Two weeks ago, Google’s John Mueller announced that after three years of experimentation, the search giant had “made the difficult decision to stop showing Google Authorship in search results.” He explained that Google’s analysts had “observed that this information isn’t as useful to our users as we’d hoped, and can even distract from those results.” This didn’t come as a shock to some in the SEO industry, as it followed on the heels of Mueller’s June announcement that Google was dropping author images (G+ profile photos) and G+ circle counts from its search results. The rationale offered by Mueller then was that Google wanted to create “a better mobile experience and a more consistent design across devices” by cleaning up the “visual design of our search results” – but some were suspicious that this move was in preparation for something bigger. Mueller added: “Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.” That statement in particular was met with surprise -- even disbelief -- by many in the industry who’d taken stock in what Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, wrote in his 2013 book, “The New Digital Age”:
Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.
But is there going to be a different way that Google verifies authors? Some say yes. In fact, at PubCon in 2013, Google’s Matt Cutts discussed the future of authors in the search results, and eluded to what may be coming: “It’s not just going to be about the markup; it’s going to be about the quality of the author.” In this post, we’ll discuss what Google’s Authorship initiative was, why it failed, and what to expect going forward.
The birth of authorship
Google introduced its Authorship project in June 2011 with a Webmaster Central blog post by the software engineer in charge, Othar Hansson. The purpose of Gooogle Authorship, he wrote, was to provide “a way to connect authors with their content on the Web,” stating that Google was “experimenting with using this data to help people find content from great authors in our search results.” For years, a flurry of SEO industry articles, posts and forum discussions followed, echoing Hansson’s strong recommendation to adopt Authorship markup or face search oblivion (or as Google’s Schmidt phrased it in his book, “irrelevance”). In short, the promise of Authorship was for Google to be able to better tie content to authors, and for authors to enjoy a higher click-through rate from the search results page as a result. Authorship search results were known for their “rich snippets,” which showed author images next to their content. Then in June, those images disappeared, as Barry Schwartz reported at Search Engine Roundtable.
So, what happened?
Google Authorship seemed like a win for authors, users and Google alike … so what went wrong? According to AJ Kohn of Blind Five Year Old, the biggest problem with Authorship was low adoption. In fact, Kohn talked about this problem back in 2013, when he also pointed out that key Google engineer Hansson was no longer on the Google Authorship project. Kohn's observation on low adoption was echoed by Eric Enge and Mark Traphagen in their recent article for Search Engine Land, in which they stated:
Participation in Authorship markup was spotty at best, and almost non-existent in many verticals. Even when sites attempted to participate, they often did it incorrectly. In addition, most non-tech-savvy site owners or authors felt the markup and linking were too complex, and so were unlikely to try to implement it.
Mueller reportedly told Traphagen that Google data showed users were not getting sufficient value from Authorship snippets, and that test data collected over three years convinced Google that Authorship results did not have enough ROI to justify the resources it took to process the data. Enge and Traphagen also pointed to the fact that Google’s “unswerving commitment to testing … every product, and every change or innovation with each product” means that “anything that the data show as not meeting Google’s goals, not having sufficient user adoption, or not providing significant user value, will get the axe.”
What’s next: author rank, schema, and semantic search
Authorship can trace its origins to Google’s 2007 “Agent Rank” patent. Google patent expert Bill Slawski detailed the beginnings of Authorship for Search Engine Land readers, describing Google’s ambition of connecting online content with the “agents” (authors) who penned them, so that it could then adjust search rankings based on the authority and trust signals around their content. While Google Authorship may be dead, “author rank” (a term created by the SEO industry to define the concept) is not. The caveat is that author rank is currently limited to Google’s “in-depth” articles results, according to Danny Sullivan in a Search Engine Land article. He writes that while author rank may grow beyond its in-depth article confines, “it’ll be only one of many SEO ranking factors that go into producing Google’s listings.” Google’s Mueller talked about what the future may look like in terms of verifying authors or content for search results:
Going forward, we're strongly committed to continuing and expanding our support of structured markup (such as schema.org). This markup helps all search engines better understand the content and context of pages on the web, and we'll continue to use it to show rich snippets in search results.
Perhaps it’s best to bid farewell to Google Authorship as we know it for now, rather than declare it dead. It seems inevitable that it will return in some form, as Google pushes forward in semantic search.