But with all this recent industry focus on social sharing and the impact it may or may not be having on real-time engine rankings, Google's announcement that it is now supporting the rel=author HTML markup attribute has been somewhat diminished. Since welcoming the summer of search in my last column, I've spent a good amount of time thinking about rel=author's potential impact. In short, where I've netted on this is that I believe rel=author could evolve into the single most important social signal available to the engines.
What is rel=author and how does it work?
In my last column, I briefly introduced the rel=author attribute: "This attribute allows authors to claim pieces of content as their own, so that Google can begin to identify and accrue additional social signals. This support is initially limited to a single domain, but will eventually allow guest bloggers/columnists to claim their work across multiple domains."
Essentially if I were to write columns across a dozen blogs, I could claim those pieces as my own by placing the rel=author attribute within the HTML code. Once Google offers multiple domain support, those guest columns would all send relevancy signals to Google based on my stature and relevancy to a particular topic.
What this will result in is a "personal PageRank" score, or as Google's Matt Cutts referred to it, "AuthorRank."
Why is this important today?
There has been a bit of chatter following this announcement that this is yet another element in Google's algorithm that can be manipulated for higher SEO performance. While I don't want to discount those views, let's set them aside for purposes of this conversation and focus instead on the upside potential of rel=author.
This is big news today for three key reasons:
1) Authority is no longer determined exclusively at the domain and page levels - with AuthorRank in place, authoritative content is portable. It follows leading voices around online and enables credible information to bubble up to the top of the SERPs, regardless of the top-level-domain hosting the content.
There is an additional, "sister" attribute to rel=author called rel=me which helps to confirm the authenticity of the content-domain match. This will help to mitigate the problem posed by content scraping websites. The net result will be that original, authentic content receives its proper credit, while copycats are likely to be penalized.
2) It helps even the playing field for smaller, lesser-known sites - Smaller, niche websites may be the big winners here. Securing content contributions from authoritative voices within select categories, these lesser-known sites will have put forth compelling linkbait content that will help secure stronger backlink profiles.
3) Hiring guest bloggers and contributors becomes a more impactful SEO strategy - Want your website and content to appear more prominently across the SERPs? Hire a leading online voice to write a few blog posts. What is likely to happen is that AuthorRank will be convertible into PageRank, which can then be carefully transferred to the domain as a whole.
Where this might be headed
I previously mused that the longer-term implications of rel=author may be that organizations have to groom the online voices of their most talented employees. Any company that is serious about spreading its message and thought leadership may have to embrace the idea that online relevancy is now the domain of the individuals that comprise the organization, and not the organization itself.
Think for a moment how incredible that might be. Companies will need to craft roadmaps for social media and content distribution that not only rely on the strength of the brand but also the individuals representing the brand. A huge component of a company's online stature may become the aggregate authority of the individual voices behind the company.
And remember, relevancy is portable.
Circle the wagons on the talent now, because poaching competitors' employees based on AuthorRank could become a popular tactic.
With rel=author, content alone has ceased to be king.