This time last year, Google was heavily pushing both Google+ and the interlaced service of Google Authorship. SEOs and marketers everywhere recommended that business owners create author profiles on Google+ to use Authorship, and for one simple reason; graphical supremacy. Google Authorship is simple in concept and purpose. The goal is to encourage authors to create their own presence online. Until recently, only the most high-profile writers with significant readership could hope to gain name recognition. With Authorship, anyone can.
The Visible Presence of Authorship
Authorship was primarily valuable because it was visible. If you, as an author, created a personal profile on Google+, added the Authorship code to your website and linked the two, you would see that profile picture appear in search results next to any pieces you wrote. Along with the headshot, you also got a byline and Google+ circle count, to further add authority to your presence.
When you were one of the only Authorship users in a results page, it was an obvious hit. Users would be drawn to your result above the others, because after all, something about you was special enough to get your own byline.
As time went on, and Google pushed Authorship, more and more people adopted it. This, unfortunately, seemed to backfire on Google. As they claimed, the click profiles of search results with Authorship and those without were very similar. So similar that they decided to remove the author photos altogether.
The Invisible Benefits of Authorship
The other benefit to Authorship is one of individual trust. An author, building their presence by tying things with Google+, is given one significant benefit; they can grow their personal brand without their businesses suffering. They can post on a site they’ve never posted on before, and instantly have an audience, because of the name recognition and trust that comes with their accumulated Authorship value.
This, fortunately, is value that remains. You don’t need a picture for name recognition, and your name still appears in the search results as a snippet, albeit differently from before the pictures were removed. Likewise missing is the Google+ circle count which, like other follower counts, is easily artificially inflated and brings no real value.
Why Google Removed Photos
There are several theories floating around as to why the big G removed photos from their search results.
1: The conspiracy theory. This one quickly circulated when photos were removed. There are only a finite number of clicks per day in the search engines. Photos attracted more clicks to organic search results. This theory holds that those pictures were a little too attractive; that the clicks they drew were taken away from Google’s lucrative sponsored ads. Without those ad clicks, Google was losing money, so they had to do something. Rather than find an alternative, they removed the pictures.
This theory has its holes, of course. There’s no sign that Google was losing so much money it hurt them that badly. Plus, they benefit from the increased adoption of their services.
2: Google+ was a mistake. This theory has come up later, and attempts to dig deeper into the root cause of Authorship’s photo loss. The idea here is that Google+ simply hasn’t been the success they wanted it to be. With the head of Google+ leaving and the team largely breaking up, Google could very well be de-emphasizing their social network. Authorship, being tied to the network, would lose value as well. Rather than cause a drastic shift and loss of users, they decoupled the two somewhat, to help ease the transition towards abandoning the platform.
There are holes in this theory as well. In the months since, there has been no real sign of further decoupling of the two services, or any further de-emphasis of Google+. In fact, with the recent Google Pigeon updates, it looks as though they have taken another track to push the platform in another direction.
3: Google’s statements. Official statements from Google claim that the click behavior between image-laden results and image-free results was similar enough to warrant removing the pictures. This holds true with Google’s historic trend of keeping their search results as light and streamlined as possible. And, for that matter, perhaps they’re right. If every result has images, how is it any different than when no result has images? It simply ends with more clutter and the same order of results and click behavior.
The major hole in this theory is simple; click behavior was significantly different for many webmasters. It was a measurable increase in traffic when you implemented Authorship and gained a picture; if it wasn’t, SEOs wouldn’t have recommended it as hard as they did.
Then again, there’s another, simpler answer.
Google+ and Authorship Still Exist
Would it surprise you to learn that your profile picture still exists in the search results? It does. It shows up in specific circumstances, rather than on every query, and that makes it harder to measure as value. Specifically, your profile picture will now show up in search results when the user has you in their Google+ circles and they’re logged in when they search. Their results are personalized, and part of that personalization is the profile picture. The theory is that, if they’re connected with you, they won’t mind having your content be a little more visible.
So, as it turns out, Google just used public author photos as a dangling carrot. Marketers were even given a bite, a quick taste of the carrot. Now it’s been taken away, and to get another bite, marketers must push Google+ to their readers. For marketers, it means pushing engagement on a social network, which is by no means a bad thing. For Google, it means even more adoption of their social network; a win/win.
What does all of this mean for the future of Authorship? Well, for one thing, Authorship still has plenty of value for content creators looking to gain independence from their host sites, particularly multi-author blogs. For another thing, Authorship has just found a deeper way to encourage Google+ adoption while still providing value. Essentially, Google decided enough marketers had adopted the platform; it was time to encourage the readers as well.