4 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Remove An Ex-Employee’s Rel=”author” Tag

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typewriter_keysMany content marketers are taking advantage of the benefits associated with setting up Google Authorship through the rel=”author” tag.

The adoption of content authorship has given rise to an interesting dilemma that many employers will eventually face: what happens when a content author leaves the company? The implications of this question are far-reaching when you consider the nature of the relationships between publishers, authors and readers.

Here are four reasons why you shouldn’t remove an ex-employee’s rel=”author” tag:

1. You Risk Losing Content Equity And Authority

Maintaining rel=”author” and Google Authorship can benefit both the former employer and employee for months and years after their working relationship ends.

Compare these two possible scenarios:

Ideal Scenario: An employee who has written numerous blog posts leaves the company. Their on-page author bio is updated to say that they are a former employee, and their Google Authorship / rel=”author” remains.

This scenario is ideal for several reasons:

  • The former employee can still reference their content
  • The former employer can still generate traffic from the content
  • Keeping Google Authorship / rel=”author” ensures that author rich snippets persist, which can increase click-through rates.
  • No AuthorRank is lost, thereby potentially increasing its search rankings

Problematic Scenario: An employee who has written numerous blog posts leaves the company. Their on-page author bio is replaced by either another current employee or a “ghost author.” Google Authorship / rel=author” is either redirected to the new author or discarded altogether. In extreme cases, the blog posts are simply deleted.

This scenario is problematic for several reasons:

  • The former employee may become disgruntled that their content is now being attributed to another. This could cause a PR/social media headache for the former employer.
  • The former employer can no longer piggy-back on the success/personal brand authority of the former employee. In other words, if the former employee continues to gain a reputation as a thought-leader, the former employer would lose out on having that former employee’s content on their site.
  • In cases where rel=”author” is totally discarded, author rich snippets are also lost, thereby potentially reducing click-through rates from the SERPs.
  • In cases where blog posts are totally discarded, the former employer would lose a considerable amount of indexable content.
  • It will be impossible to build the AuthorRank of a “ghost author.”

Mike Arnesen touches on the SEO implications in this Quora thread: “It really goes against the whole idea of what Google’s trying to promote: great content, written by real people. Just slapping someone’s face on corporate content isn’t doing users any favors, it’s just tricking Google into giving you more SERP real estate.” And we all know that attempting to trick Google isn’t a great recipe for success.

2. It May Be Unethical

Unless a legal document states otherwise, content is owned by its author and not owned by the employer. For a former employer to transfer content authorship credit to anyone else is unethical at best, even if the former employee left on bad terms. Online content and their authors are simply too visible and accessible to attempt any sort of subterfuge.

Aside from the how it effects the former employee, there are other ethical implications with regards to the consumers of the content. If your company is touting expert, educational “how-to” content, it’s certainly unethical to deceive your readers by not being forthcoming about who the author really is.

AJ Kohn hits it square on the nose: “The fact that an author leaves doesn’t mean that they didn’t reate that content. Authorship is, in large part, about establishing ownership for that content. I want to be certain I know who actually wrote that piece.” I’m sure most readers would agree.

3. No One Will Want To Work For You

Consider your recruiting efforts. Even if your company is dedicated to content marketing, no one will want to come work for you if you’ve gained a reputation for removing rel=”author” tags and attributing authorship where it doesn’t belong. The best talent, particularly in the marketing
industry, publishes prolifically and will ask about this.

Furthermore, your current employees will have little reason to contribute to the corporate blog if they know that the content eventually won’t be attributed to them.

4. There Is No Benefit To Removing rel=”author”

There’s really no benefit to taking the time to remove a rel=”author” tag on every blog post that a former employee has written. Typically, a former employer would do this for two reasons:

  1. They hold a grudge
  2. They’re afraid the former employee will “take their AuthorRank with them”

Making emotional decisions based on fear probably isn’t a great way to run a business. If you’re concerned that a former employee will “take their AuthorRank with them” it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to eliminate it altogether. It certainly won’t benefit you at all if it doesn’t exist.

Jeremy Rivera brings up one possible scenario where it would make sense to sever the rel=”author” connection with a former employee: “Writer for your company gets fired. Shortly thereafter it’s discovered that (they are) running a dog fighting, pedophile, racist organization. How can the corporate identity and brand disassociate itself from that author?” While it may be difficult for a brand to totally disassociate itself, removing rel=”author” would certainly be appropriate.

All in all, the benefits of rel=”author” and Google Authorship far outweigh any possible drawbacks, even in cases when an employee leaves on bad terms. Where do you stand on this debate?

Steven Shattuck

Steven Shattuck

VP of Marketing at Bloomerang
Steven Shattuck is VP of Marketing at Bloomerang, which helps nonprofit organizations to reach, engage and retain the advocates they depend on to achieve their... Read Full Bio
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  • Guillermo Ortiz

    What a slippery slope. I can only imagine more of these types of situations arising as internet marketing becomes more and more complex and tied to real identities. Great post – something I definitely hadn’t thought of.

    • Sahil

      Absolutely it was an unique topic of discussion. Removing the already existing Google authorship markup doesn’t make any sense. The author rank or the credibility got by the content and the authority passed to the site because of the author and his content will be lost if the authorship is removed. Removing authorship has many SEO drawbacks, the ranking of the content might drop down for the keywords for which it was already ranking.

  • Jeremy Rivera

    It made me smile that my super extreme example was really the only hold out concern 🙂 Seriously though, companies need to PLAN ahead of time and have a true understanding of markup and authorship and it’s implications so they’re not making these decisions on the fly and in the dark as to implications.

    • Max Minzer

      Exactly, Jeremy!
      Either do some education or simply abstain from using it in the first place. Bandwagon effect…
      Should I add that AuthorRank is not “live” yet?

  • Demian Farnworth

    If it’s really that important to even bother with, best thing to do as an employer is to ad a Johnson box at the top of each article explaining what former employee did and why you are keeping the content up. You shut the rumor mill down by doing that, while keeping all the benefits of the content. This is what the New Yorker did with Jonah Lehrer.

    This problem is also true for anyone who invites guest writers to their web properties.

  • Kunal

    Great to see SEJ write a post on this topic. SEJ had a post in Oct 12 on AuthorRank. I had asked a couple of questions to which James had answered. The latest post is awesome in exploring all the aspects. Thanks.

  • G

    Hi Steven

    You say: “Unless a legal document states otherwise, content is owned by its author and not owned by the employer.”

    I’m not sure whether that’s the case in the US but here in the UK if an employee writes web content, in work time on a work computer that content is owned by the company not the employee.

    G+ Author is going to be a minefield for employers and employees and I suspect GOOG hasn’t considered the bigger legal questions of ownership of non-professional writers working within companies.

    • Steven

      I think it’s definitely a grey area. Better for companies to clearly define that in the hiring process than wait for it to become an issue when an employee is terminated or resigns.

    • Rose

      Yes… I am in the US and write for a company professionally, and while no contact specifies it, I think we would both be surprised to find that I have any right to content I created for them. Perhaps state law comes into play vs copyright? Would be interested to know more.

      • Rick Colosimo

        State law rarely affects the work-for-hire/copyright scheme, except tangentially, such as California’s law that says if you have a work-for-hire contract with an individual, that person is deemed to be an employee rather than an independent contractor. That’s about taxes, not about copyrights.

        Authorship is not ownership. The author of a piece is something that cannot change; it is a fact. The owner of it is something that can change. There’s no problem “created” by Google when, as the article discusses, owners decide to conceal authorship. Changing the rel=”author” link is not appreciably different from changing the byline.

      • Steven

        I believe there’s a difference between writing for a company and contributing to a corporate blog.

    • Alesia Krush

      Here is an abstract from from U.S. Copyright Law (http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap2.pdf)

      “In the case of a work made for hire, the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared, is considered the author for purposes of this title, and, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them, owns all the rights comprised in the copyright.”

      • Steven

        What I’m suggesting isn’t that a contribution to a corporate blog is not “work prepared for an employer.”

      • Steven

        *is that

      • Kari Rippetoe

        @Steven What exactly does “work prepared for an employer” mean, then; and if you’re writing for your employer’s corporate blog, how is that not work prepared for said employer?

        Bigger picture, though and aside from the legal mumbo jumbo of content ownership, you’re right in saying that it’s just not going to look good or play out well for the former employer to get rid of the author tags of a former employee. Legal or not, it’s just crappy to hold that sort of grudge.

      • Steven Shattuck

        Hey Kari, I was attempting to draw a distinction between, for example, me writing copy for a piece of printed sales collateral (which is unattributed, i.e. “work prepared for an employer”) and me contributing to the corporate blog (attributed). In today’s modern world, I view them separately.

      • Kari Rippetoe

        Yes, I think that’s a good distinction to make, but what if your job required you to contribute to the corporate blog? It’s not as if you would continue to contribute to it after you leave. I’m not disagreeing that blog posts and articles should continue to be attributed to their author even after they’ve left, but I’m playing devil’s advocate because it seems like there could be some shaky legal ground when it comes to who owns the content.

  • Todd Mumford

    Hi Steven,

    This is a great debate / topic choice, because it’s real world. This happens, and the prevalence will increase as the draw for authorship continues. for businesses.

    Writing in, or on behalf of any company is serious business, and should be treated as carefully and cautiously as giving an employee the key to your home.

    Owners and management roles should also be contributing content and becoming actively involved:


    This creates more stability in some of the process, and dampens the effect of the loss of some key Author Rank if and when employees who were very active in publishing leave.

  • Rob Schneider

    The author is still the author no matter what a sleazebag they might turn out to be. If you want to disassociate yourself from them, remove their work from your site, not just their author tag.

  • Brian Calsyn

    The guy with the gold usually makes the rules (or thinks that he does) and I can see management directed change of authorship through G+ happening a great deal. Steven, your post is beneficial in lobbying for use of proper character guidelines for decision makers going forward, but I’m not optimistic. I think the legal issue goes the opposite way and in the context you described posts made under the company name, at company properties or while doing company work, remain a company asset.

    Salespeople know they won’t be paid on sales/commissions after they leave. Those warm accounts are gravy for the new guy or a perk to management. Similarly, if a new writer can have his byline on 158 posts/articles in a matter of minutes, more than a few will do it. Crappy companies and crappy people do crappy things. I can see both the new writer and the company being motivated to do this because those articles are a company asset and the “new guy” being listed as the author raises his future weight, credibility, footprint, stature in their industry and through Google.

    • Kari Rippetoe

      I think there’s two things not right about that argument: 1) By replacing a ranking, credible author with a different author without any weight in Google, that’s going to slap that content down in rankings (as Steven explained in his post). Why risk trying to trick Google? 2) Why do you want to build a new employee’s credibility falsely off the back of a former employee’s content? That could not only come back in the future and bite that employee in the butt, but the company as well. There are major long-term implications to that. You’re not raising that new person’s weight or credibility, you’re setting them up for a big fall in the future if the whole scheme is found out.

    • Steven Shattuck

      I don’t share your cynicism that even the crappy companies would attempt that kind of subterfuge. Google won’t be fooled. The community won’t be fooled. If the former employee ever caught wind (which they would) it could create a major PR issue.

  • Darko

    This is not the case with the company I was previously working with. As soon as I quit from there, they deleted my profile and now under my articles there is just blank “About”. It’s really sad for me, I have a feeling that my articles are stolen!

    • Max Minzer

      I wouldn’t hesitate to ask them to remove that content. It was stolen pretty much. Don’t know legal side of this though – I’d consult with a media law attorney.

  • Ian G

    The time it take to go through all the possible author tags, email guest blogging websites and re-do is time that could be spent researching and writing newer, more interesting content. I would just let the author have their articles and focus on moving forward with new content.

  • Christa Bartolo

    I am working towards becoming the author for the company I currently work for. While I do not plan on leaving any time soon, I do need to keep this in mind.

    I have been playing around with several ideas and was hoping to get some feedback. Option one is to use a publisher tag instead of an author tag. What would be the benefits or drawbacks on this?

    Option two is to create a pseudonym, an ’employee’ that will never leave the company. This seems to be the most popular option around the office, but not for me.

    Basically, I understand that the company would want author rankings permanently linked to them, but surely that ranking will never go away? It would be more beneficial for me going forward to publish under my own name, get my own ranking up there and be able to move on with some form of credibility behind my name?

    Unless I am completely mistaken, authorship ranking is determined by how active you are, quality content and so forth. Surely the company would still benefit from my writing even after I leave? I would still be writing and therefore the tag is still relevant?

    Just my thoughts. Any feedback would be appreciated.

    • Steven Shattuck

      Christa, allow me to emphatically express my profound discouragement of creating a pseudonym or ghost author. Aside from it being generally unscrupulous, it will be impossible to build the authority of a fake profile or author before and after AuthorRank becomes a reality.

      As I said in the post, both former employees and employers can benefit from content long after the working relationship ends.