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The Failed Authorship Experiment: What Went Wrong and What Now?

Google has pulled the plug on Authorship. What impact will that have, if any, on content marketing? Joel Klettke is on the case.

Google “Rel=Author” has left the building.

It’s all over but the cryin’.

In a Google+ announcement released on August 28th, Google’s John Mueller unequivocally rang “rel=author’s” death knell, stating in no uncertain terms that not only would authorship snippets not be showing in any capacity in search results, but that Google was removing all processing and support for the “rel=author” tag, including as part of their entity extraction process.

The data won’t be used, period—but thanks for coming out. Mic drop. Mueller out.

authorship mic drop

Mic drop courtesy Key & Peele on Comedy Central

Some saw it coming. Whether it was the heads of the team being shuttered months ago, the reduction of authorship snippets in December of 2013 or the removal of photos from search results in June, it was becoming clear that something was rotten in authorship land.

Great Idea, Poor Execution

Perhaps what makes the demise of “rel=author” so upsetting for some people is that the concept of using author signals to rank and sort content was almost unanimously agreed as being a really good one.

Attributing real-world credibility to an online author and rewarding those who are legitimate authorities in their space with better visibility seemed like it would be a smart move – and not just for publishers, but users, too. But it didn’t play out that way.

(I need to take a moment to call attention to this post by Mark Traphagen and Eric Enge, without whom much of this information would not be available. Read it as soon as you’re through with this post.)

Why shut it down?

For such a great idea, the execution on Google’s part was, in retrospect, half-baked at best – and the expectations of the community more than a little idealistic.Mueller gives two main reasons for the decision to shut down the platform:

1. Value to searchers was low.

While a lot of marketers rattle their pitchforks and pull out their analytics stats, Mueller sticks by his claim that throughout three years of testing, Google saw little difference in click behavior on results with authorship snippets – and what they did see, they didn’t like:

“Unfortunately, we’ve also observed that this information isn’t as useful to our users as we’d hoped, and can even distract from those results.”

- John Mueller

How Mueller is defining “value” remains a mystery but it’s safe to speculate it had to do with how those snippets influenced clicks and perceived quality of the results. From a distraction standpoint, it was speculated in the past that photos were removed on account of the limited real estate available on the growing number of mobile devices using Google.

Beyond that, we have to keep in mind that Google’s resources are finite; even as a multi-billion dollar juggernaut, processing power, manpower and internal resources can only be dedicated to initiatives that yield better SERPs (and ultimately, more revenue for Google). Even if the impact of authorship was a net positive it may not have been big enough to warrant those resources.

2. Adoption was horrible.

Eric Enge and Mark Traphagen shed some light on the woeful adoption of the “rel=author” tag in their latest post.

They sampled 500 authors across 150 different platforms and found that:

  • 50 of publishers had no author page whatsoever
  • 241 of the authors had no profile at all
  • 108 of the authors had a profile, but no link to the publishing site
  • 151 of the authors had a profile with one or more links to the publishing site

A staggering 70 percent of authors weren’t even trying to implement authorship

Enge and Traphagen went on to analyze 20 of the sites that DID have author pages and found:

  • 13 of the 20 sites attempted to implement authorship markup
  • 10 of the 13 attempts had errors
  • Despite this, 12 of the 13 attempts received rich snippets in Google SERPs

Those findings mirror past studies that found:

  • Less than 3.5 percent of the Fortune 100 used rel-author,
  • 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+.

Authorship’s miserable adoption rate can be chalked up to both unawareness and difficulty of implementation. Google did very little to promote the markup to the public, relying instead on the community to carry the torch. Even those who knew about it presumably lacked the means to implement, or simply couldn’t be bothered to.

The Future of Authorship

Given the fact that I, like so many people, bought into authorship hook, line and sinker, it would be stupid to make any kind of absolute claim.

If we’ve learned nothing else from this, it’s that Google’s experiments are just that—experiments. Everything can change, initiatives can be shut down and even good ideas can get shuttered when things don’t pan out.

But in my mind, there are a few things that we can safely speculate:

1. Google can’t count on users to make authorship work.

Part of why this attempt failed is because it relied so heavily on people doing what Google wanted, with very little in the way of absolute incentive and several obstacles to implementation.

Not only that, be a democratized process opens the floodgates to spam and gaming. Google needs to find a way to use authorship that cannot be so easily manipulated and doesn’t require so much of authors and publishers.

2. The future is automatic.

Even before this whole thing was shut down, Google was making efforts to automatically detect and attribute authorship without mark up. It did so very badly, but time heals all wounds.

Will we see mark up like this again? I’d say it’s unlikely. But the thought that Google could detect and attribute behind the scenes in a way that’s less obvious is not off the table—they’ve just got to figure it out.

3. Rel=Publisher is unaffected—for now.

For what it’s worth, Mueller did say that rel=publisher is not affected by any of these changes. It’s authorship’s relatively simpler cousin and for whatever reason, it’s still valuable to Google for now (and thus, to searchers). Implementation is still cumbersome, awareness is low and the actual impact on SERPs is questionable—but it’s there.

4. Authorship might be more valuable on a personal level.

This could change at any given moment, but for now, author photos continue to appear for Google+ content from people you’re connected to on Google+ or in Gmail when you’re logged in. This might be Google’s subtle hint that authorship only made a splash when you already held a connection. Or, they might just be continuing to test, experiment and catch up.

More than any of those things, and like I highlighted in “Keeping it Real With Rel=Author“…

slawski

Everything has changed and nothing is different.

Rel=author was just an attempt at channeling a real-world phenomenon: People trust authorities and tune into what they have to say. As readers and learners, we seek out the smartest, brightest, most influential people in a field when we need advice, entertainment or insight.

That means authoritative authors are still critical to the content economy and being a recognized authority in real life is still a huge win that translates into online success.

Will you win a neat little picture next to your search result? No.

Will it directly influence search results on an algorithmic level? Not for the time being.

But in the grand scheme of things, that’s utterly trivial.

Getting people to know you, like you and trust you as a content producer means having a wider audience, garnering higher link numbers and, ultimately, translating all of that into increased business. None of that has changed.

Keep building authority. Keep publishing your best work. Keep seeking out established authors people know and trust. It’s not about a mechanical calculation—it’s about a human connection.

Influence is still powerful, establishing yourself as an authority will FOREVER be valuable. And that’s a prediction I’ve got no problem standing behind.