What Hath Matt Said? Is Google Boosting Individual Authors as Subject Authorities?

Matt Cutts on boosting subject authorities in search

Has Matt Cutts Confirmed that Author Rank Is Coming?

Among the hottest recurring topics in SEO over the past two years, certainly speculation about Google AuthorRank has to be in anyone’s Top 10 List. When Google first announced Google Authorship in the summer of 2011, Google spokespersons Matt Cutts and Othar Hansson stated that it might be used at some point in the future to find authors who were respected subject-area authorities and give them a boost in the Google search rankings. Thus was born the concept of “Google AuthorRank,” which Google patent expert Bill Slawski had already associated with older Google “Agent Rank” patents.

Google: Authorship Does Not (Yet) Affect Search Rankings

Many expected we would see Author Rank in play by the end of 2011. But 2011 rolled into 2012 and then on into 2013, and still there was no conclusive evidence that any kind of author ranking system was in play. Sure Google had fully rolled out Authorship in search, and over the past two years many authors were able to get the coveted author photo next to search results for their content (which has recently been cut back some). But not only could careful SEO testers find no evidence that having authorship affected search rankings, during the fall of 2013 Google spokesperson John Mueller explicitly stated that Authorship was not being used to affect search. A couple of weeks later Googler Pierre Far made the same confirmation at SMX East in New York.

But Matt Cutts said…

However, at several points throughout 2013, Google’s best known spokesperson Matt Cutts made intriguing statements about subject authorities and search rankings. The first I’ve found was in May, and the latest just this past week. In every case, what Matt said was virtually identical in essence: Google wants to (or is) getting better at finding and boosting subject-area authorities, those who are have gained authority that Google understands that is, and giving them a boost in search results.

Many bloggers and social media posters have jumped on those statements and assumed Matt was referring to individual subject area authorities, i.e. “authors” as Google calls them. And if that were the case, then it would seem that something like an author rank was already here or soon to come.

I’m calling not so fast!

Let’s take a careful look at and listen to each of Matt’s statements about this topic. Matt Cutts is notorious for being both very careful and at the same time maddeningly non-specific in his language, and it’s very easy to hear what you want to hear, not necessarily what he actually said.

Let’s put Matt’s statements from 2013 on trial. (In all transcriptions, any emphasis is added by me, unless otherwise noted.)

Calling Witness #1: May 13 Google Webmaster Help Video

In a video titled “What should we expect in the next few months for SEO” Matt covered several things that the Google Search and spam prevention teams were working on to improve search results. After detailing several negative things they were working to thwart, Matt said the following (transcription courtesy of Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Land):

We have also been working on a lot of ways to help regular webmasters.

We are doing a doing a better job of detecting when someone is sort of an authority in a specific space. It could be medical, it could be travel, whatever. And trying to makes sure that those rank a little more highly, if you are some sort of authority or a site that according to the algorithms we think might be a little bit more appropriate for users.

At first blush, this certainly sounds like Matt is talking about individuals. He uses personal pronouns like “someone” and “you.” But then he also uses the impersonal “those” in the third sentence. In the final sentence he mixes what appears to be personal (“you are some sort of authority”) with “or as site…” So is he speaking specifically about sites, about individuals, or about both? You might assume it is at least both (given that last sentence), but Matt sometimes usese personal pronouns when referrning to sites. He’ll say something like “so if you have a lot of spammy links..” where the “you” is clearly not you personally but rather the site over which you have control.

So let’s call this one a draw for now.

Here’s the video so you can hear Matt for yourself. The relevant portion begins about 4 minutes 30 seconds into the video.

Witness #2: June 9 Google Webmaster Help Video

In his video “Will Google be evaluating the use of rel=”author” moving forward?” Matt speaks about his feelings toward Authorship so far (he “remains very excited about the ideas behind rel=’author'”) and addresses how it might change or be used in the future. It’s important to note that the question he’s answering in this video has to do with spammy use of Authorship, and whether Google plans to do anything to address that.

After noting that he likes what’s happened with Authorship so far, Matt talks about the advantages of moving from an anonymous web to a web where “you have some notion of identity and even reputation of individual authors” and how that could contribute to reducing web spam. The rest of his remarks have to do with the value of “knowing about” content from trusted authors. He cites an example of Danny Sullivan (editor in chief of Search Engine Land) writing on a forum that has low PageRank, implying that Danny’s comment would still be valuable even though it’s posted on a low-authority site.

He finishes talking more about the value of “knowing the real world people who actually produce content” and how that “might be able to help you improve search quality.” He concludes that he thinks he and several other people in the search quality team will remain interested in looking at ways that rel=”author” can be used to “improve search quality.”

Please note that in this video not once does he mention search rankings. That’s important. He talks vaguely about Authorship “improving search quality,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean by boosting the rankings of trusted authors. It could mean that, but doesn’t have to mean that. It could be that they feel they would be improving search quality merely by limiting who is shown with an author rich snippet to more trusted authors. Indeed, that seems to be what they have actually done, as in December 2013 Google implemented a reduction in how many Authorship results are shown for a given query.

Now admittedly, doing that would be some form of author ranking, as Google would need some way of evaluating which authors deserve to be shown with the author rich snippet. But that may not be what Google actually did in the December authorship reduction. As I detail in my post linked in the previous paragraph, all the evidence I’ve been able to accumulate so far seems to indicate that this update was applied on a site-by-site basis rather than author-by-author. So if you were an author who was already consistently getting an author snippet for her content prior to this update, you most likely are still getting it, but only for sites on which you published that made the cut in this update.

So…the June 9 update seems to affirm that Authorship has value to Google, and in some ways could be used to “improve search quality,” but the phrase “improve search quality” is too ambiguous to equate it with any certainty to “boost the rankings of authoritative authors,” which a true “author rank” incorporation in search would do.

Here’s the June 9 video.

Witness #3: October Matt Cutts Pubcon Keynote

The Matt Cutts keynote at Pubcon Las Vegas has become a much-anticipated event each year, as quite often Matt will reveal some ideas of what Google will be doing in terms of search and anti-spam efforts for the coming year. 2013 was no exception, as Matt rolled out quite a list of things that Google is either already working on or intends to implement coming into 2014.

Among the bullet points mentioned was “Detecting/Boosting Authorities.” This was in a section of his talk where Matt was revealing “core quality changes” to the Google algorithm that would help in their ongoing battle against web spam and poor search results.

He starts out by saying, “If you’re an authority in a medical site, the medical space, we want to start to know that and to push you up a little bit higher.” Once again, many people who’ve heard this have assumed Matt was talking about individuals (authors) because of the personal pronoun “you.” But notice that he starts out with the example of a”a medical site, the medical space.” It sounds to me like he has sites in mind rather than individuals, and remember that Matt will often use personal pronouns like “you” and “yours” when referring to sites. But once again, it may be too ambiguous to call either way.

Here’s the video. The relevant portion begins at 9:03 in.

Witness #4: This Week in Google Matt Cutts Interview

In This Week in Google Episode 227, Leo Laporte and Jeff Jarvis interviewed Matt Cutts. An hour and 20 minutes into the video, Matt once again addresses the topic of subject authorities in search. Here’s a transcript created by Craig Moore and reported by Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Land:

We have been working on a lot of different stuff. We are actually now doing work on how to promote good guys. So if you are an authority in a space, if you search for podcasts, you want to return something like Twit.tv. So we are trying to figure out who are the authorities in the individual little topic areas and then how do we make sure those sites show up, for medical, or shopping or travel or any one of thousands of other topics. That is to be done algorithmically not by humans … So page rank is sort of this global importance. The New York times is important so if they link to you then you must also be important. But you can start to drill down in individual topic areas and say okay if Jeff Jarvis (Prof of journalism) links to me he is an expert in journalism and so therefore I might be a little bit more relevant in the journalistic field. We’re trying to measure those kinds of topics. Because you know you really want to listen to the experts in each area if you can.

Notice this is very similar in language to the other statements we’ve linked to above. It’s beginning to sound like Matt had developed a script for talking about subject authorities back in May and has stuck to it ever since.

Once again we have the personal pronouns (“so if you’re an authority in a space”), but quickly the focus is shifted to a site (“something like Twit.tv”). In the second half of the quotation he talks mostly about the value of links, but again the context is confusing. He talks both about links from sites (the New York Times) and maybe from individuals (Jeff Jarvis, but that could mean also “the site of Jeff Jarvis”). And again, does “links to me” mean to me individually (such as my Google+ profile) or to my website?

Verdict: Hung Jury

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone over all those videos this past year, straining to catch every nuance, thinking I might have missed some little hint at what Matt Cutts was actually talking about. And it’s just not there. You could apply all of this to site authority, and you could just as easily apply it to individual (author) authority. It just isn’t clear enough to convict one side or the other beyond a reasonable doubt.

I think if anyone out there can ever nail down Mr Cutts on whether author subject authority boosting is really something Google is still pursuing, I’ll travel to wherever you are and plant a big sloppy kiss on your forehead. Or I’ll promise I’ll never do that, which might be more motivating.


  1. Wow Mark, this is some exciting news. I’ve been following your theories for a while now and it will be nice to see this finally push through. However, I do have one question. With so many “authorities” on the same topics, how will Google determine who’s going to get the “rank” for that topic? Will this leave a lot of us that aren’t chosen out in the cold with the search engine?

    • Mark Traphagen says:


      I don’t think Authorship will ever be the only way (or even perhaps ever a very major way) to rank in search. Anyone saying that Authorship or Author Rank will “replace SEO” doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

      I think it most likely that, as with other areas of search, how hard it will be to become a top-ranked author for a particular subject will depend on the amount and quality of the competition in that subject area.

  2. This sounds a bit like a spy mystery. The epic conundrum of the year. I am personally grateful you are passionate about this and hope that when the mystery begins to show some serious potential solutions, you are the first to see it. I think the rest of us feel this on a simpler level, our rank goes up and down, numbers make no difference on Google+, but we just keep plugging along because behaviors to generate quality content and engagement will have results. It would just be nice if they are of the ranking kind. This needs a musical theme I think or Alfred Hitchcock style silhouette of you walking into the screen. Thanks Mark. I am fascinated by your analysis.

  3. I suppose then that I’m glad I have not bothered a bunch with Google Authorship – it would be nice though to have all of my guest posts and expert articles have added weight in search. I wonder WHY it hasn’t happened yet.

  4. Mark, I follow all (well, most – who has the time?) of your work. On Google+, Virante, and elsewhere. You never fail to impress. Thank you for an awesomely informative, objective, analytic assessment of Matt Cutts’ statements. I wonder, though, if Cutts is as thoughtful about what he says as you are in your analysis? He certainly has an agenda (part of which I believe is being willfully and intentionally ambiguous/vague). You analyze his language, the pronouns he uses, the speech patterns. But I wonder if they are as meaningful as all that? Do you think so? I think it’s a possibility: using tricky language to have us all chasing our tails. You know as well as I that Google is a huge corporation with a fiduciary duty to its shareholders. Cutts’ bosses have him on a leash. (I have a thing for canine metaphors, apparently). So another part of his agenda, I believe, is to keep us all guessing – to keep that bone buried (canine reference again) – so that more and more attention is paid to Google/Cutts, more and more people write about it, and Google therefore becomes this enigma and more and more people go to www dot google dot com and Google makes money. I’m no economist but this has to, pretty much invariably, put money in Google’s pockets in other ways also. So I don’t think Cutts is ever going to give webmasters a definitive answer – even if there is an actual AuthorRank algo up and running.

    My point is, we depend on people like you and other search experts to do the research and the studies and let us know. I’m sure there is a way to profit from doing so.

    I love reading your work because you’re brilliant when it comes to authorship (an authority on authority..?) and I’ve learned a lot from your writings. My position in the SERPs has skyrocketed since implementing authorship in the ways you have suggested – specifically on G+, but I know correlation does not equal causation. PLEASE keep the analyses coming.

    My tail is wagging in anticipation – and SEO is just my hobby. I’m a home improvement contractor (ha!).

    Sincerely and Gratefully,
    Richard D’Angelo

    • Mark Traphagen says:


      Thanks for your kind comment. Sorry it took so long for a response; it got caught in our spam filter for some reason. We’ll continue to do our best to provide you with the best information we can!

  5. Thanks for finally writing about >Google Author Subject Boosting:
    Has Matt Cutts Said It’s Coming? <Liked it!

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