Did Google just hint at an authority profile?
A recent blog post from Google points to defining a paradigm on the SERP with what we now know as a core update.
Occasionally, Google hits the keyboard and churns out a new post that explains what goes on behind the scenes. At times, these posts are meant to serve as general introductions to a given topic. In other instances, Google uses its blog to update the industry as to its latest advancements. This is exactly what happened on September 10th when Google’s Danny Sullivan and Pandu Nayak simultaneously released blog posts on reliability and quality on the SERP.
For our purposes, I want to focus on Danny’s post, How Google Delivers Reliable Information In Search, as I think it points to defining a paradigm on the SERP that has arisen with the advent of the “core updates” (as we now know them now).
Specifically, part of what Google lays out in the post speaks to their constructing an evolving “authority profile” with which it classifies other sites.
What exactly am I chirping about?
The case for the authority profile
While I am sure many saw latent depth in other parts of Google’s post, to me, the following was like a neon sign blinking furiously:
For topics where quality information is particularly important—like health, finance, civic information, and crisis situations—we place an even greater emphasis on factors related to expertise and trustworthiness. We’ve learned that sites that demonstrate authoritativeness and expertise on a topic are less likely to publish false or misleading information, so if we can build our systems to identify signals of those characteristics, we can continue to provide reliable information. The design of these systems is our greatest defense against low-quality content, including potential misinformation, and is work that we’ve been investing in for many years.– Google
There’s a lot to chew on here.
One of the most striking phrases from the section above is this:
“We’ve learned that sites that demonstrate authoritativeness and expertise on a topic are less likely to publish false or misleading information.”– Google
The essential word is “learned.” Meaning, a new process is being described. In some way, Google has evolved. In the context of the full statement, Google has advanced in how it is able to pick up on a site’s authority.
And how is that? Profiling.
This is something I’ve been harping on since the days of the Medic update so it’s nice to see it being put out there in a more formal way.
What am I talking about?
What Google is saying here is that it can determine if a site deals with a topic (more on that word choice later) in an authoritative manner. The juxtaposition of this section of the blog to that which discusses Google’s quality raters would seem to imply that the input from the raters’ is a substantial part of this process. That aside, Google then tells us that they profile other sites against that which has already been categorized as “authoritative.”
Or as Google says, “…so if we can build our systems to identify signals of those characteristics, we can continue to provide reliable information.”
In other words, what I think is happening here, and aligned to what I’ve seen over and over again in the core updates, is that Google is creating an authority profile for sites. It’s setting up, and constantly updating, the parameters that determine authority. It has a profile of what authority looks like, particularly within the Finance and Health niches, and is stacking that ever-evolving profile up against sites in the wild. Personally, I think a lot of what happens between core updates is Google refining this “authority profile” and then applying it to sites with the release of the update. That might explain why we keep seeing the same sites getting hit repeatedly by the core updates. If a site lacks in its authority profile in one way, chances are it will in another way as well.
Let me give you an example. During the September 2019 Core Update, I noticed that there was a group of loan sites that got hit hard. The common denominator between them was the heavy use of sales language on pages meant to be staunchly informational. In fact, Lily Ray of Path Interactive saw the same noting that based on her research sites looking to escape being hit by a core update should, “avoid affiliate links or “salesy” language in YMYL content.”
What do I think happened here? Google, when looking at sites it knew it could trust around YMYL topics, determined that they were absent of marketing language on informational pages. Strictly adhering to an informational tone on vitally informative pages became a part of the authority profile. A core update was released and sites were stacked up against the authority profile in an all-new way… tone.
This process could be described as Google profiling sites against a pre-established profile (because that’s not confusing at all). Regardless, I think this is what is being referenced in Google’s post here.
What does the authority profile mean practically?
Great, Google seems to be subtly describing what I’m coining as the “authority profile” in a blog on fostering reliable search results. Now what? For me, there are two major takeaways from Google comparing sites against an authority profile:
1. Watch the super-authorities in your niche industry very carefully:
You don’t have to wait for Google. Don’t just sit back and watch while Google’s authority profile evolves. In many ways, you have the upper hand here so to speak. Google is trying to establish a profile and then has to rely on machine learning to be able to execute. That is no small task and the extent to which Google has been successful here is pretty amazing stuff. However, you are a person. You can analyze things like a human far easier than a machine can because… you are a human. So start profiling the known authorities within your topical niche on your own!
Qualitatively evaluate what the known quantities are doing on their various types of pages.
Just by way of a quick example. A while I ago I ran such an analysis comparing some well-known authorities in the medical space to some sites notorious for being a bit spammy and so forth. It was a very surface-like little experiment. All I did was compare the titles being implemented for some informative health content. However, even from that, there was a clear and distinct difference. The highly-authoritative sites took a very direct and informational tone in their titles whereas lower quality sites ran titles that you would expect to find on a blog post about link building (you know, 5 Ways to…).
If you can get that just from looking at titles, who knows what kind of insights you could extract if you went deeper?! And while you produce anything less than quality on purpose, you could easily make a mistake when trying to create content that is both substantial and marketable.
Profiling known quantities on the SERP for the topics your sites deal with could be a great way to head off any potential negative impact from a pending core update.
2. Focus on a core topic and branch out from there:
One of the key points embedded in the statement from Google is that they are looking at how a site handles a given topic from an “authority” point of view. As in, “We’ve learned that sites that demonstrate authoritativeness and expertise on a topic…” In other words, Google is thinking topically. Part of that is looking at how a site handles a given topic. That seems to go beyond the page per se but considers how the site deals with a topic overall. Considering we’re talking about “profiling” and that makes a good deal of sense. Google isn’t trying to just determine if a page per se is authoritative but if the site can be relied on when it comes to a given topic.
As a consequence of this, it would be perfectly logical to hone in on a given topic, let Google relish in how authoritative you are on that topic, and then branch out to other areas from there as Google will consider you “less likely to publish false or misleading information…”
This is not to say I advocate that you should write a series of authoritative content around a given topic and then go out there and do what you want. I think Google will revoke your “authority” pretty quickly as it releases future updates.
Rather, what I am proposing is to write in clusters so that Google can determine you have authority around a given topic and let that authority apply to other topics you write about. As opposed to sporadically dealing with one topic and then another, write in clusters to develop topical authority that can be applied to a one-off piece you may write (that is, of course, if said content is relevant to your site).
I very much feel that this must take place at the subtopical level. Meaning, it would not be enough to write about “SEO” in general as a topical cluster. Rather, you should hone in on a specific subtopic of SEO and take it from there. Write a ton about Featured Snippets or link building or whatever subtopic you so choose as I see authority coming mainly at the subtopical level.
Don’t get hung up here
Look, I think the idea of the “authority profile” is both interesting and powerful (obviously). That said, it’s not the only thing going on and could apply to different types of sites in different types of ways. Think about a news site, they don’t have topical clustering in the traditional sense as they cover a wide range of content that is constantly developing and falling into and out of relevancy. Obviously, the approach I outlined above (and Google’s own approach) would have to be a bit different for a news site. In other words, there is a ton of nuance out there and a ton of other factors at play, so don’t get hung up on any one thing.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.