Yesterday evening, just hours after it rolled out its long-awaited social layer, Google launched another new feature that will affect its search returns — and journalists. In a pilot program, Google is now highlighting the individual people who created the content that shows up in returns — specifically, by placing a picture of those people to the right of the articles they’ve written, along with links to their Google Profiles. The feature, currently being used for a small group of authors (mostly tech bloggers), uses the new authorship markup language Google announced earlier this month “to help people,” it says, “find content from great authors in our search results.”
“Authorship is a great way to identify and highlight high-quality content,” Google’s Sagar Kamdar explained in a blog post. “Plus, the web is centered around people. People discovering content on the web often want to learn more about its author, see other content by that author, and even interact with the author.”
In the news-cycle context of Google, you know, Officially Taking On Facebook, its content-creators announcement isn’t a huge deal. But it’s worth noting nonetheless. There’s been a lot of renewed talk this week about journalists’ “personal brands,” thanks especially to the journalistic brand that is Gene Weingarten. And the discussion seems to solidify around the fact that, whether enthusiastically or grudgingly or something in between, journalists are embracing the reality that they are not just storytellers, not just truth-tellers, not just people, quirky and complicated — but, also, brands. With all that that implies. “If journalists are using social media to any extent (which they should be),” Mathew Ingram noted on Monday, “then they are in the process of becoming a brand whether they like it or not.”
A Google search interface that emphasizes individual journalists’ role in the media ecosystem is a step toward codifying that idea. Google News, sure, has been able to identify and gather articles by a particular author for some time now, but by putting author functionality in standard web search — and adding a photo — Google’s taking it a step further. When the new feature rolls out, if a Google search returns a Mashable article, the implicit branding of that return will emphasize Ben Parr (or Adam Ostrow, or Lauren Indvik) as much as — and, given the image, almost more than — Mashable itself. Same with, per the current test group, Danny Sullivan and Search Engine Land. And Tim Stevens and Engadget/AOL. Not only will a relevant return feature those authors’ photos by way of their Google Profile pics; it will also link back to those profiles, which are about as close to Facebook profiles as anything Google has yet produced. (And which, as of yesterday, are even more Facebook-like than they used to be.)
Parr’s profile — which now has the full-on Google+ skin — informs me not only that he is a journalist, but also a: “Scuba Diver. Traveler. Swing Dancer. Romantic. Space Stations. Entrepreneur.”
And while I’m reasonably sure that Ben Parr is not, in fact, a space station (or multiple space stations), it’s worth noting how seamlessly, in this, Parr’s personal and professional identities have been collapsed into a click. As a consumer, I’ve gone from a Google search about, say, a Bluetooth headset to learning that a guy who once wrote about Bluetooth headsets for Mashable hung out with Kiran Naik around midnight last night.
For individual journalists — and “content creators” of all stripes — that link, literally, between the professional and the personal can be a great thing. As a group, we writers tend to like getting credit for our work! Mashable doesn’t write Mashable posts, after all; people like Ben Parr do. In an era of Facebook Pages and tweeting reporters (“opinions expressed = my own”), Google’s content-authorship feature seems the point of a logical conclusion. The divide between the professional and personal may have guided journalism for much of the past hundred years; Google’s post-to-profile connection seems to suggest, subtly but also kind of stridently, the artificiality of that division. In an environment that finds more and more journalists freelancing, and flitting, and otherwise writing for many different outlets, the Google Profile link-back can serve as a nicely singular repository of a writer’s work from all around the web. And while there’s a definite Google-centricity to the whole thing — Google is linking to Parr’s Google Profile rather than, say, his personal website, and it’s providing writers like Parr a pretty big incentive to jump onto the Google Profile-and-Google+ bandwagon — for the most part, for journalists, that’s a good thing.
But what about for journalists’ employers? For this authorship system to work, news sites will have to change some code on both their story and author pages; it’ll be interesting to see how quickly that’s adopted. At the same time, part of Google’s credit-to-the-creator move seems aimed at weeding out the products of content farms, which are defined as much by their lack of meaningful authorship as by anything else. (“We know that great content comes from great authors,” Google noted in a blog post explaining authorship markup, “and we’re looking closely at ways this markup could help us highlight authors and rank search results.”) If that’s the case, that’s a win, ostensibly, for the media brands that produce that great content. But also, as the blog Silicon Filter put it: “This is meant to help Google’s users identify interesting new content from people the company trusts.” Not organizations, it’s worth noting, but people.