Author's Notice: This is an opinion piece, intended to provoke thought and discussion. As such, it reflects my opinion of the direction search is going, not where it necessarily is today.
For several years now, Google has characterized links as a figurative vote for a webpage, implying the page's popularity with other pages. Recently, however, the gauging of popularity seems to be taking on an entirely new scope... authority.
Author rank is something we've already heard a good bit about, and Google's Authorship applied a little grease to the rel="author" rails. But have you given any thought to what might be the real motivations and effects?
Google is obviously a business, and at more than $700 per share, a fairly successful one, at that. So while they may undertake a few projects that aren't expected to be standalone money-makers (the company's charitable contributions notwithstanding), it's a pretty sure bet that there's at least some long-term gain expected, or they simply wouldn't bother.
Trend or trendy? The two bear somewhat different connotations, but trendy isn't necessarily always negative.
Personally, I think that if you're doing something just because everyone else is, there's darned little positive to be found in that. But if something catches your attention and some thoughtful analysis tells you it's a worthwhile path... more power to you. More on this at the end.
For some time now, we've seen a trend developing, in which links seem to be providing a diminishing portion of the ROI in a comprehensive SEO program. They're still important, and are likely to remain so for some time... but new metrics have appeared, apparently usurping some of their impact.
Authority has become a popular buzzword, although I think it's been considered by Google for longer than many people seem to think. But before any assignment of a value of authority could be made, steps had to be taken to minimize or eliminate gaming.
First, they attempted to establish reliable attribution, via the rel="author" tag. Verification wasn't foolproof, but it was a big step forward. Now, authors could stake a claim to their work and tie it to their Google+ profile. There were several benefits to this, not the least of which was a new incentive to adopt Google+ as a part of one's online presence. That made a lot more information available to Google's graph.
As the rel="author" tag saw growing adoption, Google added another way to accomplish much the same thing, via Google Authorship. This made the process simpler, as it simply required that the user have an email on the domain on which they are claiming content, which was then tied to their Google+ account.
Here, as Bayes said, "the plot thickens upon us". There can be many benefits to Google from accurate attribution. One is certainly the ability to reduce the amount of duplicate content, which, by extension, helps them improve the quality of the searcher's experience. That's a benefit most of us would enjoy, as well, both as users and as authors.
Another benefit, though, is a graph that becomes more tightly woven, thus providing them with a database comprised of much more interrelated information. Again, this can also be felt by users, as it will presumably put more relevant data in the SERPs.
Google won't mind that. But I suspect that of much more interest to the folks in Mountain View (and ultimately, the stockholders) is the ability to move from targeted advertising to laser-focused shotgun advertising.
That Which Binds
The last piece of the puzzle, I think, is authority. This is the piece that can further limit the rampant abuse of links, while playing an important part in future ranking algorithms. A search query today for nearly any term is likely to produce a host of results that have no demonstrable reliability. Ranking based heavily upon authority should greatly improve that.
If authority is to be accrued and conveyed, it could easily dwarf the impact of links in a ranking sense, which is probably desirable. As I said, though, links aren't likely to lose all value. In future, though, I suspect we'll be seeing that they'll be joined by all sorts of other interactions which can be interpreted as votes, well.
Much as a link from the New York Times to your blog post would be a WOOT! moment ('fess up... who among us wouldn't kill a kitten for that?), we already know that even a non-linking citation has value. A Like or a tweet is another sort of endorsement that can have benefits, even if only the added exposure it offers.
But what about a comment from an authoritative entity, in response to a comment you leave on a third party site – a subscription to your feed or a Twitter follow from a WSJ editor? How about a LinkedIn connection or a Facebook friend, or repeated interaction on Quora or Empire Avenue? There's a long list of venues on which someone's attention might pass some authority to you, entity to entity.
Passing of authority from page to page might still be largely driven by links, though I think non-linking citations will probably be taking on even more importance than today. Relevance will no doubt play a major role in what authority, if any, is passed.
And I think it's only reasonable to assume that authority could also be passed from individuals to pages and vice versa.
If That's the Case
So... if this makes any sense as a possible direction of the trends we're seeing, then being trendy might be a good idea. Ironically, the most obvious way to take advantage of these trends is to do what common sense has dictated for a long time, in terms of branding and relationships.
Reach out to authoritative sites and individuals and establish relationships with them. Do so by offering value, making thoughtful comments and presenting reasonable arguments.
Apply the notion of quality content to all your online activities, not just your blog posts and articles. Use the concept of making them want to interact with you to build your own authority and that of your website.
If I'm right in my estimation of where we're headed, doing so can mean the difference between leading and following. If I'm wrong, none of the above can do any harm. In fact, it can still help.
As always, the comments are for discussion, and I'd really love to hear if you think I'm on the right track or way off base. I know my opinion... let's hear yours.