Few aspects of my job drive me to extreme internal conflict, but the subject of author attribution is one that tears my brain in two.
My writer brain says, “Yes, absolutely! Writers’ names on all that they create! Credit where credit is due!”
My marketer brain is apparently more reserved because I find myself asking myself questions such as:
Who deserves the credit for this article? The actual writer? The entire team of researchers who helped provide data? And what happens if a totally different writer updates the article later?
Will the author’s name support this content’s performance, or would it be better received if a more well-known subject matter expert had their name on it?
Does it need a name at all, or is that just distracting extraneous information?
So, who’s right? Me, or me? (I like the odds on this one.)
Let’s try to get inside Google’s mind to figure this out — first, by reviewing what Google has said on the matter, then by looking at some real search results from Google.
What does Google say about author attribution?
Google has grappled with author attribution for a long time, as evidenced by the birth and gradual death of the Google Authorship experiment that carried on for several years in the early 2010s.
In the end, the folks at Google decided they’d rather use algorithms to try to identify the author of any given piece instead of relying on the oft-forgotten, occasionally misused, rel=”author” tag.
The search giant seems confident that they could do this, as evidenced through comments made by Google leaders such as, “We are not using authorship at all anymore… we are smarter than that.”
But where their confidence really comes through is in their extensive collection of patents. As pointed out by Olaf Kopp, writing for Search Engine Land, there are ample methods by which Google can attempt to identify the author of a piece, including:
Author vectors: Identifying the unique style of a writer and using that to attribute content.
Author badges: Using identifying information such as an email address or name to verify authors.
Agent rank: Assigning content to an agent (an author or a publisher), and using backlinks to, in part, determine the rank.
And there’s more. It’s not known which, or how many, of these are used actively in search algorithms — and if so, how they’re used or how heavily they’re weighted.
So, is that the end of it? Author attribution doesn’t matter because Google “just knows”?
No, that’s way too easy. See, we also have cues from Google pros like John Mueller and Danny Sullivan advising people to strive for highly authoritative content by way of having experts write or proofread content on their area of expertise.
Furthermore, Google’s own Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines include specific instructions on “Finding Who is Responsible for the Website and Who Created the Content on the Page,” and highlights author-related observations for both low-quality and high-quality content.
The Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines are the guidebook that search quality evaluators use to analyze organic Google results to provide feedback on the effectiveness of Google’s algorithm. If low-quality results end up in SERPs, they flag it.
So, why would they need guidance on identifying authors and responsible parties if it doesn’t matter?
The answer: It might just matter.
What do Google’s search results tell us about author attribution?
OK, now we know what Google says about the subject:
It’s not necessary to name authors in content…
Because Google already knows who wrote what on the internet…
But it’s also advisable that content is created or checked by experts who have authority on the topic.
So, do actual Google search results reflect that?
Last year, I published the results from a study I conducted in an attempt to isolate which factors are really, truly important to demonstrate E-A-T (this was before the addition of the second E).
My writer’s brain approached that study with the idea that author attribution had to matter. And what I found was somewhat disappointing to that version of myself but validating to the marketer in me.
First: A quick primer on how this study went.
I chose seven categories and ten queries for each category. I searched all 70 queries, clicked on all 647 Page 1 results, and took notes. If a particular element was highly prevalent on Page 1 results, I considered it to be important. If it’s more common in the Top 3 results than the overall Top 10, then I’d view it as very important.
I looked for a bunch of author-related factors:
Author has previously been published online
Author is affiliated with the organization
Author is a guest contributor
Detailed author bio is available
Links to the author’s website, social accounts, or other information
Link specifically to LinkedIn (I counted this one separately)
Multiple authors or contributors listed
And here’s how each of these factors performed in my study:
46% of Page 1 results attributed their content to a person, a group of people, or to an organization.
43% of Top 3 results did the same.
Of all the 32 factors I looked for, this was number 15 in the study, following truly important things like HTTPS and having original research published on-site (you can see a detailed description of each of the factors I analyzed here.)
Does this tell us that authorless content is OK? I’d say it’s actually a reflection of the types of content being served. There are plenty of times when author attribution simply isn’t needed.
Now, let’s look at the rest of the author-related factors I considered. For the rest of the study, I considered the overall 647 results, as well as the results for what I called the “author set,” which is the 298 results that included an author name.
Previously published author
36% of Page 1 results had a named author who clearly had previously been published online.
35% of Top 3 results showed the same.
It doesn’t seem to matter one way or the other how much previous publishing experience the writer has. But, among those results that did name an author, how common was previous publication?
Among our author set, the percentages look a bit different:
79.2% of Page 1 listings with listed authors had previously published authors.
81.3% of Top 3 results with listed authors showed the same.
There’s a bit more experience among Top 3 results’ authors than among the general Page 1 results’ authors. This could reflect higher-domain publishers’ (which are likely to rank well already) careful discernment of the authors they work with. Or, this could show that experience matters for ranking — alternatively, it could indicate that experience is good for creating quality content. Practice makes perfect.
Author affiliation: In-house vs. guest contributor
Do guest posts perform better than in-house written content? It looks to me that there’s no real advantage in one approach or the other.
23% of Page 1 results had authors who were clearly affiliated with the organization (e.g. they were employees).
22% of Top 3 results had the same as above.
13% of Page 1 results had authors who were clearly guest contributors.
12% of Top 3 results had the same as above.
It’s more common to have an author who’s affiliated with the publishing organization. But that doesn’t mean it matters. The nearly identical results for Page 1 vs. Top 3 results for both of these factors show that it’s not particularly critical.
The author set reinforces my theory that author affiliation doesn’t really matter much:
49.33% of Page 1 results with named authors were in-house contributors.
50.33% of Top 3 results showed the same.
28.86% of Page 1 results with named authors were guest contributors.
28.57% of Top 3 results showed the same.
This could actually be a reflection of how difficult it can be to attract high-quality guest posters instead of how important either strategy is. To establish a guest posting program (which is what you’d want to do to support an ongoing guest post initiative), you’ll need a few things, including:
Lots of traffic. Guest authors like to contribute to websites that get views.
A good reputation. Otherwise, what will incentivize them to contribute?
A manager. Guest post programs can get complex quickly, between vetting writers, approving topics, proofing content, and the publication and distribution of it all.
Author bio and links
Including an author biography or links to their personal website, portfolio or social media profiles can help readers learn more about whose content they’re reading. It also gives search crawlers more opportunities to get to know the content creator.
I considered these items separately:
Detailed author bio (as opposed to a sparse, unhelpful one).
Links to the author’s personal website, portfolio or social media, excluding LinkedIn.
Links to the author’s LinkedIn profile.
Detailed author bios were the most common, with 22% of both Page 1 and Top 3 results containing one. Next up were links to authors’ personal websites, portfolios, or social media profiles, which showed up 18% of the time on Page 1 and 16% of the time in Top 3 results. Finally, 11% of Page 1 listings had LinkedIn profile links for the author, whereas only 10% of Top 3 did.
The only one of these factors that really changes when looking at the author set is the detailed bio. 48.3% of Page 1 results’ authors had one, whereas 51.7% of Top 3 did. So, it’s a small difference, but it’s enough to make me think that a bit of information about your author could be beneficial.
Multiple contributors listed
I called this multiple contributors rather than multiple authors because this category includes listed activities like:
Contributing (e.g., providing research, interviews, or written content but not having written the entire thing)
Could listing multiple contributors on your content help it rank? My results don’t really support that. This was a find that disappointed not just my writer’s brain but my marketer’s brain, too.
17% of Page 1 results listed multiple contributors.
13% of Top 3 results did, too.
Among our author set, 36.58% of the Page 1 results had multiple contributors listed, and so did 32.97% of the Top 3 results.
Here’s my disappointment: Many of the results I analyzed included multiple contributors because they were being fact-checked or reviewed by professionals in that field, like doctors checking medical content — exactly the type of thing Google advises.
Similar to the guest posting factor I considered above, this could be a reflection of the practicalities of having in-depth content that requires multiple hands before it’s published. It’s another activity that requires a lot of time, talent, and resources.
When — and why — should you attribute your content?
By now, we’ve learned that author attribution kind of matters for ranking but isn’t a make-or-break factor on its own.
Or is it?
I’ve come to the opinion that it depends on the type of content in question (my marketer’s brain takes the lead). Regardless of which method you choose, here are some of the benefits you could gain through your choice:
Demonstrate your brand’s authority. Choosing the right author attribution can highlight your organization’s expertise.
Give credit to the creator. When it’s appropriate to attribute the true author, doing so can help build a positive relationship with that author and gives the added benefit of boosting their online portfolio (which should, in the long term, add further credibility to the content they create for your brand).
Provide information for readers and crawlers. Attribution helps the humans and robots who review your content to find more information about the topic as well as the expert who wrote it.
Here are some common marketing content types and appropriate options for author attribution:
Posts written for your organization’s blog are a prime opportunity to show off author credentials, or it could be an opportunity to highlight the expertise of your in-house experts (whether they penned the content or not).
Here are some questions to ask when deciding how to attribute blog content:
Is the author a true expert on this subject? If yes, include their name.
Will this author contribute regularly to your blog? If yes, all the better to include their name.
Is this author well-known or respected in this field? If yes, definitely list their name.
If your author isn’t an expert in that topic, you could attribute the content to an actual expert to lend authority to the piece. In that case, it’s recommended to have that person read over the content to get their sign-off.
Another option for organization blogs is to attribute the content to the organization itself or to the group of people who are in charge of reviewing content. For example, lots of Mayo Clinic’s articles are authored “By Mayo Clinic Staff.”
Guest article attribution can be considered in much the same way as blog posts. If the author is a real expert (which is more likely when working with guest-post programs, as many choose their contributors carefully), including their name can add credibility to the piece.
Crediting a guest post can boost awareness or reinforce brand recognition among readers. For example, this Marketing Week article about TikTok is sponsored by the social media brand, but no author is listed. The piece’s main purpose is to spread awareness of TikTok’s capabilities as a marketing platform.
Landing pages are designed to get viewers interested in taking some type of action with your company. There are tons of types of landing pages:
Commercial landing pages that discuss the virtues of your products or services.
Conversion landing pages, which people see after clicking on an ad.
Subscription landing pages, where people sign up for your newsletter.
Company landing pages, such as your about page or careers page, which support people exploring your company with a variety of intents.
In any of these cases, it’s not necessary to attribute your content. Someone at your organization likely wrote them or, at the very least, reviewed the content for accuracy and brand consistency. It’s assumed that the responsible party for this type of content is your organization as a whole.
Pillar pages are sort of like blog posts in that they are highly informational and support people who want to learn more about a particular subject. Where they differ from blog posts is in the depth of their content — usually, they’re breaking down a multifaceted topic, instead of focusing on just one facet like a blog post might do. In fact, pillar pages often link out to blog posts that dive deeper into relevant subtopics.
Because pillar pages address big, broad topics and link to articles for further reading, they are powerful topical authority pages.
Including an author’s name could add credibility to these pages, but it could also take away from it. Without an author’s attribution, the assumption is that, like landing pages, your organization at large is responsible for the content. And, if it’s covering a topic that’s central to your brand identity and linking to the many articles you’ve published on your blog covering the matter, then it may be best to let this content be “authored by your organization.” A great example of this is the Moz SEO Learning Center.
After all, your company’s credibility and expertise matter most when building brand trust — not the individual writer who happened to pen the piece.
Press releases are announcements from your organization, meant to be distributed far and wide by a wire service. The tone should be congruent with your brand voice, your brand logo should be included, and details about your organization are a must.
In almost all cases, press releases are authored “by your brand.” That said, a real person should always be included as the media contact. This is the person that people — especially journalists — can contact to learn more about your brand and the announcement.
Original research and thought-leadership content
Original content and original research are going to be hugely important for SEO in the years ahead. Google’s own communiqués about the Helpful Content Update, E-E-A-T, natural language processing abilities in search, and more prove that Google really does care about original content.
Original research was one of the 32 points I checked for during the study, and it was more prevalent than even authors’ names — signifying that not all original research had an attributed author.
64% of Page 1 results’ websites had original research available.
70% of Top 3 results’ sites did, too.
Original research is any type of content that includes unique information that the company gathers, analyzes, and publishes itself. To name a few, these could be in the form of:
Original product reviews
Website or organization data
Grant or funding information
The decision to attribute original research depends on the type of original content in question. Things like annual reports and grant information could feasibly be authored “by your organization,” whereas original product reviews may read more trust-worthily if readers can get to know the actual people who tested the product.
At Brafton, we conduct original research to learn more about the state of the content marketing industry, and the blog post written afterward is attributed to the blog post’s author. We’ve chosen to do that to match the style on our blog (we love our authors because they’re all experts at what they’re doing, and it’s a great opportunity for them to showcase their talent).
To attribute or not to attribute: Who won the debate?
I’m pleased to announce that I won this argument against myself. More importantly, I’ve decided that both of my selves — writer me and marketer me — are correct.
My marketer self might be slightly more right, though.
Attributing content can be worthwhile for your brand and the author in lots of situations.
However, there are plenty of other situations where attributing an expert who didn’t actually create the content but did review or otherwise consult on it can lend credibility to your brand.
Finally, there are actually plenty of instances where there’s no need to attribute anyone at all.
In the end, it all depends on the purpose of the content and your goals with it.
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