Google Plus Search and Google Authorship Case Study

The Question

How does Google+ and Authorship Influence Search Engine Rankings?

Background

In a recent post on YouMoz, I discussed the rankings success and traffic increase that my brand new site received immediately after implementing Google Authorship on the Jeffalytics blog. My conclusion was that Google Authorship was the root cause of the success, because the site received a sudden increase in traffic shortly after I implemented Google Authorship on the site.

The truth is that there were too many variables to be considered in that experiment, so further experimentation is needed for the results to be more conclusive. I did not isolate Google+ Authorship as the only factor contributing to my increased site rankings, so rankings may have increased due to other activity such as tweets or links from authority sites. The feedback and questions about the methodology used and conclusions drawn were very valuable, and inspired me to create a more definitive study on the subject to test my conclusion.

The following post outlines an experiment I conducted over a 3 week period using a more scientific approach to isolate the impact of Google+ Authorship on search results.

Hypothesis

Google+ Authorship from an Established Google+ profile will increase search engine rankings on a brand new website domain. Google+ Authorship will not be granted to a new Google+ account or impact ranking credibility of the new domain.

The Experiment

In order to control for as few factors of possible, this experiment was conducted under the following conditions:

Keyword Selection

All Keyword research was pulled on February 16, 2013.

1) Sites are attempting to rank for a primary keyword 

  • SERP for main keyword should be a standard 10 – pack of results
  • Primary keywords must be among distinct niche

2) Traffic and Competition among niches will be similar  

*Note on Competition: I intentionally chose lower competition keywords in order to help with the speed of this study. Too much competition and this study would take too long and likely be difficult to achieve ranking on Google+ Authorship alone.

  • Exact Match keyword Traffic in AdWords Keyword Tool
  • Traffic numbers pulled from the AdWords Keyword Tool using local search volume in the US
    Advanced Google AdWords Search Options
  • Competition from AdWords Keyword Tool for PPC is low
Search Volume

3) Total Results in the SERP must be below 25 Million

National Passport Processing Center Competition

Where is Doc Martin Filmed
Class D Security License Competition
US Canada Tax Treaty Competition

4) Keyword Difficulty Should be Relatively Similar

Competition Metrics

5) Select Keywords That Match These Criteria

During the research process, 4 keywords rose to the top and closely matched these criteria. This is more difficult than you might imagine! The keywords chosen were:

Isolating Google+ and Authorship

4 brand new niche sites were established with the following levels of Google Authorship involvement

  1. No Google+ Profile was assigned to a niche site (Tax Treaties)
  2. A Brand New Google+ Profile was assigned to a niche site (Executive Protection and Security)
    • This account is using my alter ego of Jefferson Sawyer
  3. My established Google+ Profile (Jeff Sauer) was assigned to a niche site closely related to my expertise (Travel Blogging).
  4. My established Google+ Profile (Jeff Sauer) was assigned to a niche my profile is not at all associated with (British Mysteries)
Brand New Google+ Profile

Google+ Profiles were filled out with the following criteria:

  • Each Google+ Profile listed themselves as a contributor to the associated domain
  • For the new account, a minimum amount of information was added to the profile to appear believable
  • For new accounts, I used a different picture of myself for the profile avatar to avoid any picture similarity bias
  • For my established account, I made no changes

Domain Names

4 Unique domain names were purchased for an exact match or close match in a niche topic. All domains had private registration information and unique hosting. The domains are:

Domain Registrations

Website Development

Each site was built on the WordPress platform with the same configuration

  • Same permalink structures for all sites
  • Yoast SEO Plugin enabled for all sites
  • All sites used the default 2012 WordPress theme with a custom picture for a header to appear distinct
  • Comments disabled for each site
  • All content was published at the exact same time – 1 PM CST on 2/17/2013
  • All sites had an XML site map
Completed Website Designs

Content Strategy

Each site featured three pages of content (12 pieces total)

  • A homepage that features a blog post with the primary keyword. I uniquely wrote each post with a similar content length
  • The homepage also features a relevant embedded YouTube video
  • An about us page that was also uniquely written and featured an image. The page contained an anchor link back to the primary keyword page
  • A static page that features a secondary keyword as well as an anchor link back to the primary keyword page
  • For those pages with Google+ profiles, authorship was assigned to each page of content as well as the whole site
  • All Articles written were required to have a “Green” light from Yoasts tool to be keyword friendly for SEO
Keyword Rich Content

Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools

  • A Google Analytics Account was created for each domain name under its unique Google+ enabled Google Account
  • For the domain without a Google+ account, a brand new Google account that was signed up for under a proxy server was used
  • Google Webmaster Tools was claimed for each domain name using the Google Analytics authentication method
  • An XML Sitemap generated by the Yoast SEO Plugin was generated and submitted into each Webmaster Tools account
Verified in Webmaster Tools

Proxy Servers and Alternate Browsers to Preserve Integrity

Where necessary, proxy servers were used to disambiguate between accounts and prevent IP address or cookie based bias in Google search results. New Google accounts were created using a proxy server with an IP address in a different part of the United States. Continued account access was also done through a proxy server.

Checking of Search results was done in the Safari browser that has never been associated with a Google account. Proxies were used in the majority of instances

SERP Ranking Checks

Authority Labs
Search rankings were checked using Authority Labs rank check tool.

Promoting the Sites

For the 3 sites that were tied to a Google+ profile, promotion involved simply pushing out a single Google+ post that linked to the homepage from each account.

G+ Post  Doc Martin Full

G+ Post  Class D

All posts were done within 10 minutes of each other and were sent out publicly to Google+.

For the US Canada Tax Treaty site that did not have a G+ post to promote the page, the only way it could be found by search engines is through the XML site map or Google Analytics.

Analysis of Results

Now comes the fun part; putting the experiment into action and testing how the impact of Google+ and Authorship on website rankings. Initially, there were two places I wanted to look in order to get an indication of the type of results that would be coming in: Google Webmaster Tools to make sure the site was crawled and the Rank Check tool to see if the site would rank. It only took a day to start seeing immediate results for both.

Google Webmaster Tools Crawl Stats

Less than 24 hours after the sites were verified and submitted to Google+ I started seeing data in Google Webmaster Tools showing what exactly they crawled.

 Google Webmaster Tools Crawling
The three sites that were shared on Google+ were crawled immediately. The site with no Google+ account or share was not crawled after 24 hours, even though an XML site map had been submitted.

Observation: A Google+ share will get your site crawled much faster than listing links in an XML site map.

Rankings Were Checked for Primary Keyword

The Authority labs tool was configured to check on the rankings of each site on the major search engines for the primary keyword. My expectation would be that none of the sites would see any significant rankings for the first several days, and even then it would likely not be in the top 100 results. This made automated rank checking important to the experiment – it gave me the ability to the needle in the rankings haystack.

The day after the sites launched I immediately started seeing results! In fact, the National Passport Processing Center site was showing an average ranking of 8 on Google and 12 on Yahoo.

Rankings on 2-18-2013

Side Note: How the heck did Yahoo find this site so quickly! Are they using publicly available G+ data to factor into their rankings?

Not only were the sites ranking, one of them was ranking very high. Even better, the site that ranked immediately is the site that I hypothesized would rank immediately. It is directly in the niche of topics I talk about often on Google+ (Travel), and I wrote the content directly from the heart based on my own personal experience.

On 2/18 I verified what the rank checker was seeing and sure enough, the site was sitting at #10 when viewed the site in a fresh browser. The rank checker and I were seeing basically the same thing.

National Passport #10

And apparently Yahoo was not a fluke:

Yahoo Rankings

The other sites were true to their rankings as well, with the second site promoted by my established Google+ account, Where is Doc Martin Filmed, ranking #24 on average.

Doc Martin Page 3 Result

The other two sites were ranking much lower, with Class D Security License ranking on page 14 and US Canada Tax Treaty on Page 8.

Class D Security License

I am actually surprised that the US Canada Tax Treaty website was ranking at all, because according to Google Webmaster Tools they had not yet crawled the site. In addition, it’s odd that one of the tag pages was ranking and not the homepage.

Us Canada Tax Treaty 2-18

Observation: Brand new websites linked from an established Google+ Account will rank faster and better than new websites without a tie to an established Google+ account.

No Authorship for Anyone

The most surprising effect of seeing the first day of results from the Google+ and Authorship experiment was that these pages were ranking well with no sign of authorship being enabled or granted to the site. This pokes holes in my theory that Google+ Authorship alone impacts rankings. Instead, it seemed that a Google+ share from an established account was all it took to propel these niche sites into a quality ranking.

Still, I wanted to see if authorship played any role in rankings, and I know that I had established it both in my Google+ account Contributor links as well as within the metadata on each site, so something seemed odd.

I double checked my Contributor links on Google+ and noticed that I had 12 links in place. While I always thought that there was a limit to how many blogs I could contribute to, I was wondering if being over a certain limit of contributorship was preventing my newest sites from having the author box.

That same day I performed hygiene on my Google+ Profile and removed two links that I wasn’t fully taking advantage of in my profile:

Google+ Authorship Limitations

Observation: I may be contributing to too many sites for Google to believe.

Next Day Authorship

Surprising to me, simply removing those two sites from my contributor profile in Google+ appeared to have a positive effect on enabling authorship in these new sites. Sure enough, National Passport Processing Center happened to show the authorship box and be in position #8 (up two spots from previous day).

National Passport Authorship

Where is Doc Martin Filmed ranked the same, but also showed Google+ Authorship.

Doc Martin Authorship

Observation: For my Google+ account, I can only contribute to 10 websites before I lose my ability to show authorship. This may vary for others, but my guess is that this is a limit for everyone.

No Author Party on Page 13

Meanwhile, the brand new Google+ account was seeing no love in both rankings and authorship, sitting on page 13 with three results in a row, but no authorship to be found:

Class D Security License

Observation: Google+ Authorship is earned, not given.

Rankings Rise, Rankings Fall, Rankings Stay the Same

The next several weeks were spent observing performance of the sites from ranking reports, Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics. Here is an indicator of rankings over time:

Rankings Reports Over Time

“National Passport Processing Center” jumped the #8 position on Google immediately after being published and has stayed there ever since. The only change for this keyword and site are that more pages have found their way into the search results page, occupying slots 8-10 on the first page of Google.

Rankings National Passport

“Where is Doc Martin Filmed” has been rising up in the search results for the past several weeks, going from 3rd page to second page and now sitting at the top of page 2

Doc Martin Page 2

“Class D Security License” has actually come the longest way since the first launch, moving from page 14 to page 7 over the past 3 weeks. While this was shown as the least competitive keyword by SEOMoz, it is having the most difficulty achieving quality rankings. It also appears that the total number of results being counted for Google for this keyword is growing every time I conduct a search, with a total of over 26 million results listed now.
Class D Rankings 3-10-13

“US Canada Tax Treaty” took the longest to get started, because it had no promotion from Google+ or Author assigned, but it has slowly risen in the search results over the past three weeks to the point where it may crack the first page within the next month. I would like to think that this is because the content is high quality and topically relevant (my wife helped me write the article, since international tax is her specialty). It most likely would be in the top 10 by now had I used my Google+ profile to promote the content.

US Canada Tax Treaty Page 3

Google Webmaster Tools Traffic and Author Stats

The search queries report in Google Webmaster Tools reflects everything we have come to know and understand about the importance of being on the first page of search results. Basically, the first page gets the big piece of chicken and the rest are fighting for table scraps.

Top Search Queries GWT

Observation: It’s more important than ever to show up on the first page of search results. Enable Google+ Authorship to increase your CTR.

It’s even fun to see that the site cracked the top 100 pages for my author stats in Google Webmaster Tools

National Passport Author Stats

Observation: Check your Google Author Stats to see where you are showing up most as an author.

Google Analytics Search Traffic

Google Analytics Search Traffic

Observation: Impressions and Authorship don’t always correlate to click throughs and traffic.

Conclusions

Google+ has an immediate impact on SEO results

When it comes to Google Search, You are becoming more important than your domain name. When I say You, I mean the way that Google views You. If you have established yourself as a valued contributor to Google+, the content that you share on Google+ has a better chance of ranking highly in Google Search results, immediately.

Google Authorship creates a win-win situation for both parties involved

By writing often and verifying with Google that you wrote a particular piece of content, you are also sending a signal that the content you write can be trusted to provide value to their customers.

Google Authorship Alone Does Not Appear to be a Ranking Factor

I was under the impression that Google Authorship alone would make my site rank, but I was unable to prove so in this experiment.

Authorship Has Contributor Limits

At least in my case there appeared to be a limit of 10 sites that I could contribute to as an author before Google Authorship went away. I think an excellent follow up would be for a more authoritative and diverse blogger to conduct a test to see if that works for them as well. Maybe a task for Rand Fishkin?

Yahoo Scrapes Public Google Plus Data

They have to be scraping G+ data, because that is the only way they could have known about my site!

SEO Analysis Tools Will Need to Adjust

It will become more difficult to trust an SEO analysis tool that does not incorporate Google +1′s into their data front and center. I hope that the smart tool makers are already tapping into the Social Data Hub to pull more of this information into their analysis tools.

Use Google Author Stats

Quantify the value and impact of your writing in search results from right within Google Webmaster Tools.

New Sites Can Rank Quickly

A new site can see meaningful rankings within a day of the domain name being registered.