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Is Google+ Authorship Still Worth it?

Author photos have vanished from search engine results. Is this the end of author rank? Is authorship even still worth it? Joel Klettke investigates.

google authorship

Well, Google kicked another hornets’ nest.

On June 25th, Google’s John Mueller announced Google’s intention to remove every last author photo and circle count from search results, replacing them with a teeny-tiny gray line that cites the author’s name. In his words, this was a move intended to ”Clean up the visual design of our search results, in particular, creating a better mobile experience and more consistent design across devices.”

He also made the claim (whether true or not) that the new format saw the same click-through rates as the old one when tested—something that at face value seems suspect. In fact, multiple studies confirmed that results with photos drew far more attention (and clicks, too).

screenshot-twitter.com 2014-07-07 11-40-49

Cue the pandemonium!

Predictably, the online marketing world (and active authors) greeted this news with the regular responses that come any time Google makes a notable change:

  • Anger: “How could they do this to me!? Why do you hate me Google? Why?!”
  • Confusion: “What does this mean? Why would they do such a thing? Is it really for every author?”
  • Sadness: “Noooooo, my beautiful headshot!”
  • Distrust: “How surprising, another evil move from Google. Probably only had the author photos to trick people into signing up. I’m deleting my profile!”
  • Doomsday predictions: “They’re closing down the platform! Surely this spells the end of Google+!”

Now to be honest, I was surprised at the move. Like many, my knee-jerk reaction was to be upset and start scratching my head: removing the most visible, tangible benefit of Google+ Authorship certainly isn’t a move that will help inspire more people to start tagging their content and verifying their authorship.

It’s demoralizing. But like you, I want to understand what this all means.

So, let’s Get some answers:

  • What’s the real reason Google did this?
  • What does this mean for author rank?
  • Is marking up your authorship still worth it?
  • And does this signal the end of the road for Google+?

Why Did Google (Really) Do This?

WordStream’s Larry Kim makes the case for the idea that an increased click-through rate and attention level (measured by eye-tracking) on results with author photos means somewhere else on the page is getting ignored—namely, advertisements.

Aha! Another greedy move by Google, right? Not so fast, tinfoil hatters! As was pointed out in the same piece by Bill Slawski, an avid reader of Google’s patents and tests:

slawski

You can read more about that here and here (thanks, Bill!).

And then there’s John Mueller’s claim that click-throughs remain the same. Is that true? For some more help, let’s turn to Google+ and content marketing megamind Mark Trapagen’s piece on Search Engine Land.

We don’t know if Mueller was referring to:

  • Aggregate data for all authorship results across all queries (Google used a TON of information).
  • Mueller isn’t just talking about authorship photo results, but ALL results (overall CTR).
  • He’s referencing mobile and desktop numbers combined.
  • CTR studies constantly cited as providing the +30 to 150 percent click-through rate bump aren’t testing authorship snippets exclusively, but ALL rich snippets (star ratings, recipes, video, etc.), so we may not know how much authorship snippets really impacts CTR at all.

In any case, if we take Google at their word, than what this move really seems like is a step toward Google’s new “mobile first” strategy (Mueller repeatedly references multiple platforms and mobile devices).

As I noted months ago, mobile is on pace to overtake desktop search, something mirrored in the conversations Matt Cutts is having (he’s gone so far as to say not being mobile friendly will hurt your rankings).

It’s logical that this was a UX/UI move designed to serve up better results.

Photos take up a ton of real estate on the screens of mobile devices, which lends credence to the idea that the previous disappearances of author photos from search were actually large-scale tests on Google’s end.

So while you’re bound to take it personally, Google had to have deemed that removing the photos was better for users in order to justify the change.

Is this the nail in the coffin for authorship Or G+ as a whole?

No.

That’s sort of like assuming that a Ferrari is headed to the scrapyard because it was scratched. Google+ is much more than an authorship platform and it’s not a social network.

Google hopes to make Google+ an integrated identity engine—just another part of Google designed to connect its multiple platforms (YouTube, Gmail, etc.) and suck out as much information about their users as they possibly can in order to improve their advertising channels and get you to pay for more services.

(If you want an in-depth look at what might happen if Google DOES kill Google+, this post is excellent).

Further, even though we know Google doesn’t always use their patents, they’ve filed multiple patents surrounding agent rank/author rank, a move that at least shows they’re keenly interested.

is authorship still worth paying attention to?

If the clickable name that now appears in search results and the fact that author photos still appear in personalized search wasn’t enough of an indication that markup is still at work, the words of Matt Cutts and other Googlers help paint the picture that authorship is still something Google is very much at work on:

“We are doing a better job of detecting when someone is sort of an authority in a specific space. It could be medical, it could be travel, whatever. And trying to makes sure that those rank a little more highly, if you are some sort of authority or a site that, according to the algorithms ,we think might be a little bit more appropriate for users.”

– Matt Cutts, July 2013

And this interview seems to confirm that all over again:

“If we can get more identity baked into the web and know who wrote what, as far as content, then there would be fewer dark places around the web for the spammers to hide.”

Yes, authorship is still worth your time. It still ties you to your content, gives you an advanced snippet (just not a photo) and helps Google understand who you are and where you’re an authority.It’s also useful when working with tools like ClearVoice to get a sense of your personal authority.

The loss of author photos stings, but Google+ and authorship aren’t going anywhere. Still, this does highlight something worth taking notice of, so let us once again turn to the wisdom of AJ Kohn:

Google can’t rely on authorship Adoption—and doesn’t plan to.

The idea that the world’s largest search engine was counting on everyone who publishes anything to start marking up their content is sort of laughable when you think about it. As AJ writes,

“Google is unable to use authorship as a ranking signal if important authors aren’t participating.”

Even when author photos were an added incentive, a study around this time last year found that:

  • Less than 3.5 percent of the Fortune 100 used it,
  • Only 20 percent of U.S. news publications had marked their content up,
  • Even among the tech savvy, only 52 percent of the top 50 tech blogs had hopped on board, and…
  • Hilariously, only 7 percent of Google’s own blogs used Google+.

Instead of counting on the world to start abiding by their markup, Google HAS to be working on inferred authorship—the ability to tell who wrote what without a cute little code snippet. The very future of the web may depend on it.

An author is just an entity—a person—and Google+ is an entity platform. 

What Google needs to develop—and the reason they’re far from using author rank as a ranking signal—is a system for accurately extracting author entities from pieces and funneling that data into useful information they can make judgement calls with.

The current format of authorship is a convenient short cut, not the ultimate solution. There will come a day where no markup will be required to determine authorship.

It’s not here yet, but it’s coming. Until then, keep doing real author shit stuff and put your focus where it matters: On creating great content the kind of content that builds a brand, wows an audience and sets you apart from the spam-happy masses.

  • http://www.arpogo.com/ Mark Warner

    They use authorship for ranking of in-depth articles and their Agent Rank patent indicates they plan to use it much more in the future. Is it worth it? Depends on how much it costs you to implement into your CMS if you want to be raw about it.

    • Joel K

      Hey Mark – do you have a definitive source on that in-depth article claim? Myself, I’ve yet to see anyone but major corps occupy that space – and Muelller/Cutts often seem to contradict each other on that claim. Also – I do cite the Agent Rank patent, but it’s always important to remember that Google won’t always execute on patents (though I agree and mention in the piece that is a pretty compelling indication of intent – as also expressed in the quotes and videos shared).

      • http://www.mediawyse.com/ Casey Markee, MBA

        Apparently my comment is not posting…I smell a conspiracy. Joel, Cutts announced both on stage and via tweet during SMX West that a form of agent rank was being used for in-depth articles. I’d call that a “definitive source.”

        Further, I’ve seen nothing from Mueller to contradict that statement. So let’s flip this around: if you have a recent source saying otherwise, I’d love to see it. :)

        Other than that, great article and this is certainly NOT the end of Authorship by any measure.

        • Joel K

          Casey – was just genuinely curious, not antagonistic. I was wondering where the info came from, thought it’d be good to know; Cutts/Mueller seem not to agree on a more general application of author rank and whether or not it’s being used in SERPs (I’ve shown that in my other piece on authorship on this blog), but I wasn’t aware of the in-depth articles stuff.

          In any case, I’d imagine an “author rank” of sorts for that stuff is probably leaning more towards inferred authorship than the code markup itself. I know they worked with the Times on that, but as AJ says, there’s just too many big players not playing. Has to be more to it than the code snippet, I’d think.

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  • Joel K

    Hey! It’d seem like both one or two l’s is acceptable (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/funneling) :)

    I’m not one to argue with patents (nor am I one to start swinging a technological club, since that’s not how my brain works) – I’ll have to dig into that piece; but what I wasn’t trying to say was that they have NOTHING like this or have made no progress, just that specific to people as authors, it doesn’t seem to be up and running in the wild. Fully aware they can extract information from terms, but to the extent that they’re able to assign that back to an individual author and use it as a “Score” of sorts? I genuinely don’t know. Always learning.

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  • Joe Griffin

    Great discussion here. Joel made a good statement – and to add similar color, an “author” is just a connection to an identity service/platform like G+ or Twitter. Twitter is actually the most used authorship platform right now via Twitter meta data and Twitter handles (authors). G+ comes in a second. These are really the only two meaningful “digital signatures” around. Rel=author by itself only implies a name, which is far from a digital signature.

    There has to be huge changes coming down the pipe here.

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  • http://www.elitegroupmarketing.co.uk/ Gary Victory

    Nice Joel. However, I do feel some value has been lost here for those “trusted authors”, even if it has improved UX. After reading your post, I took to Moz to see how the community felt about the change. To be honest the general consensus is most are hacked off with Google and require a little transparency in the future.

    • Joel K

      Gary – no doubt there’sbeen a loss of benefit. Absolutely there has! It sucks because it was so tangible. But at the same time, is it worth it to continue in the face off that loss? I’d say so.

      Cheers!

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