While Google has removed author photos from search results, they are still putting an emphasis on identifying the authoritative, credible, and popular identities on the Web and rewarding them with higher visibility.
Last month, Google announced that they will be removing author photos and circle count in search results. This has come as quite a shock to the digital marketing community, as we have been led to believe for some time that authorship was going to be an important factor in ranking results. Matt Cutts has asserted that this is the plan, stating that Google is working hard to understand identities and their associated authority, which would eventually impact results.
The thing to note is that authorship still works. Authors of blogs and other online content can (and should) verify themselves with Google, and link their content to their Google+ profile. It's also worth noting that Google isn't completely ignoring authors now. Instead, they are including a byline under the page title with a link to that author's Google+ profile, and images may still appear in In-Depth Articles, Google News, and potentially even personalized search results. Google's Structured Data Testing Tool still includes an authorship section (although photos have been removed here as well) and for all we know, Google is still working on using this authorship to categorize content and organize results. So what's the big deal?
The Authorship preview in Google's Structured Data Testing Tool has been updated to show only the author byline, not the image or circle count.
The issue at hand is that the author photos in search results helped to make the listings stand out, thus impacting click-through rates (CTR). At least that's what we all thought. And we even had some data to back it up. Studies indicated that CTR could increase by as much as 30 to 150 percent with the inclusion of rich snippets. Increased CTRs naturally drive more traffic and can, in turn, help to increase the authority of a page or site, thus impacting ranking. But John Mueller, an analyst for Google Webmaster Tools and the one who made the original announcement about authorship being removed, stated that CTRs were not significantly higher for results with author photos. So what gives?
Firstly, the 30 to 150 percent increase in CTR is for all types of rich snippets, not just author photos. So the real CTR impact may not be have been that high for author snippets alone. We can't know this for sure because no research has been published specifically on authorship snippets.
Rich snippets, like the review and rating snippet shown in this result, can increase CTR by as much as 30 to 150 percent.
Secondly, Google may have been noticing some spammy results coming from people misusing or even abusing authorship - incorrect implementation, using logos or low-quality images for the author photo, or even oversaturation of results pages with too many photos.
Ultimately, Google's mantra for the past few years - Mobile First - is likely the main reason for this change. Google is trying to streamline search results to ensure that users can easily and efficiently find the information they need on mobile devices. Author photos were likely cluttering the mobile view of results, making it more difficult and time-consuming to filter and find the information searchers were seeking. With mobile search predicted to overtake desktop by as early as the end of 2014, according to a statement made by Cutts at SMX West this year, the reason for this change becomes clearer.
The short answer is no. Authorship is still important, especially for those looking to establish themselves as a thought leader in their space (and what savvy business person isn't striving to do just that?). Authorship should be one piece of your overall digital strategy, which should also include creating and publishing original content, providing value to your customers and other online users, increasing awareness, and establishing relationships with users and influencers. It shouldn't be limited to increasing visibility on Google or other search engines, but rather about increasing overall visibility online and establishing authority for yourself, your brand, and your online presence.
But if we must focus on Google (and I don't deny that we must), this change was written on the walls. Google already started reducing the size and results of lesser-known authors months ago. Referred to as "second-class authorship" by Mark Traphagen, these authors aren't known experts in their field, but they had correctly implemented authorship and were creating original content. This is America and we all love a good Horatio Alger story. Shouldn't these lesser-known authors at least stand a chance to gain that authority?
According to Google, yes and no. Qualifying authors still receive a byline and may show photos in specific results page features, as mentioned before. That is where Google agrees to help move unknown authors from rags to riches.
But we don't fully know what Google's plans for authorship are in the future. We can only surmise their intentions by dissecting and interpreting the words of Cutts and others. And when we do that, we have a pretty good understanding that Google wants to identify the authoritative, credible, and popular identities on the Web and reward them with higher visibility. So with that understanding, we can only move forward by first ensuring that authorship is correctly implemented. The real challenge then is to continually create great content, and build a reputation for being an expert in your industry.
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Angie Pascale is the director of marketing at Indaba Group and cofounder and vice president of search and social at Interstellar, where she leads customer engagement and platform optimization strategies for e-commerce brand partners.
Pascale has provided content for a variety of industry conferences and publications, including the Google Website Optimizer Authorized Consultant Summit, Search Engine Strategies, SMX Social Media Marketing, and eMarketing Association Conference.
Prior to Indaba and Interstellar, she was the director of social and SEO at Location3 Media, a leading digital marketing agency in Denver, Colorado. She graduated from Penn State University with a bachelor's degree in English. Follow her at @angiepascale.
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