Anonymity: Is It Helping or Hurting the Web?

By David Veldt - 04/03/2013

Do you remember your first ever screen name? I believe mine was Vel385 because, you know, it had to be something mom could use on the family computer, too. I also specifically remember being warned to never use my real name in any screen name or email address. Now, it's highly recommended that you include a single version of your first and last name as a username across the web for personal branding reasons.

Not everyone embraces the idea of making their name publicly known. All you need is three seconds in the comment section of YouTube (or any comment section, for that matter) to see proof of this.

However, it seems that identifying yourself is becoming the way of the web. This means more trustworthy content is displayed and spammers can't hide behind anonymity anymore, which is good for everyone, right?


Google Authorship

The first major step toward devaluing anonymity and rewarding verification came with the Google Authorship markup over the past couple years. This is basically the process of verifying the author of a particular page by linking the page to their Google+ profile using rel="author" markup within the link or adding ?rel=author to the end of the link URL (you can now also accomplish this with plugins, by email, or meta tag), then linking your Google+ profile back to the main website by adding it under the "Contributor to" field in the About section of your profile.

Once implemented, you not only prove that you are indeed the author of said page, but that page also receives a significant visual boost in search results with the addition of your Google+ profile picture, your name, how many circles you're in and a link to "More by" you.

Danny Sullivan Authorship

With the implementation of Authorship, rumors are already swirling about a mystical "Author Rank," which is essentially an assigned authority to certain authors which help their verified pages rank more favorably in search results.

Even if you run a boring company site with no blog or authors, you can verify your site by tying it to your company's Google+ Business Page or Local Page in a similar fashion through what is known as Publisher Verification (although, this has been more slowly adopted since it doesn't provide the same visual snippet as Authorship).

Okay, so it seems that verification for bloggers, authors and official sites would be a good idea to implement. Now, if only a notable industry figurehead would confirm this with some sort of quote...

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.

That quote is courtesy of Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google. Looks like the mystical Author Rank isn't so mystical after all.

What Schmidt is confirming is that those that want to remain anonymous will have an increasingly difficult time being heard. In the case of YouTube comments, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Yet, in some cases, it can be.

Whatcha Hidin' From?

I've been engaged in a two week battle with the auto dealership who was supposed to fix a strange problem with my car. From their very first estimate call, they had been trying to trick me into paying for over $2,000 worth of repairs I didn't need. They claimed to have found the problem and made the repairs, only for the car to break down less than a week later. I brought it in a second time and told them exactly what to fix, and they again tried to hook me into unnecessary costs, refusing to let what I already paid to have it fixed once count in any way toward the second visit. A day after fix #2, the Check Engine light popped back on.

The entire experience has just been extremely unpleasant. I don't like having to be an asshole, but I've had to wear that hat (the ass hat, if you will) to get them to take me seriously and fix my damn car.

Google+ Write a Review PromptI've done digital marketing for car dealerships, so I knew what review sites were the highest priority for them, and thought about leaving negative reviews across all of them about my visit. The only problem is that I hate complaining and looking like a whiner. Also, certain platforms, such as Google+, require my name to be displayed alongside my review. In fact, as shown in the screenshot to the left (click to enlarge), they will display my reviews on my own profile in addition to within searches and on the company's page.

Do I really want my digital footprint to be a bunch of whining about a local car dealership? As someone who is keen on personal branding, is it worth having people see my negative side?

Naturally, I decided to keep my comments to myself. I imagine there are plenty of others like me who avoid posting negative reviews because they don't want their name attached to ugly matters such as public complaints, which skews these reviews and essentially holds information back from other customers.

"Protecting" Users

The last form of anonymity is the kind that is "given" to users in the name of privacy. Digital marketers reading this are probably already nodding their heads---I'm talking about Google's decision to strip certain referrer information from clicks in organic search results.

In a nutshell, when you click on a search result, certain attributes are tied to that link, which include things like your search term, browser, device and so on. This is how analytics systems gather data on visitors for you. However, due to privacy concerns by users on their data being passed on for marketing purposes, Google stopped passing on your search term if you were logged into Google at the time of your search, or if you're using certain browsers or devices.

To the average searcher, this seems like a fine deal. Yet for marketers, it means we now get to see an ever-growing chunk of our visitors coming to the site because they searched for (not provided). Few people realize that prior to these changes Google did offer a secure search option for users that wanted to search anonymously. Fewer people still realize that if they click on a sponsored listing, on the other hand, no referrer information is omitted.

Personally, I believe that finding ways to verify authors and websites and giving more authority to those that not only completed the verification, but have established trust, is a welcomed idea. I'm also 100% behind any measures to do away with spammers. However, while I realize that tying your name to a review is meant to deter people from spewing hateful venom at will (again, YouTube), it also deters others who have valuable opposing viewpoints from contributing. I also believe that forcing anonymity in the name of "protecting privacy" is a cop out.

I see absolutely no reason why legitimate bloggers, authors and websites should hesitate in verifying their sites and articles, but the trolls and the haters might want to find a new game. Otherwise, as Mr. Schmidt eluded to above, you'll be kicking and screaming with no one around to hear you.

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