Avatars worried about getting kicked out of Facebook and Google+ for anonymity now have a bigger concern: irrelevance.
That’s what Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt says. The Avatar Roundup that has haunted avatars since the 2011 Nymwars might be superceded in Google-land. Now Schmidt has the bright idea that it’s a lot easier just to make the anonymous irrelevant.
It’s has to do with a controversial projected Google practice called “Author Rank” – placing posts by verified authors at the top of search results. People argue about whether Google is currently doing it or not, but hardly anyone doubts that they will.
“Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.”
The above quote is from Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s new book (co-authored with Google’s Jared Cohen), The New Digital Age. Rather than spend time tracking down all the anonymous writers on the Internet like Facebook does, Google may simply relegate them to the bottom pages of Google search results where they won’t be seen–and therefore won’t matter. Schmidt claims that this practice is conjecture at the moment–his book is hypothesis about the future. But it is likely to happen, he admits.
Google already has many Internet authors in its Authorship program, linking our Google+ profiles to our websites, so that Google’s search results show our pictures and byline. Many predict it’s just a hop to Google putting posts by verified authors at the top of search results. This is what people mean when they talk about Google changing its search algorithm from Page Rank to Author Rank.
Google’s Mythical Search Algorithm
Google’s method of ranking search results has always been assumed to be based on links, specifically the number of pages that link to your website, as an indicatator of your popularity and reliability. But this method, referred to as Page Rank, has led to all kinds of unsavory link-building practices, which can get you banned from Google in short order. But it’s hard for Google to keep chasing everyone down–avatars down one street, SEO con men down another. Not to mention time-consuming and expensive.
Hence, Schmidt’s brainstorm: just send the Anonymous to Google’s equivalent of the Second Life Cornfield, i.e., the bottom of the search results. All kinds of unsavories will congregate in that Google Cornfield: SEO bandits, trolls, naysayers who don’t want any kind of profile, and … drum roll, anonymous writers.
Anonymous, Pseudonymous … What’s the Difference?
A lot, actually. Anonymous writers don’t have an established name. They say anything and everything, especially in YouTube comments, that notorious Dante’s Inferno of sexism, racism, and hate, which Google really wants to clean up. It’s latest scheme is to convince us to use our real name on our YouTube channels, so we’ll watch our mouths when we post comments. Believe it or not, the idea is catching on–although not entirely, humorously chronicled by Gizmodo and Techcrunch.
However, pseudonymous writers have all kinds of valid reasons for using the privacy of a pen name: sanctity from bullying, domestic abuse, or political repression; LGBT anonymity, and … ahem … avatarian living. Kee Hinckley wrote one of the best posts on this topic in which he concisely defined the difference between the two terms:
People confuse two concepts: anonymity (no one knows who you are at all, no persistence over time, the most prolific author of all time is Anonymous) and pseudonymity (no one knows who you are, but there’s a persistent identity over time like a pen name, think: Mark Twain, George Sand, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Pynchon, John Wayne, or Stalin).
Google seems to be tolerating, for now anyway, established pseudonymous writers on Google+, a policy it announced in mid-2012. That said, the well-known Second Life photographer and blogger Strawberry Singh got evicted from Google+ and put it in her “Bragging Rights” on her profile: “Kicked off Google+ for not being a real person. <— Now restored, thank you Google!”
Follow the Money …
Google’s plan to get us all to use our real names has commercial advantages for the search engine giant, of course. In its TOS changes last week, Google announced its plan to use your name and picture in ads targeting your friends. I haven’t seen this yet, but I’m sure I’ll cringe when I do: “Bay just downloaded XYZ, shouldn’t you?” (To disable this, just go here and opt out.)
Is Author Rank Really Happening?
Some claim search results are already in order of Author Rank, but experts like Mark Traphagen disagree. He quotes Google Webmaster Tools Analyst John Mueller in a September 27 Google hangout (see 48:24) saying that Google doesn’t use Authorship for ranking. In other words, just because content is written by a “well-known author,” doesn’t mean Google will show it higher in the search results.
Umm, I’m not sure about that. Searches for “Bay Sweetwater” never used to land me on Google’s first results page. But since I linked my Google+ profile to my blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Vimeo accounts, the whole first page of a “Bay Sweetwater” Google search is nothing but my posts. Not that I’m complaining!
Warning: May Cause Chills Up Your Avatar’s Spine
Here’s how Eric says the process will work in the future (or now?) — from p. 33 of his book (co-authored with Google’s Jared Cohen) The New Digital Age.
“The basics of online identity could also change. Some governments will consider it too risky to have thousands of anonymous, untraceable and unverified citizens — “hidden people”; they’ll want to know who is associated with each online account, and will require verification, at a state level, in order to exert control over the virtual world.
Your online identity in the future is unlikely to be a simple Facebook page; instead it will be a constellation of profiles, from every online activity, that will be verified and perhaps even regulated by the government.
Imagine all of your accounts — Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Google+, Netflix, New York Times subscription — linked to an “official profile.”
Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results.
The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance; even the most fascinating content, if tied to an anonymous profile, simply won’t be seen because of its excessively low ranking.”