Dispersed citation and the
future of internet marketing


This is another of my really long posts that doesn't have a TL;DR version. Here's a quick preview:

  1. Where search and internet marketing are at right now: Links and words
  2. Where I think they're going: Dispersed citation
  3. Why I think they're going there
  4. How to capitalize (super-specific tips here)

If this sounds useful, hey, give it a read. If not, well, phooey on you. If you want to see the slides instead here you go. Otherwise, keep right on scrolling:

In which I clarify my lack of clarity

The title of this article sounds awfully confident, but I'm not. Chances are I don't exactly have the future pegged. My last few attempts at predicting stuff are about 50/50. I've gotten some right:

  1. Google Instant would fail, because a real-time stream of poo is still poo
  2. Google SearchWiki would quickly die (that one was too easy to even count)
  3. Facebook's search tool would be, er, short of ideal
  4. Bing will never exceed 15% marketshare

I'm only predicting 1-3 years in the future. If I were CEO of a well-funded startup, rolling in cash and eyeing acquisition by a monster company, I might look 10 years ahead. But I'm not. I run an agency dependent on cash flow. I can't build a boat in a dry lake and wait for rain. You're probably in the same situation.

But, I've also had some real whoppers:

  1. The iPad would fail (yikes)
  2. Firefox would become the dominant browser by 2009 (oy)
  3. Markup-based development platforms like ColdFusion are the future (ugh)

Soooo, take what I say with a grain of salt, but understand that I have a bit more backup for this article than previous predictions, which were largely yanked from various dark places on my person.

The internet so far: Search (barely) works

A quick catch-up, in case you didn't know: This whole internet thing looks to be more than a fad. It's also stuffed with content that ranges from amazing, world-changing stuff to the worst mental sewage imaginable.

The only tools that let us really sift through it all? Search engines. Yes, I know there are other gadgets and apps. But search engines absolutely dominate, and that won't change any time soon. In spite of our complaining, they do a pretty darned good job.

So, let's assume that search engines will continue to be the internet's utility: We treat it like electricity. If you don't believe me, imagine what would happen if the world had no Google for, say, 48 hours. Total. Hysteria. We turned 'Google' into a verb, for Heaven's sake.

But there's a problem. To function at scale, search engines had to over-simplify. They live in a world driven by links and words. Nothing else. That leads to some weird assumptions:

Until recently, search engines had a really hard time with content spread among multiple sites.

Say you write a fantastic article for another site, like You get it published there. It has one lonely little link back to your site, and that link passes some authority but not much. OK, you think, that's annoying as hell, but it's better than nothing.

Then, the New York Times links to your masterpiece. On Forbes. The piece gets 10,000 likes, tweets and +1s. Forbes gets all sorts of lovely authority. You? You still have your one pathetic link, and there's only so much additional authority that's going to squeeze through that tiny little pipe.

One link, no glory.

Infuriating. Of course, if you'd published that article on your site, you might have gotten all that beautiful citation for your domain. But alas, you did not. That's what happens when search engines live on links.

New is better

Ever write something really great, see it hit the top of the rankings, and then watch it drop when copycats write knockoffs that rival the script of Sharknado? You've been victimized by search engines' assumption that new is generally better.

Google's just started trying to deal with this by showing in-depth articles. Which, as I'll point out in a minute, is really another form of dispersed citation.

Until now, though, it's been all about the freshest stuff. Which leads to all sorts of silliness, since some of the best information around was written before the 1990s, when we all forgot how to spell.

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle will not apply

The simple fact that we know we're being observed changes our behavior with respect to words and links. It's impossible for search engines to get a truly 'natural' picture of those two critical factors.

Any time you have a system with limited, largely artificial inputs and a vast audience of people shoving to get in, you're going to get folks trying to game it.

Guest posting and blog stuffing: The junkfood of internet marketing

So, what do we do? We run out and start cranking out guest posts so poorly written they'd make your 2nd-grade grammar teacher cry. That, we think, will get us lots of links.

And we write metric tons of semi-illiterate crap to post to our own sites. That'll get us words.

They're both junk food. The more you write them, the more you want to write them. But they have zero nutritional value for your marketing. Instead, they clog your business veins and stop up your lead generation digestive tract...

It's getting disgusting. I'll stop the metaphors there. You get the idea: A world of links and words makes content into a volume play, not a quality play. Webheads figured out pretty quickly that bulk trumped brains and mechanized around it.

The outcome: Penguins and pandas

Even Google struggles with all this. The Panda and Penguin updates were designed to do one thing: Force website operators to provide words and links that help Google figure out what's relevant to which query. And, force website operators to stop cranking out junk food.

Panda adjusted the search rankings to favor web sites with more pages of 'quality' content. That meant:

  • Fewer near-duplicate pages
  • Fewer pages with embarrassingly bad writing
  • More pages with deep, useful information
  • More pages that actually, you know, load in less than 20 seconds

Panda hit some content farms pretty hard. I have to admit, I chuckled a little. Read more about Panda on Search Engine Land.

Penguin should've been named Piranha. It introduced severe penalties for sites violated Google's Terms of Service by acquiring links through 'artificial tactics.' Those tactics included:

  • Building link networks of lousy sites and linking them back to your primary site
  • Purchasing lots of links, JCPenny-style
  • Other forms of link acquisition bribery

Penguin was not so nice. If a small business had hired an unscrupulous SEO, and that SEO didn't warn them of the risks involved, the business owners could get severely and unpleasantly screwed. I didn't chuckle.

Along comes (not provided)

Then, to wrap up all this in a nice, fun package, Google started encrypting search terms. In English, that means the search phrases folks use to find your site no longer show up in your analytics software. Instead, you get a nice, illuminating '(not provided).'

Not provided: All your keywords are belong to us

First it was 5% of search traffic. Then it was 40%. Now, Google's moving to 100% 'not provided'. Why?

Partly to put on a good show of privacy-consciousness.

And partly to push us marketers out of the world of links and words, by depriving us of the words. A lot of folks reacted with horror and disbelief.

baby no like (not provided)

I say, relax, people. This has been coming for a long time. And, if you focus where search is going, instead of what we're losing, you'll see there's an awful lot of marketing potential.

Recent developments: Google+, Google +1s and Authorship

Google's been tinkering with Google+, authorship. The two together imply a new way of ranking content that could move search from being a little wiggly worm-shaped thing stuck in the links and words tidepool to a fish with legs, ready to drag itself onshore.


When I talk about Google+, I mean Google Plus, not Google +1s. They're two different things. More about Google +1s shortly.

Google+ is really two things: A social network, and a platform.

The social network will fail. It's already failing. They just don't have the diverse audience they'd need. On the other hand, I'm not sure Google cares. They don't need to 'beat Facebook.' Facebook's a walled garden. And we know what happens to walled gardens (AOL, anyone?).

The social platform, though, will succeed. It's got a very low barrier to entry for webmasters (create a profile page, and you're done) and an even lower barrier to entry for consumers (use Gmail? you're in). Note that Gmail users don't even have to create a profile page. They're already in the 'system.' If they want to participate with +1s or shares, they can do it.

To succeed as a social network, Google+ would have to collect a huge, wide audience of super-active users to rival Facebook. To succeed as a social platform, though, all Google+ has to do is continue to exist.

Google +1s

Google +1s let you 'vote up' content you like. Click the button, and you just gave the author a thumbs-up. recently showed the incredibly high correlation between +1s and rankings.. Whether you agree there's a causal link or not, it's hard to ignore the connection.

+1 buttons are easy to add to a site (low barrier to entry for webmasters) and a cinch for the consumer (click the button). Google +1s don't automatically trace back to an author/publisher's Google+ profile. But with authorship and rel=publisher, they do.

Google authorship

Google Authorship is the power player. It connects content with an individual's Google+ profile. Note the 'individual' — companies use brand pages, which can't use authorship.

Now, what comes next is theory. I don't know what's going on in all the pointy little heads at Google. They have more IQ points in their brain stem than I have in my whole head. But it sure seems like this is a logical step.

Write articles all over the web. Link them back to your Google+ profile using authorship markup. Now, your Google+ profile is a collector of all authority that comes to every piece of content you contribute, anywhere on the web. It can also be a distributor of that authority back to all of those articles.

Remember the infuriating link scenario? Here's how it plays out with dispersed citation:

  1. I write an article.
  2. It makes the front page of the New York Times business section (a guy can dream).
  3. That alone makes it authoritative.
  4. But then it also gets tons of links and +1s.
  5. If Google authorship is in place, then Google knows that the Ian Lurie who wrote that article also wrote stuff on the Portent blog.
  6. Google can redistribute authority from the NYT piece, knowing that I'm a more authoritative author than I was before.

Authorship in action

In other words, Google can say, "Geez. We thought Ian was just a wart on the butt of internet content. But he's a thing. Better up his authority. Oh, and he writes on the Portent blog a lot. Better up that, too."

With higher authority comes higher rankings.

Even better: If I left Portent to work elsewhere, and my new articles built more authority, Portent could benefit from it. All of my authorship juice (that's for you, @msweeny) still collects at my profile, which is still connected to Portent's publisher profile, which passes it along to the Portent web site. Authority collected by multiple authors gets consolidated, too.

Authorship plus rel=publisher redistributes authority

This only happens if Portent sets up rel=publisher. More about that in a second.

Google lets you change contributor status from 'current contributor' to 'past contributor.' That will influence the authorship equation, I'm sure. But the connection remains.

Again: Theory. But it makes an awful lot of sense. Rankings require some measure of authority. Links deliver authority. But so do authorship citations. So Google could use authorship to balance links. And authorship is harder to game.

Lots of people call this theory 'AuthorRank.'

What it all means: Dispersed citation

Put it all together: +1s and Google+, with authorship and rel=publisher to tie them together, and you have the beginning of a powerful system for measuring authority tied to people and ideas, rather than websites. I believe Google is pulling together a system of dispersed citation.

Dispersed Citation is PageRank for the real world. It can apply across local (which happens to integrate with Google+) and YouTube (yep, integrated as of 2 days ago).

With Google+ at the center, Google's building out an infrastructure to drive dispersed citation to all corners of the internet: PublisherRank combined with local business review quantity and velocity could provide a more complete picture. They could combine AuthorRank with YouTube views and view depth to introduce another video ranking factor.

This infrastructure would help Google rank things that don't find their way onto the internet, too. As time passes, Google could work in all sorts of other data: Product reviews, for example, could apply to manufacturers' authority. Create a great product and your authority goes up. Create a crappy one and it goes down. The number of Android devices finding their way in and out of a particular storefront could apply, as well.

Full on dispersed citation

This may sound fanciful, but Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility gives them the ability to do all sorts of geofencing goodness. They're clearly working on location-based actions for individuals. Aggregating that data would be a logical next step.

Could you game it? Sure. But it's a lot harder than spamming links or spinning content. It's impossible to mechanize, too. Are you going to get thousands of people to click +1, all at different times, all without any sign of a pattern or an anomaly? Or are you going to get 100 great writers to publish 100 great articles on 100 major publisher websites?

Not easily.

My big prediction: Dispersed citation will find its way into Google's ranking algorithm. Actually, it already has. It'll be used to check/verify other ranking factors, and to introduce new content to search results.

How to prepare for and capitalize on dispersed citation

Even if I'm having another iPads-will-fail moment, and dispersed citation never happens, preparing for it makes your site a better SEO target, improves local results and helps you with social media. So there.

Here's what you do:

Set up a Google+ profile page

This one's straightforward. If you don't already have a personal Google+ profile page, go set one up. The Google+ page will be the 'bucket' for all authority generated by dispersed citation.

  1. Get a good profile photo of yourself. Don't use cartoons or icons. Use you. Your profile page is supposed to be by a human, for humans. I won't circle someone's fractal avatar, no matter how cool it looks.
  2. If you don't have a Google Account, you need to set one up. Use your real name, because Google+ doesn't allow fakery.
  3. Go to the Google+ Start Page.
  4. Link your Google+ profile to your YouTube profile.
  5. Link your Google+ profile to gmail.
  6. Link it to Google Docs.
  7. And yes, link it to Google Calendar.

Another tip: Use a cool, unique, personalized cover image. Do not put a promotion in the cover image. That's like tattooing your forehead with "BUY FROM ME 'CAUSE I'M ONE BAD SONOFABITCH." It's tacky. I use a typewriter I inherited from my grandfather. It's not high art, but it's pretty emblematic of my approach to marketing.

My grandfather's typewriter

Set up authorship

Link your profile to your web site, and vice-versa. "Your web site" should be the site to which you most often post/write/do stuff. It should be your company, or your personal blog, or your business blog. Chances are, if you're reading this, you have a place you write blog posts and such to build an audience. Link that.

I recommend following the instructions on this page. There's also a post full of awesome by Rick DeJarnette on Search Engine Land. If you can, use the three-link method as Rick writes it.

Next: Go to all sites where you've published content.

  1. Add their URLs under 'Contributor To' on your Google+ profile page.
  2. Have them link back to you using proper authorship markup, either from your biography page on their site, or from the bio block on each article you've written.

Do insist on Authorship links from every publication to which you contribute. Chances are, you're writing for free. The Authorship link is your primary form of payment, and it costs them nothing.

Then test the biography page, or the article pages, using Google's Structured Markup Testing Tool.

Don't expect your image to show up next to every article you've ever written! And don't freak out if the image shows up sometimes and disappears at others. That doesn't indicate anything. Use the structured markup testing tool to see if authorship is still in place.

Make friends! And post!

First off, find your friends who are already on Google+, and add them to your circles. I recommend dividing circles into business and non-business at the very least. I divide mine by types of expertise and, in some cases, how I met them.

You might also want to circle some of the top people in your industry and/or people you particularly admire. That'll provide you with lots of incoming content you can then re-share to friends.

Don't be afraid to post videos and images of stuff you like. If you find a particularly great video on YouTube, post it. Visual stuff performs like gangbusters. And any time you create a video, post it to your profile. That gets you (remember?) into the dispersed citation machine.

If you want to put me in a circle, by the way, you can go here.

Oh, also: You know how you curate content on Twitter? Do the same thing on Google+. Deliver value. When you share, add some commentary. Google+ is a particularly good format for this:

You might also write miniature blog posts on Google+. Do not duplicate posts to Google+. I have no evidence that it'll hurt your profile, but frankly, it looks really silly. Instead, write little blurbs. Here's one I did:

Do not buy +1s or circles. Bad marketer! Bad! You think Google Penguin wreaked havoc? Try spamming the authority of your universal ID card. Just don't.

Did I mention you can embed Google+ posts in web pages? Do that, too.

Set up a Google+ brand page

Now, set up a Google+ brand page. This is the page that represents your business. It's the receptacle for all +1s your company gets, and all authority oomph generated by your authors. You can also add social extensions to your AdWords campaigns, which brings all sorts of extra clicky goodness.

  1. Use your company logo as your brand page icon. Or, if you have another particularly cool image, use that. Just remember it needs to be easily recognized, so folks will click.
  2. Set up your page. It's pretty straightforward. Go here, choose your business type, and run with it.
  3. Point your page at your business's domain. Ideally, make sure your e-mail domain matches the business domain. That should help with your verification process.
  4. Verify your page. If you have a Google Webmaster Tools account, it's a snap. Linking back-and-forth isn't that hard, either. Follow the instructions on this page.
  5. Click 'Manage this page.' It's up at the top of the screen. Or, roll over the drop-down menu at the upper-left and choose 'Dashboard:'
    Going to your Google+ brand page's dashboard
  6. Click 'Managers' and choose who you'd like to help you run things.
  7. Get a good cover image. And again, no promotional stuff.
  8. Check out the other management options. In particular, look at 'For Your Site.' There are some easy widgets you can add to your site.
  9. Start posting and curating, as above.
  10. Make friends and influence people.
  11. If you have a local business, link your brand page to Google Local. But keep an eye on your local listing. I haven't experienced it, but I've heard of issues with the integration. Nothing confirmed. Just Google-was-mean-to-me kind of stuff.

To post content as your company, instead of as you, navigate to your business profile page and enter your link/post in the 'Share what's new...' box. Easy-peasy.

Set up rel=publisher

Use the instructions [here](, so I don't push this article over 5000 words and end up pulling out my own fingernails.

Set up article markup

As above. Here's a fantastic tutorial by Virante on the subject. This one's not easy. But it can help with in-depth article placement, and it's likely to be of more value in the near future.

Where Google's going: Dispersed citation

The same day I spoke about dispersed citation at Clearlink Confluence, Google announced Hummingbird. While it targets mobile and spoken search, it also has some tidbits that hint at dispersed citation. David Harry has a fantastic assessment in Read the section about "Things not strings."

Google's moving away from links and keywords. There's no getting around that. That is not the 'death of SEO,' but it does require a shift towards the things that have always been the best, most future-proof SEO tactics:

  1. Ensure all content is discoverable.
  2. Ensure all content is easily classified.
  3. Pay attention to document structure, both in HTML and in your writing.
  4. Share that stuff!

Dispersed citation won't do away with links and words as ranking factors, either. It's an additional ingredient in an already-complex algorithm.

Call it what you want. It's very likely that dispersion is real, and is already in the wild. It's also likely that its role in rankings will grow. Doing the stuff that lets you capitalize on its collection/pooling of authority will only help your site rank higher, whether this spread-out form of citation takes hold or not.