to a Google+ Profile Identity and to all of their associated web content.  It was like an old fashioned library card catalog for finding authors and their content for the internet itself. As already said, this failed, but not because Google (or any other Search Engine, for that matter) wouldn’t want to connect specific content in Search Results to an Author Identity.

The entirety of the reputation of Web Search, in fact, is tied up at all levels in the concept of authority. Ideally, the highest ranking Search Results are those which are the most authoritative and relevant. As the term itself suggests, authorship is a way of attributing (or crediting) the ‘authority’ behind a given piece of content, especially written content.

Google can’t simply ignore Authorship, anymore than a library can afford to do so if it is to properly organize its books and other media, but Google Authorship may well have been more ambitious than it needed to be: as a feature available to every Joe Schmoe on the web and scattered throughout a wide diversity of query types, it seemed to end up being more trouble than it was worth.

This is especially true since Google+ itself emerged as a ‘Nothing Killer’, i.e. it has become a player in the social media market with a similar number of users to Twitter, but nowhere near Facebook, and it didn’t defeat any existing players in the market in the process.

If Google+ had gained a billion+ loyal users (as Google clearly hoped it would), to become either the #1 social network or at least a strong #2, things might have been different… and if wishes were horses and good intentions were horns, we’d all be riding Unicorns to work. It didn’t, and they aren’t. Some people joined Google+ just to use Authorship, but many of these were low-quality adopters rather than content authorities, and few used the Google+ social network.

When it comes down to it, Google+ failed to sell its value to the majority of content creators. Part of the reason for this may be the uncertainty and confusion over its value: being tied to Google+, it needed the network itself to succeed in a big way, in order to prove that it was worth investing in. It especially failed to attract many of the very high authority web content creators it needed to attract.

At the same time, its Search value was nebulous and inconsistent, giving authors a chance but no real guarantee that their use of Google+ or Google Authorship would matter to Searchers in terms of improving the Search experience or in terms of SEO and Social Proof.

One group which, sadly, best understood and recognized its potential were Black Hat and Gray Hat Marketers, who didn’t hesitate to employ Authorship markup on every type of web page instead of limiting its use to unique pieces of authored content, and who were hoping to get in early on the rumored AuthorRank that would incorporate Authorship as a direct ranking factor.  In the process it devolved, in large degree, to a form of Search Spam, too often signifying nothing.

While Google didn’t succeed in building a rich data set connecting Online Identities and Web Content with Real Identities via the Google Authorship program, they still need to find a way connecting Entities with Identities, as I described in Google Authorship & The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence, in order to bring that into their Semantic Search efforts.

Google Posts will help Google connect Entities with Identities. Click To Tweet

Luckily, they don’t need a Facebook Killer to start achieving this goal. Through their Semantic Knowledge Base, they already know who a lot of the high authority Entities are: celebrities and public figures, businesses and organizations, many of whom have already obtained Verified Google Accounts.  Others could be enticed by the straightforward value proposition of Posting updates directly to Google Search, which can stand and be measured on its own without being tied to the success of a social network or bogged down in the complicated rules and tricks of SEO.

Google Posts gives these Entities a platform to speak more-or-less directly to Search users, a platform owned and operated by Google themselves. This directly marries their status as a Semantic Entity with their Online Identity, which is itself (presumably) connected with their Offline Identity as well, and joins all of these aspects to a very particular type of Authored web content: the ‘micro blogging’ form traditionally associated with Twitter. They also resemble, in more than a small degree, the ‘Rich Authorship Snippets’ which were previously the exclusive domain of Google Authorship.

The goal of Google Posts appears to be quite specifically to give authoritative people and organizations the power to post content and updates that will appear directly in Search Results for relevant queries. If the platform proves successful, Google Posts could also open the door more directly for a return of Google Authorship in a limited form.

Google Posts could open the door for a limited return of Google Authorship.Click To Tweet

It’s easy to imagine that verified Google users with access to the Google Posts platform might be given the ability, some day, to link their accounts to Semantic Authorship markup, in order to help Google index all of their web content and tie it to their Google Identities.  Or, if the micro blogging format proves to be a success, it could open the door for Google to experiment with other direct content formats, perhaps competing more directly with Medium, Facebook Notes, the LinkedIn Publishing Platform, etc…

Unlike traditional Google Authorship, which was opened up from the word go to all and sundry, Google Posts looks much more exclusive and strongly focused on authority in the strongest sense of the term. There appears to be no long-term goal in play to get everyone and their families, friends, old roommates, and Aunt Netty from Peoria using Google Posts to keep up with the Joneses and treating Google Search itself like some kind of social network.

Instead, they seem focused on bringing flourishes of direct authority into the most important and relevant queries, making this a response to the way people already actually use Google Search to find information, instead of an attempt to fundamentally change how they use it. Search for a movie star or a movie they’re going to be in soon, and you may see their Google Posts; Search for sports news and updates, and you may see Google Posts by the athletes or official team accounts; Search for a local business and you may see Google Posts by the business account; etc…

If the best thing to come out of Google Authorship was some improvement to Personalized Search Results for Google+ users who would find it valuable to see Posts by their social connections appear in Search results (a minority of Google Search users, and perhaps a minority of Google+ users as well), Google Posts seem to promise the opposite: marrying Authority with Identity for a critical subset of authoritative users (people and organizations), whose updates can and will appear in results for relevant queries for all Search users.

It also, at long last, brings that X Factor of Identity, an area where Search has notably lagged behind Social Media, into their Semantic Knowledge Base. If Semantic Search is “Things not strings,” the approach embodied by Google Posts could be described as “Entities and Identities”.

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Google Authorship, Structured Data, and the Future of Search

Google Authorship & The Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence