Social Authority in Search Results and Lessons from the Past

I read a very interesting article on Mark Schaefer’s blog {Grow} today that discussed some relatively new topics in the search world: “social scoring” and “social authority.” He cited excerpts from interviews with Google and Bing that explain how both search firms are considering changes to their algorithms to account for the influence of content authors.

The concept of “social authority” is a sea change in how online content is indexed and discovered. With the rise of user-contributed content over the past few years, the fact that Google and Bing are giving more credence to this medium is, to me, a logical outcome. We’ve already borne witness to real-time search results appearing in our queries; calculating the weight of one’s social authority is merely the next step.

Reading through the comments, however, this trend doesn’t seem to sit well with folks.

Is social authority going to be gamed? Of course it will. One of the reasons the phrase “search engine optimization” still tastes funny in many mouths is due to “black hat SEO” that used sneaky and misleading techniques to propel biased or unrelated content to the top of search engine rankings. Google’s Page Rank, once considered a key metric in figuring out the overall importance and relevance of your online real estate, has pretty much fallen off the radar due to numerous attempts to exploit the algorithm.

Social authority doesn’t have to be scary. What needs to happen to prevent a dark future for this concept is twofold.

Google, Bing, and other search entities need to be relentlessly proactive in how they integrate social authority into their results. I expect results that incorporate author authority to improve steadily over time as the search firms gather more data on the authors, their influence (including how that influence is generated and calculated), and the nature of their publishing platforms (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc.). Evolution of search algorithms needs to be intelligent enough and sophisticated enough that the relevant content “naturally” rises to the top.

Content authors need to come clean and stay that way. We all witnessed how black hat SEO came to ruin the party for those who genuinely and continuously thought about how to get the right content in front of the right viewers. We have to heed the lessons of the past and do things right this time around. Authors must be counseled on how to continue to create excellent content, in the proper medium, in the proper context. They must understand that silver bullets do not exist and that cutting corners will come back to bite them in the end.

Let’s fight hard to prevent “social authority” and “social scoring” from becoming the next four-letter words in the content world.

  • Bill Fraser

    I hear what you’re saying, but… I don’t know that any algorithm will be able to differentiate between quality and popularity. For every Encyclopedia Britannica, there are countless Glenn Becks. Whereas you and I might credit ourselves with knowing the difference between quality and popularity, do we really? I use a search engine many times to find information about something I don’t know. If I don’t know, how can I tell if it’s good info or just a popular writer?

    More scarily, there is a generation coming of age that truly doesn’t understand or believe that there is a difference between quality and popularity. The bulk of the coming generation believes that Google can’t be “gamed” and that whatever sits at the top of the results page is the best information.

    I think that by inserting “social scoring,” etc. what will happen is that people will start recognizing sources, anad feel smarter themselves. After all, if I’m already following a personality who’s seen as an authority on the subject, I must have good instincts and good taste.

    Good Post! Keep ‘em coming!

  • Mark W Schaefer

    i agree with Bill. I think where corruption can occur corruption will occur. The same SEO gamers are still in business and probably have grown more sophisticated. If social scoring is part of the mix, they will be right in the middle of it too. I’m not sure how this can be regulated — it’s a reflection of our broken human nature unfortunately!

    Thanks for the mention and the thoughtful post!