AJ Kohn and Google+

AJ Kohn hit my radar about the same time Google introduced Google+ (G+). While I had significant interest in what Google was doing in the social space, it paled in comparison to AJ’s enthusiasm. Before long, AJ became a reliable resource on all things G+, including authorship.

I talked with AJ to find out how he became so knowledgeable about G+ and how he thinks Google’s big social initiative will ultimately play out. I think you’ll be intrigued by his answers.

Interview with AJ Kohn

A lot people in the industry, including myself, now see you as an authority on G+ and Google Authorship. I know that you aggressively circled Google employees on G+ from day one and have stayed up-to-date on every release, but that only tells part of the story. How did you go from knowing nothing about G+ and authorship to becoming an industry leader on the topic?

Yes, I spent a lot of time early on experimenting with Google+ and aggressively circling Googlers. For me it was to see how they were using it, monitor what they were sharing and actually engage with them on a variety of topics. I’m big on pattern recognition so being able to see and converse with a broad range of Googlers provide(d/s) insight.

I think I had an easier time adopting Google+ because I was a very active Friendfeed user. Google+ is, in large part, a homage to Friendfeed so it never felt that foreign to me. That probably reduced the learning curve and let me dig deeper and document what I was seeing.

Reading a lot doesn’t make you an authority – understanding a lot might to a degree – but communicating your experiential learning is what really makes the difference. I experimented with G+ and authorship. I was able to chat with some folks on the authorship team and then I blogged about it.

There’s simply no substitute for creating content based on your own research and experience. Mind you, I think that content has to be presented in the right way. It’s equal parts what you know and how you present it that create authority on a topic. And cultivating a community of fans doesn’t hurt either.

It’s my understanding that you occasionally exchange messages with the G+ developers. What are some of the problems they are addressing, especially as it pertains to authorship? How do they plan to fix or address those problems?

I’ve been lucky to have a dialogue with some G+ developers and those on the authorship team. They’re not frequent and I have no expectation that the dialogue will continue. But my experience has been that they’re generally intelligent, amiable and helpful.

I can’t provide any detailed insight I have based on those conversations. Instead, I think it’s rather clear that getting people to adopt authorship is an issue. You can’t begin to use authorship as a way to re-rank search results if the vast majority of authors – including well renowned experts – aren’t using authorship.

To that end, what we’ve seen are efforts in making the authorship process simpler. That means more and more ways to confirm authorship. Sadly, that often makes it more confusing as people search for answers when they run into problems. Google is just … dismal at SEO – so much of their educational content is not found or is not complete enough to help frustrated users.

But the additional methods are an acknowledgement that they need more people to confirm authorship. In addition, the indirect authorship we’re beginning to see shows the desire to extend authorship beyond the relatively small number of people who actively confirmed authorship.

Google is actually quite savvy about the public social graph. Rapleaf got smacked around for mining it but Google was (and still is) crawling and mining it for their own purposes, though all of that data is now hidden. What it really means is that Google is relatively good at identifying a user’s digital wake and identifying all the profiles that contribute to it.

What is Google Authorship really all about? Is it simply a way to establish trust and authority with a real person or does it go much deeper than that?

Authorship is about identity, as is the entire Google+ platform. From there it’s about claiming and standing by your content. It’s certainly a way to establish trust and authority, and over time might be used to ensure that expertise is rewarded in search results.

I think authorship brings up a few other trends that aren’t often discussed. The first is the changing dynamic between employee and employer. It wasn’t too long ago that you worked for one company your entire life. You were the company.

Authorship really drives home the point that there are people behind the company. I think it makes a lot of companies nervous to see people being promoted from behind the veil of the brand. It feels to me like the contributions and influence of individuals are more easily attributed, which could lead to a true meritocracy.

The other is the fact that people expect more online than they used to. There used to be a tacit acceptance that the sites and content you found online might not be as good as what you would find offline. The Internet was slow and you didn’t have tabbed browsing and there was little in the way of images much less video. But now the Internet is fast and you can open tabs and go to another site willy-nilly. It’s pretty and interesting and it’s full of people you know.

People no longer accept Geocities-like pages. They expect more. They expect their online experience to be as satisfying as their offline experience. So do you accept medical advice from ‘superdoc587′ who won’t tell you if he’s board certified? I hope not. So in my mind authorship is about meeting the expectation of users. They’re no longer willing to give the Internet a pass and instead expect a near similar experience to their offline interactions.

Finally, without a doubt authorship is a reaction to the incredible influx of content now flooding the Internet and Google’s index. The barriers to creating content (of all media) have been removed, and it will become increasingly difficult to allocate resources smartly to ensure they can sift the good from the bad.

I’m still fond of what Jason Calacanis said in late 2011.

There are a lot of stupid people out there … and stupid people shouldn’t write. … There needs to be a better system for tuning down the stupid people and tuning up the smart people.

Authorship is potentially the system that will make this possible.

How important is it for Internet marketers to be using G+, authorship and schema.org microdata? Should one or all of them be requirements by all marketers?

You’d be crazy not to use them all at this point. My SEO philosophy has always been to make it easy for Google to understand your content. So microdata is like a big flashing sign in the middle of your content. It’s hard for Google to miss and it’s in a language they understand.

I think we’ve covered why authorship is important. Even if Author Rank never comes to fruition, the click-through benefits are enough and the pursuit of authority should remain a priority.

Google+ is the most misunderstood of the bunch. Marketers should be using it because it’s the best way to put your thumb on the scale of search results. Too many are tracking Google+ by looking at traffic from Google+ and that’s the wrong way to evaluate the impact of a robust Google+ strategy.

Okay, it’s time to really amp up the speculation :) Based on your observations and knowledge of Twitter, Facebook and G+, what does the social landscape look like in 2015? Will a new social network emerge? Will G+ be bigger or look a lot different?

I think Twitter is in a great position. They are the glue between screens and the hashtag streams are essentially meta entertainment. So I think you’ll see Twitter being a major player in entertainment content and advertising in 2015.

It’s tough to tell with Facebook. They’ve got a huge embedded audience that is difficult to fritter away but … we’ve seen that done in the recent past, so nothing is impossible. I think Facebook is finding that they’re best at being a part of the retargeting ecosystem as long as they can a) merge that with third-party data and b) measure what people do rather than what they say they do.

Google+ will be around because Google relies on it for a number of purposes. I can’t quite tell where it’s going now, but Hangouts On Air as well as Google Now and Google Glass integration seem likely. If they do all of that then it will certainly be bigger than it is now.

Will there be a new social network? Tough to tell. I am very intrigued by the prospect of a new social network that is vastly more mobile in nature. Maybe that was Instagram but with new interfaces (such as Now or Glass or watches) and the increasing share of smartphones (and hopefully longer battery life – fingers crossed for Google X Phone) I think there’s a real chance of something else emerging.

The last question I’m going to ask you is one I’ll be asking all of the seasoned Internet marketers I’ll be interviewing on Squawk. I’m an SMB and I want to build targeted exposure to my site. What are the top five things I should do first?

  1. Site. Build a solid site with proper conversion rate optimization principles and ensure it’s all trackable. (In short, have a good home base where you can track result.)
  2. Content. Demonstrate your expertise through content. That traditionally means a blog, but if you’re an architect it could mean lots of photos.
  3. Community. Build relationships in your community. This isn’t any different than what you do offline. You don’t just lumber into the neighborhood, put out your shingle and say, ‘I’m awesome, now pay me.’ Learn the lay of the land, talk to people, form some relationships.
  4. Remarketing. You spend time and money getting people to your site and you know that the majority don’t convert during that session. Don’t let them walk off into the HTML sunset. Develop a smart remarketing campaign to extend your investment.
  5. Local SEO. It’s probably smart to get a local SEO expert to come in and make sure their name, address and phone number (NAP) issues are squared away, help with local listings and provide some tips on getting review and citations.
  6. Email. I know, you said five but depending on your level of savvy or investment, you might swap 4 or 5 with an email marketing program. Building an email list of customers and prospects is incredibly valuable, allowing you access to their inbox and inspiring new, repeat and referral based work.

I encourage you to follow AJ’s blog at Blind Five Year Old, and via social media on Twitter and Google+.