Like Me? Follow Me.
The SEO world is abuzz with discussion of 'AuthorRank', the speculative industry nickname for what experts believe is a coming algorithm update seeking to weed out spam by taking the authority of the author into account. It's a great idea, promoting real people posting content that is discussed and linked to and attributable to an actual person - a person with a website and social media profiles.
This new change could make it incredibly difficult for people using stolen or autogenerated (or 'spun') content to continue to trick search engines as it would require them to maintain and update multiple profiles - and show them engaging on a range of sites with other trusted authors. The update, could, potentially, make search optimisation of your own personal brand as important as search optimisation of your website - and we all know, you can't fake social engagement, at least not as easily as you can trick a search engine spider.
However...(as with anything related to Google there's always a giant however)...if the implementation runs as many expect it to, we're in for a big blow to our online privacy.
Google+ and 'Real People'
Google created a bit of a furore when it first launched Google+ - requiring people to register with what Google considers to be a 'real name'. That is, even if you've been using a pseudonym for years on the internet, Google insisted that you register with what it believed was a genuine first and last name.
So immediately, if, like me, you've been blogging for nearly a decade using one of those internet avatar-type names, you still had to register your real name, making it, well, difficult, for people to find you. Especially people you converse with on the internet or who follow your blog but who, for whatever reason, you may want to keep separate from your offline identity and life.
Then, Google announced its support of the rel="author" microformat but insisted that implementation be tied into a Google+ profile. So, in order to associate your written work online (preventing plagiarism, getting those lovely rich snippets with an image, etc, in the SERPs), you needed a profile, with your real name on it, all your posts tagged up with your real name and, here's the kicker, a profile picture of yourself (or someone) - not an avatar, even if it's one you've been using for years and is identified with you as an author, or a blog logo, brand, etc. It has to be a photo. What if you have a really good reason for not using a photo, however? What if you write a controversial blog? What if you've had an internet stalker? What if you've had a real life stalker and you've had to change your name/identity to avoid them finding you and causing you physical harm?
Keeping Your Public and Private Lives Separate
I present the following, in-no-way-autobiographical scenario as an example of the problem:
A grizzly, creatively frustrated SEO expert sets up a blog with her husband to write about bands and gigs, using it to express the hyperbolic drama queen side of her writing. The blog is rife with colourful language, heated debates in the comments, and although it draws a following of people who get the intended humour, also acquires a lot of haters and trolls. Said SEO expert doesn't really want these people to know her real name or what she looks like, but does, however, use the blog as a copywriting example to potential employers. So, her professional contacts know about her blogging, but her blog readers are kept clear of her professional life - for a reason.
7 years later Google decides she should be going by her real name so insists it won't attribute authorship of her own work to her unless she goes back and changes her name on her blog to the name on her Google+ profile. Maybe she's happy to have her professional life and her private life mix like this - but maybe she isn't. If she isn't, is it really Google's decision that she can't have credit for her blog posts because Google doesn't like the idea of her having multiple online identities or that one of those identities is not associated with what Google sees as a 'real name'?
See the problem?
Google's Electronic Panopticon
The idea of the 'electronic panopticon' deserves its own blog post - however, for our purposes, Google seems to be realising for all of society what Jeremy Bentham envisaged for criminals and residents of the workhouse in the early 19th century - complete and utter transparency of everything we do, on display not only for whatever nefarious purposes Google chooses but also on display for anyone who chooses to go looking.
A key theme in writing on the panopticon by both historians and sociologists, however, emphasizes that it was used for 'punitive' reasons, to enforce behavioral norms in prisoners and those people considered to be social misfits. In this instance, where individuals (and businesses) are effectively being forced to surrender all their data to the corporate behemoth of Google, also giving up their right to choose what remains private and what remains public, Google is effectively making criminals (or spammers, which is Google's idea of a criminal) of us all.
While I think tying signals about quality to signals about the authenticity of online identiy will help the search results - this attempt by Google to require participation in its social network, and the insistance that the authenticity of an online identity requires a photo and a first and last name, works in direct opposition to the way in which the web itself has developed - as a place where people can operate and maintain multiple authentic identities, separating various aspects of their lives.
I also resent Google's automatic assumption of guilt about our online behavior, insinuating that anyone who does not participate in its social network must not be a real person (or must have something to hide).
Ultimately, I cannot imagine a world in which a single corporation will be allowed to erode our privacy, insisting that in order to participate in the increasingly important community of the web, we have to lay bare everything about ourselves to be raked over by total strangers.