by Michael Kitces, CFP®, CLU, ChFC
Michael Kitces, CFP®, CLU, ChFC, is a partner and the director of research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, a private wealth management firm in Columbia, Maryland that oversees approximately $1 billion of client assets. He is the publisher of the e-newsletter The Kitces Report and the financial planning industry blog Nerd's Eye View through his website www.Kitces.com. Kitces is also one of the 2010 recipients of the Financial Planning Association's Heart of Financial Planning awards for his dedication to advancing the financial planning profession, and is the practitioner editor of the Journal of Financial Planning. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelKitces.
As consumers increasingly turn to the Internet for information about potential products, the ability of a company and its products to turn up at the top of search engine results is increasingly crucial for success and growth-leading to an explosion of consultants that will help companies with their "Search Engine Optimization" (SEO) to ensure that their products and services come up first. A similar process occurs when consumers search for information about services and people to work with, although the process is more complicated due to the fact that many experts may appear prominently on lots of sites, not all of which are necessarily tied to their business.
To better understand not just where influential content is, but the influential people who create it, Google has begun to develop a new system for its search engines to track authors and determine who's influential, called "AuthorRank," which is intended to supplement the "PageRank" algorithms it uses to identify and rank influential websites and content. The upshot of this change is that for the first time ever, financial planners and other service professionals will be able to start establishing their own online "webutation" as they tie content they have produced to their personal profile and business, regardless of where it is published. The caveat, though, is that Google accomplishes "Google Authorship" tracking by having authors tie their content and websites to a specific Google+ profile-which means any financial planners who produce a blog or other content who hadn't already established a Google+ profile need to go create one, now!
What Is Google Plus
Google Plus (also known as Google+) was Google's intended social networking competitor to Facebook. In a similar manner, you connect with people you know, and status updates they post-from comments, to articles, to pictures and videos they share-appear on your timeline for you to interact with.
Google+ had a few new innovations on the existing social networking theme. They created "Circles" where you can organize your contacts into groups, unlike on Facebook where everyone you have friended is in one single gigantic group. Thus, you might have a "Co-Workers" circle and a "Family" circle and a "Business Colleagues" circle and more, and can choose with a few clicks whether a comment or article or video is shared with all your circles, or just some (for example, so you can just share videos of your kids with your family and not necessarily your business colleagues, and articles about work with your business colleagues but not necessarily your family). Google+ also created Google Hangouts, a form of online video chat for multiple participants at once.
However, Google+ never quite seemed to catch on and hasn't experienced the growth that Facebook did (much less become a replacement for them as Google hoped), and has done little to draw away from Facebook's popularity. In part, it seems this was because some of their new features and differentiators never caught on. Or it may simply be that the platform wasn't viewed as being distinct and unique enough to be worth the trouble of stopping Facebook-where everyone "is" now-to adopt a new platform and try to get all their friends and family to come along.
What Is Google Authorship
Google Authorship is a new tool that Google has developed to try to better track and understand who is creating what content on the Internet. The reason this matters is that ultimately, Google hopes to use information about authors to try to improve the relevance and quality of search results, and to identify what websites-and people-are truly viewed as authoritative and influential.
Right now, Google's search process is driven heavily by PageRank, a proprietary system that Google uses to determine what websites and content are most important and relevant. Google PageRank evaluates a website by looking at everything from how many other websites link to it (under the assumption that more inbound links from other influential sites suggest that that site, too, is important) to how much the site's content is shared, and more.
The new system Google is developing to complement (and some have suggested at least partially replace) PageRank is called AuthorRank. The basic principle of AuthorRank is similar: to determine what writers are deemed influential and important by readers-and therefore should rank high in the search engines-by looking at whose content is widely linked to and shared.
The difficulty in the past, though, was that from Google's perspective, it wasn't always clear where content appeared first, or which site was the "primary" site with the "primary" author, especially as more and more content is reproduced (both through legal syndication and improper plagiarism). For instance, if an article was syndicated on Yahoo news, but was written by an author tied to a particular but less-well-connected blog, then ideally the search results for the article should link to the author's original site (if available), not the Yahoo reproduction of the story. In practice, though, it was often the latter-the Yahoo version came up first, because Yahoo news is more influential. This occurred because in large part because it wasn't always clear how to link a story to its original author and source in the first place. And of course, in a world where names aren't always unique, it wasn't always possible to tie content to a particular author amongst several people who might share the same name.
Until now. The key distinction of Google Authorship and the new AuthorRank process is that, with Google+ profiles, authors can actually connect their personal author identity to their content and their website. And as a result, Google can now determine the original source of content and its author ... and adjust its search engine results on the basis of not just the website where the content is located, but also its author. (See here for a more in-depth discussion of AuthorRank and its mechanics from ContentVerve.)
Why AuthorRank Matters For Financial Planners
So why does all of this matter to financial planners? The key is that with AuthorRank, financial planners truly have the opportunity to build their "webutation" (reputation in the online world), not by necessarily creating a valuable website of content, but instead simply by being a valuable creator of content, wherever it happens to be.
This distinction is important, because historically planners who did try to build an online presence faced an unusual challenge-if you wanted to drive prospective clients to your business, you needed them to visit your website. But early on, your website wasn't necessarily very visible to the web in the first place, making it hard to find, and forcing a focus on "Search Engine Optimization" (the process of improving the ranking of your website in the search engines). The alternative was to try to get the content on other websites that were more public and visible-which then relied upon the hope that someone would read the article and subsequently click through on the author's bio to get to the original website-yours.
With AuthorRank, these challenges largely vanish. Financial planners featured as authors on third-party websites that have strong PageRank results will in turn improve the AuthorRank of the financial planner-making it easier for prospective clients to find the planner directly as well! As a result, established authors actually can increase the likelihood that a web search for them, personally, turns up their website and not another website where their content was featured. In addition, if the content appears on the planner's website as well, the Google Authorship connection will establish that the planner's lesser-known website was the originator of the content, and the perhaps-more-visible website that also published it was actually just reproducing it-which means ultimately a web search for the content will be more likely to turn up the planner's original article on his/her own website in the first place (and having more clients find your website and articles as a solution to their problems is definitely good for business!). In other words, being tied to AuthorRank may really help to ramp up a financial planner's inbound marketing strategy.
An added benefit of AuthorRank is that, more than ever, financial planners can establish their online reputation tied not necessarily to their website-which may change in the future as business change, affiliations change, jobs change, etc.-but instead to the individual financial planner as a person (anchored to the Google+ profile). This means that time invested in establishing a credible online presence will just continue to build over time, even if/when/as the places that the content is published may change.
Time To Create A Google+ Profile, Now
The caveat to all of this, however, is that it only works if you have a Google+ profile, as that's the anchor to which Google Authorship and the associated AuthorRank is tied.
Accordingly, if you haven't already, now is the time to create an account and complete your profile on Google+, especially if you actually do have a blog and create content on the web. Once the account is established and the basic profile is completed with your pertinent (business) information, you can go through the Google Authorship process to setting yourself up as an author and connect the articles you write and your firm's blog/website to your Google+ profile (assuming your content does in fact appear on your website's blog, which it should)! (See here for a slightly more involved walkthrough of how to set up Google Authorship.)
Notably, Google has indicated that AuthorRank will also draw information from your Google+ account itself, including how many people have you in your Google+ circles, how often your content receives a Google +1, and more. Accordingly, this means it's not only important to create the Google+ profile, but also to take some steps to begin connecting with others there, and have an easy way on your website for people to connect with you via Google+ if they want to.
Of course, the latter point in particular has been a negative for many, who aren't exactly interested in yet another social networking site to maintain. Unfortunately, though, Google appears to leave us little choice now, as the ability and potential to connect your content to your Authorship, AuthorRank, and Google+ profile is a particularly unique carrot that arguably makes it more important to be active on Google+ than any other social media site. After all, Google still dominates search; being more visible there does matter for the ability of your clients, prospects, and referrals to find you.
Thus, while it remains to be seen whether this process will really bring Google+ to life (although with recent growth it's reportedly up to 500 million users), the fact remains that with Google's shift towards authorship, it's no longer a platform that can be ignored, as literally those who engage via authorship and participate may have their search results rank more highly than those who don't! Consequently, a Google+ profile may now become as important as having a LinkedIn profile as a basic foundational step to having a professional online presence.
The good news for those daunted by having another social networking presence to maintain is that at least there are an increasing number of tools that can help to automate steps of the process (like posting content you share to Google+). And you'll also be able to track the results of your efforts over time, as the Google Webmasters tool (which I recommend in addition to using Google Analytics for your website itself) provides some robust reports to see whether and how often your website and articles appear in Google searches, are clicked on, and drive social sharing.
In the meantime, if you do get started on Google+, I hope you'll reach out and connect with me there, too.
This article was adapted from a blog post that appeared on Dec. 17, 2012 on the Nerd's Eye View blog.