Changes in Google Authorship: Don’t Take It Personally

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Near the end of June 2014 Google’s John Mueller announced that Google would be removing author photos from search results. While this came as a shock to many, Mueller said, “Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.” (Google+ post)

Early experiments into the new Google Authorship photos indicated a significantly increased click-through rate with photos displaying. For example, back in 2012 Cyrus Shepard shared a study where he found that by using an optimized author photo, he was able to increase click-through rates as much as 35 percent. (http://moz.com/blog/google-author-photos)

There are a lot of factors to click-through rates, and a lot of factors to Google’s decision on sharing them publicly. However, given the much beloved nature of author photos and the seemingly inconsistent answers Google has given, other explanations are being sought.

Did Google drop Authorship photos to boost advertising revenue?

One of the most well-respected companies in the world of Google AdWords is WordStream led by Larry Kim. When looking for answers to the recent removal of Google Authorship photos, Kim went in search of answers and may have found some in relation to Google’s ad revenue.

Google is an advertising company and much of its income is from AdWords. As you may imagine, if some feature could reduce Google’s ad revenue, it would be a fair guess that Google would remove the feature.

The basic idea is that the Google Authorship photos were detracting from the click-through rates of Google ads, leading to loss of ad revenue. So what were the findings, when ad click-through rates were examined before and after removal of author photos?

After removal of the author photos, the click-through rate for an ad targeted at “negative keywords” increased by 44.8 percent with a statistical significance of 99 percent given the large number of daily ad impressions. You can find more information in the WordStream article. (http://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2014/07/10/removal-google-photos-impacts-ad-ctr#)

Is Google Authorship still part Of Google search?

Yes, although Google Authorship photos have been removed from search, there is still a byline indicating to whom content is attributed. So, although the major visual element to Google Authorship has been removed from search results, the program continues.

The Authorship program is based on a series of Google patents intended to connect an author’s content with that author. This author-to-content connection remains intact. Google’s intention is to be able to verify the identity of an author through his or her Google+ profile as well as other corroborating data.

Currently, most authorship connections are set up by the author and involve adding a short line of code to the content and using Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool to verify the connection. However, in some cases Google has been seen to attribute authorship to a person even without this technical connection existing. This is the direction Google would like to move, towards the ability to understand the connection between an author and his or her work without having to rely on people manually entering Google Authorship information.

Google would like to connect content with the people who created it because this connection brings a new level of trust to the Web. When people are personally connected with the work they produce, their reputation is on the line and they are more apt to produce less spam.

Are we going to see any kind of Google Author Rank?

There is talk of a kind of Author Rank, which would have a more highly-respected author’s content outrank a less authoritative author’s content, all other factors being equal. However, respected voices within the Authorship community such as Mark Traphagen indicate that Author Rank is a long way off if indeed we ever seen it at all.

The recent Search Marketing Expo in Seattle saw Danny Sullivan ask Matt Cutts (Google’s head of web spam) very directly whether Google was using Author Rank or whether it had plans to. In response to Danny’s questions about Author Rank, Mr. Cutts had this to say: “I’ve said before I think the long-term trend is that we will use that data more, but as far as the specific instances, I can’t get into that.”

Beyond just saying that Author Rank was part of the long-term trend, Mr. Cutts said, “So I am a big fan of the idea behind Author Rank. Now as far as what the timeline looks like, how the logistics work, all that sort of stuff, that’s a difficult problem, and we have to figure out how to solve it.”

Where is Google Authorship going from here?

The likely candidate for the disappearance of Google Authorship photos in search appears to be advertising revenue. So it’s not that Google didn’t think people liked seeing the photos or that they thought the photos weren’t valuable. These are good signs for the Google Authorship program.

Further good signs are those quotes from Matt Cutts explaining that Google is still actively pursuing Author Rank. The likely outcome is that we’ll continue to see Google pay attention to the connection between authors and their content, but when it comes to ad revenue Google pulls no punches.

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