I woke up one fine June morning to discover that my familiar photo had disappeared from the search results for dozens of articles that I’d worked so hard at writing. After three years of optimizing my authorship, discussing the topic, and connecting my profile to my personal site, it seemed as if it had all vanished.
Google Authorship has changed. For the past few weeks, we’ve analyzed the issue from every angle, explored every theory, and bemoaned the loss of our photos.
Does this signal the end of Google Authorship? Does the removal of photos mean the entire upending of Authorship? Basically, we need to know: What’s the future of Google Authorship?
The Facts – What We Know About Google Authorship
On June 25, John Mueller made this announcement on Google+:
We’ve been doing lots of work to clean up the visual design of our search results, in particular creating a better mobile experience and a more consistent design across devices. As a part of this, we’re simplifying the way authorship is shown in mobile and desktop search results, removing the profile photo and circle count. Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.
What was he saying? Two things:
- Google is removing the authorship picture from search results.
- Google is removing the authorship circle count from search results.
By June 29, according to the MozCast Feature Graph, the deed was done. Away with photos!
The Conjecture – What We Don’t Know
Conspiratorial conversation continued apace in the wake of the change.
The big question on everyone’s minds and in their tweets was this: Why?! Why did Google remove authorship photos?
The conjecture cycled around three main theories.
1. Removing Authorship Photos Enhances Google’s Ad Revenue
What was Mueller saying about click-through behavior? He explained that CTRs on entries with no pictures are “similar” to the CTR on entries that have pictures.
This contradicted other non-Google tests. We’ve discovered, for example, that search results with author photos increased CTR. Was Mueller misleading us? Maybe, but we do have to give him some semantic leeway. Note that he obliquely referred to “click-through behavior,” not click-through rate. Still, it leaves questions. For starters, what the heck does “click-through behavior” mean?
More importantly, though, why are the profile pics gone?
Obviously, there is some reason why Google removed authorship photos. Here is possible reason number one: Removing authorship photos increased the CTR on paid ads.
With authorship photos gone, users were more likely to click on the ads at the top of the page, not the search results with colorful little pictures of faces. With higher CTRs on the ads, Google increases their own ad revenue. Ad revenue, as we all know, is the search giant’s biggest revenue stream.
Hail to the almighty ad dollar?
Fishkin succinctly explained “[The authorship photo] distracted from ads, and cost advertisers clicks.”
IMO, most compelling explanation for Google removing profile pics from search is that it distracted from ads, and cost advertisers clicks
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) June 25, 2014
In other words, it was about revenue.
Larry Kim of Wordstream performed his own test on the issue. He called it a “smoking gun,” and asserted that “Deleted Google author photos boost ad CTR.” His before/after analysis of a single ad confirmed this hypothesis. CTRs on paid ads after the removal of photos boosted CTR on paid ads by 44%.
Fishkin’s later observations on Kim’s analysis took a more nuanced approach to the issue: “Larger sample sets are critical to understand whether authorship pics removal positively affected AdWords CTR. I wouldn’t categorize us as having a ‘smoking gun’ at this point.”
Sam McRoberts of VUDU Marketing agreed with the revenue argument, stating in an interview with Jayson DeMers:
Google removed authorship photos because they increased organic CTRs and decreased AdWords CTRs. There’s clearly a disconnect between the organic search team and the AdWords team. The human eye is drawn to images, and paid ads don’t have images; clearly, authorship photos were cannibalizing paid ad clicks.
DeMers’s Forbes piece ends with a question, “Does this sudden and unexpected change signify the acceleration of a trend by Google to sacrifice organic search visibility in favor of paid ads?”
We can’t help but wonder.
But there are other theories.
2. Removing Authorship Photos Enhances Mobile Design
Cyrus Shepard takes a slightly less conspiratorial approach to the issue. He wrote:
This makes sense in the way Google has embraced mobile-first design. Those photos take up a lot of real estate on small screens.
The world is hurtling headlong towards mobile domination, so a mobile-friendly SERP would seem like a fair analysis. But this doesn’t entirely explain the issue, since Google’s SERPs differ across device size anyway.
Shepard settles on a let’s-wait-and-see approach that muses about the future of authorship.
3. Removing Authorship Photos Enhances Google’s Overall Quality of Search Results
I believe that after much testing and evaluation Google may have decided that author photos for now send a disproportionate signal to searchers. That is, the photos may have been indicating an implied endorsement of result quality that Google is not yet prepared to back up.
This takes a qualitative approach to the issue. Traphagen’s argument states that Google is focusing on SERP quality. Photos beside selective SERP entries are a trust signal. Thus, rewarding some search results with trust signals based on authorship connection alone creates an imbalance of trust in the SERPs.
Those are the three main theories. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Maybe everyone. Maybe no one. Maybe we don’t know.
The Prediction – What I Think Will Happen
Google does a lot of little things before they do big things. That’s what the Mozcast has always indicated. That’s what the history of algorithm changes indicates.
Recently, they’ve done a bunch of little things — things that seem self-contradictory and inconsistent. My conjecture is that these have been tests to prepare for something bigger. I’m not kind of guy who makes dire predictions about the SEO sky falling, so hear me out.
One of the seismic shifts in recent search developments is the rise of the individual publisher. In an age of content marketing, the personal reputation of the curator of content is enormously important. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the ascendancy of authorship on a content-driven web. Shortly after the rollout of Google+, Cyrus Shepard declared with the creation of Google+, the world now had “an SEO juggernaut to dominate search results above all other social platforms.”
Google+ appeared at the nexus of social media, content marketing, and SEO. It basically answered the question, “How can I better build my personal brand?”
But what we haven’t seen is an accurate, systematized, or consistent way of codifying the algorithmic principles that allow individual authors to rise in the search ranks. We have bajillion SEO tools to analyze backlink profiles, count meta title characters, and parse domain authority. But we have hardly any tools that allow us to divine personal authorship stature? Google Webmaster Tools even dropped Author Stats after the authorship photo kerfuffle.
There is a noticeable void in the search world. There’s no such thing as an “Authorship Authority” (c.f. “Domain Authority”). Should there be?
We thought Google Authorship was the defining moment in the rise of the individual publisher. And maybe it is. But maybe Google’s back-and-forth on the authorship issue was just a series of tests to roll out something altogether bigger.
The folks who wrote fine pieces on the authorship issue wondered about the future:
Barry Schwartz – “There are signs it may be used in rankings in the future and is currently used for in-depth articles.”
Chris Smith – “Stay tuned for the next changes that might be in store as a trickle-down effect from this development.”
Mark Traphagen – “This may actually be merely a temporary retrenchment as Google knuckles down to the hard work of figuring out how to make author authority something truly worthwhile in search.”
Cyrus Shepard – “If Google begins to incorporate more ‘Author Rank’ signals into its search algorithm, establishing yourself as a trusted authority now could pay off big down the road. Disappearing author photos today may someday be replaced by actual higher rankings for credible authors.”
I, too, have a hunch that Authorship is going to come back bigger and stronger than before. Maybe there will be pictures. Maybe not. But that’s not the real issue.
The real issue is that authorship is still a thing. Google knows it. Come on, they’ve been testing it for three years! Now, with an Everest of data and ideas galore, the minions of the Googleplex are sitting in front of their triple spread 27” screens wizarding up some new and glorious Authorship enhancements — under the watchful eye of Mueller and Cutts (when he gets back).
In spite of our jeremiads — tears unleashed over the loss of photo pixels — we need not worry. Authorship is a thing. And we’re not seeing its disappearance. We’re simply watching its refinement and growth.
Are there any takeaways to all this prognostication? Yes. Three to be precise:
- Keep on publishing content and growing your personal brand. It’s still worth it. Authorship is still around.
- Keep your ear to the ground. Change begets change. This story isn’t over.
- Look for (or make) something that helps us all understand better our individual brand authority and influence.
What do you think is the future of Google Authorship?
Featured Image: Peerayot via Shutterstock
All screenshots taken October 2014