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Authorship Badges Removed: Still Worth Setting Up

By Bill Slawski on Jul 07, 2014 22

We’ve been recommending to our clients that they create Google+ Profiles for themselves, and that they participate actively in the social network, along with other social channels that can help them expand their visibility across the Web. It’s something that we believe in doing for ourselves, and that we believe can help our clients tremendously.

google+profile

This includes linking to and verifying the sites that they publish content at. There have been some benefits to doing this, and may be more in the future. Regardless of Google removing author’s images from search results, there are still many good reasons for allocating time and effort to Google+.

Google Social Results Boosted Rankings and Display

When people connected to you through Google+ are logged into their Google Account, and they perform a search, Google will show them relevant search results that can include content that you’ve created or shared or endorsed. Those social annotations used to be accompanied by small profile pictures that would appear under the socially annotated search result.

Google removed these smaller photos after the publication of a white paper by Google’s Ed Chi, Social Annotations in Web Search (pdf) that showed that most searchers ignored those smaller photos.

Google Logged Out Search Results Display

When Google Authorship markup has been added to a site, Google has been showing for some sites, Author Profile pictures, an author byline, and a count of the number of circles the author is in at Google+. This is changing, but here’s what one of those search results looked like:

authorship picture old

Here’s what one of those results looks like now, after a recent change was announced:

authorship picture new

Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller announced during one of his weekly Google On Air “Office Hours” hangouts, on June 27th, that the way Google authorship pictures is displayed will soon be changed. The author profile photo and the number of circles that an author is a member of would no longer be displayed in search results in logged off searches.

The photos and the circle counts both appear to be gone now (see above for how those have changed) The justification from Google for change has two parts.

The first is that Google is redesigning to focus more upon for mobile users, and the author photos don’t help make the pages mobile- friendly. Google I/O 2014 announcements support the mobile-focused redesign statement

The second is that Google usability studies show that the author photos don’t seem to lead to many clicks, much like the smaller social annotation photos. There are a couple of other usability studies papers from Ed Chi that support that contention, and we will look at those.

There have been a couple of blog posts and articles that accuse Google of lying about click throughs, but the lack of clicks on those photos seems to have taken Google by surprise, too.

The more counterintuitive result from our first study was that subjects did not notice social annotations. From our second experiment, we were able to conclude that this unawareness was mainly due to specialized attention patterns that users exhibit while processing search pages.

Users deconstruct the search results: they pay attention to titles and URLs and then turn toward snippets and annotations for further evidence of a good result to click on Moreover, the reading of snippets and annotations appears to follow a traditional top-to-bottom reading order, and friend pictures that are too small simply blend into snippets and become part of them.

These focused attention behaviors seem to derive from the task-oriented mindset of users during search, and might be explained by the effect of inattention blindness. All of this make existing social annotations slip by, unnoticed.

Google Logged Out Search Results Rankings

In February of 2007, I wrote a blog post at Search Engine Land on Agent Rank – a way to score content created by that author that Google based upon reputation scores. It’s the first place where Agent Rank was mentioned on the Web other than in the patent, and people writing about it have taken to calling it “Author Rank”, even though Google doesn’t use that name. The editor of my post changed it to include the phrase ‘Author Rank”.

The idea behind Agent Rank is that Google might calculate reputation score for different agents (authors, publishers, editors, etc.) who work on a page, connecting to it using a digital signature (the long string of letter/numbers) in a Google Account URL. We haven’t see this kind of Agent Rank or Author Rank expressly in use yet, but we have seen a number of statements from Google’s Matt Cutts that they are still pursuing a ranking signal based upon an author’s expertise.

Attribution, Verification, and Plagiarism

Google’s patent on Authorship Badges allows for content created on an author’s page to be recorded so that if someone then scrapes and copies and republishes that content, the copying site won’t get credit for the content and possibly out-rank the original in search results.

The patent also tells us that authorship for the site will include a link that goes to the authors profile page, so that searchers can verify who the author is. The “By-line” that will show up for a site allows for his kind of verification.

In the article Identity And Impersonation In The Search Ecosystem, I described how Google might identify people trying to impersonate others as part of an Online Identity theft, and how having author markup can prevent the creation of such accounts.

In-Depth Articles

In addition to Authorship snippets, Google added a new snippet type referred to as “In-Depth articles” rich snippets. These require authorship markup set up for a profile, and also require some additional semantic Markup added to pages of a site, including article Schema and organization schema for a logo that might be associated with a site.

Here’s Google’s article explaining how pages need to be set up to appear in these types of snippets: https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/3280182

Ed Chi’s Papers on Social Annotations

Do people click on authorship markup results at a higher frequency than just plain text results?

When Google introduced rich snippets to search results, on the Official Google Blog, they mentioned the possibility and introduced us to an experiment to test it.

In Introducing Rich Snippets, they tell us:

When searching for a product or service, users can easily see reviews and ratings, and when searching for a person, they’ll get help distinguishing between people with the same name. It’s a simple change to the display of search results, yet our experiments have shown that users find the new data valuable — if they see useful and relevant information from the page, they are more likely to click through.

Now we’re beginning the process of opening up this successful experiment so that more websites can participate. As a webmaster, you can help by annotating your pages with structured data in a standard format.,

We’ve been told frequently by Google in the past that searchers like to see rating and review data, so having pages marked up as containing ratings and reviews shouldn’t surprise if they earn more clicks.

In the white paper All the News that’s Fit to Read: A Study of Social Annotations for News Reading describes social annotations about the authors of news articles, how those might differ from each other, and whether or not they influence some results getting more clicks than others. This authorship markup doesn’t seem to boost the amount of clicks for most types of results.

This paper does reinforce what John Mueller stated when he said that Google research doesn’t seem to show a lot of additional clicks when there’s a photo for an author showing up.

Conclusion

Even though author photos are disappearing from Google Search Results, there’s still a lot of benefit in setting up authorship markup, which includes:

  • Showing up in boosted logged in search results for people whom you are connected to in Google+
  • Having your author byline show up in logged out search results.
  • Having your content be properly attributed to you so that you aren’t outranked by scrapers.
  • Making it less likely that your identity is ripped off by people pretending to be you.

22 Comments

  1. Aaron Bradley

    July 07th, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    Thanks for this Bill. Well made points all, and in aggregate a compelling argument for why web publishers should continue to avail themselves of the benefits of Google authorship.

    A quick note, however, on in-depth articles. Of Google in-depth articles you say:

    “These require authorship markup set up for a profile, and also require some additional semantic Markup added to pages of a site….”

    Inclusion in in-depth article verticals does not “require” either verified Google authorship or semantic markup. Google says in their in-depth article guidelines (emphasis mine):

    While the feature is based on algorithmic signals, there are steps you can take as a webmaster to *help* Google find your high-quality, in-depth content and best present it to users in the search results page.

    That authorship and semantic markup is not a requirement for in-depth articles is born out by a survey of in-depth article results, where one will readily find articles that lack semantic markup, articles written by an author without a verified Google+ profile or both.

    Both of these things will, though, increase a publisher’s chances of having a page highlighted in in-depth articles, and I certainly recommend employing these techniques – they’re just not, strictly speaking, required by Google.

    Reply

    • Bill Slawski

      July 07th, 2014 at 6:23 pm

      Hi Aaron,

      Thank you, and thanks for providing more details regarding in-depth articles.

  2. Nick

    July 07th, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    Good post. It’s not that authorship markup is no longer worth doing, it’s just that Google took away the main ego-building reason for it.

    Hopefully, with author images (mostly) disappearing from search results, we can all get beyond merely having a picture show up “on Google” as a way to get more clicks rather than focusing on titles, descriptions, and actual content.

    Reply

    • Bill Slawski

      July 08th, 2014 at 5:02 pm

      Hi Nick

      Absolutely agree with you – we do need to think beyond the picture, and I know it’s something that most of us are capable of doing since authorship photos haven’t been around all that long. We can create titles, description, and content that does engage with our potential viewers. :)

    • Gordon Diffey

      July 23rd, 2014 at 6:51 am

      Hi Nick
      I think it less about the ego-building and more about having a post in search results that stood out. We certainly found that authorship posts did well and enhanced the clients’ standing in SERPs.

      The benefits of authorship go way beyond the ego or photo issue; in my mind it supports many other activities for modern SEO and engagement.

    • Bill Slawski

      July 23rd, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      Hi Gordon,

      When rich snippets were introduced by Google in 2009, the first blog post about them included a hope that they would lead to more clicks, but I’m not sure if we could have called it a promise. Google told us that they were inviting us to this “experiment” which honestly tells us that they were participants along with us. i think it might help to consider most of what we do part of an experiment, that we are a willing part of. :)

      Google+ itself does provide us with a chance to meet people who share many of the same interests that we do, and our photos seem to still be appearing in Google Private, when we still are logged in.

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  4. Jean-Christophe Lavocat

    July 10th, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Thanks for your insight on the topic Bill. It’s nice to see the name of Ed Chi the guy who is probably most active at Google for the matter of Author Rank algorithms and related research.

    Reply

    • Bill Slawski

      July 11th, 2014 at 7:10 am

      Thanks, Jean-Christophe,

      The research that Ed Chi has been doing is really interesting, such as his investigations into how people react to the smaller social profile images in search results. Those seemed to disappear from Google search results shortly after his paper on them was published. It bothered me to see people writing about this change stating that Google didn’t do any research on the impact that authorship photos might have, when I knew that they had.

      I hadn’t noticed when it was originally published that Ramanathan Guha (Developer of Google Custom search, and inventor of Google’s trust rank) was one of the authors listed on the Official Google Blog post introducing Rich Snippets. We can’t tell if he was involved in changes to SERPs for authorship either, but it’s possible.

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  8. Kyle Alm

    July 22nd, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    It really doesn’t matter which metric Google uses or creates, it will attract spam. Google really should stop whining about spam and just stop counting it.

    Google Authorship is the right idea, but if they can’t scale their spam filters or track quality signals it will be deprecated over time.

    Reply

  9. Tommy Landry

    July 22nd, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Well written, and I agree that it still makes a ton of sense to markup content for authors. There has been a great deal of speculation around this whole topic, on both sides of the argument about why the photos are removed. Thanks for providing the insights about the data John cited during his announcement, because I have been looking into it and you added some good perspective to my reviews so far.

    By the way, I love the comment from Nick about how the photos are ego bait (kudos on that one Nick). First time I’ve seen it referred to in that way, and it’s a darn good point.

    Reply

    • Bill Slawski

      July 23rd, 2014 at 3:21 pm

      Hi Tommy,

      Thanks. The ego bait point is a good one. I had been involved in some of those arguments, but they really weren’t on topics that mattered to our clients much, like the fact that author photos in search results might mean less clicks on ads. Our clients wanted the photos in search results, and didn’t really care about whether or not sponsored ads were being clicked less when the photos were being shown. It was to their benefit if people were choosing organic results, especially when they had a presence in those. But they still had questions, which is why I blogged about there being continued value regardless of the photos.

  10. Andy Crestodina

    July 22nd, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    Great perspective, Bill. But you missed one of my favorite (and continuing) benefits of Authorship: the Author Stats report in Webmaster Tools. Just log into GWT using your G+ account and you’ll see the SEO performance of all your posts tagged for Authorship.

    This report is also one of the best sources for info in changes to CTR before and after the removal of badges. I took a quick look at my report and it looks like clickthroughs are down about 10%. If this is true and some of those clicks went to ads, it would be worth many millions of dollars to Google…

    I wrote an article about Author Stats years ago. Search for the term and you’ll see the post near the top. Enjoy!

    Reply

    • Bill Slawski

      July 23rd, 2014 at 3:12 pm

      Hi Andy

      I’m going to have to check out your article and see what you wrote about Author Stats. Thanks! :)

  11. Mark Traphagen

    July 23rd, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    Bill, thanks for this calm bit of sane analysis in the midst of a lot of wild conspiracy theories. Exactly what we’ve come to expect from you.

    I’ll take issue with just one small point. While it is true that Google has stated that author badges could be used to prevent content scraping, I’ve seen no evidence that they are yet. Furthermore, in a Google Webmaster Central hangout last fall someone asked John Mueller about that directly. John stated emphatically that authorship markup provides no scraping ranking protection because Google is not using authorship as a ranking factor.

    This assertion was repeated by Google’s Pierre Farr at SMX East shortly thereafter.

    Reply

    • Bill Slawski

      July 23rd, 2014 at 3:03 pm

      Hi Mark,

      Thank you. It’s good to see you.

      I made that statement about attribution on the basis of the Google patent that describes how authorship badges work, and how Google might keep a database of the publication of content associated with authorship markup.

      See: http://www.seobythesea.com/2011/08/after-authorship-markup-will-google-give-us-author-badges-too/

      It wouldn’t require that authorship be used as a ranking factor, since duplicate content checking and review on the part of a search engine isn’t necessarily ranking, though it can have that impact when a page is filtered from results when you expect to see it there. I don’t know how either John or Pierre were asked since your comment above mentions “ranking” everytime it mentions authorship, and I don’t know if their denial involves whether or not authorship is presently being used in the ranking of content, or a much more simple guard against the scraping of content. I’ll have to try to hunt those statements down to get a better sense of what they were saying.

  12. Doc Sheldon

    July 23rd, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    Nice piece, Bill! I agree completely that the real benefit of authorship is not lost by their removal of headshots from the SERPs. I have to admit, the notion that those images might improve CTR seemed to make sense. But I’m willing to rely on Ed Chi’s findings.
    Personally, I find it frustrating that nearly everything Google does is met by accusations of their prime motivation being to increase ad sales. Seems like a lot of folks have a persecution complex. ;)

    Reply

    • Bill Slawski

      July 23rd, 2014 at 8:54 pm

      Hi Doc,

      Thank you. When we suggested to clients setting up a presence in Google+, we not only explained many of the reasons why, and suggested specific individual strategies for being successful there, but we also showed some of the things that they would see, which included authorship pictures in search results. That does seem like one of the things that stood out to clients, so we did get a number of questions on whether it was still worth having and setting up authorship markup after Google announced they would stop showing those.

      Ed Chi did write up a number of usability studies on author photos used in search results, including smaller versions of the images for annotations, and larger versions of the photos for news genre articles in both Eye tracking and click tracking studies. I like his papers, possibly because he’s really thorough. For example, when testing snippets in search results, the results of his studies include lots of different types of variables checked and tested.

      Shortly after the announcement about images being removed, I kept on running into the same person who was making the claim that authorship photos were stealing clicks from paid ads. I don’t have a problem with that, but I guess he did, as someone selling PPC research tools (you would expect him to make some noise based on that).

      What rubbed me the wrong way were claims that Google had been lying about increased clicks because of the author badges.

      Historically that really doesn’t float. Google’s Agent Rank patent, first made public in February of 2007, said noting about author photos.

      When Google came out with their patent on Authorship badges, it didn’t include a mention of pictures (or logos or anything else) appearing in search results, and possibly leading to increased clicks. It did mention the possibility that some kind of image might be shown on an author’s page itself.

      When Google came out with authorship markup, that may be when mentions of including images in SERPs by Google started taking place. But the idea of a picture of a stranger/author appearing next to a search result was never a motivation to me personally. The idea that a client’s reputation and activity on Google+ and on the Web could potentially lead to a boost in search rankings on things they showed they were experts upon was extremely attractive.

      The whole “stealing clicks away from ads” argument seemed lame in that Google was taking those photos away anyway, so even if true, it was moot anyway. The reason for making the argument didn’t seem to be to get Google to remove those pictures – I’ll repeat, they were doing it already. So what was the motivation? To make Google look like liars or conspirators? I’m not sure that makes it more likely that people will pay for more PPC. I can imagine that conversation:

      “Google has been making it less likely that your ads will be effective with all those authorship badges. So, you want to pay for your next month’s use of our PPC research tool? What? You’re just going to advertise this month on local TV?”

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