Google’s John Mueller confirmed in a blog post last week that the search engine has stopped including authorship data into search results. This means that you will no longer see an author’s profile photo or by-line underneath a link to an article that they have produced.
Google Authorship was part of an experiment that was designed to digitally link up multiple pieces of content by individual authors. In theory, those authors that had strong reputations in their respective fields, and who produced the most compelling content, would be the most relevant to users – something which could be reflected in search results.
The scheme was rolled out in June 2011, around the same time as Google+, with Google encouraging webmasters to take advantage of the scheme by marking up their content with rel=”author” and rel=”me” tags. Using Google+ as an identify platform, authors could link their profiles to the publications they write for.
During the experiment, the profile photos and by-lines of prominent authors were regularly displayed in search results – something which was widely claimed gave a degree of gravitas and authenticity to a piece of content.
But now, those pictures and by-lines have disappeared.
Why has Authorship been pulled?
Google has a long history of experimentation and, like most great experiments, they come to an end eventually. Authorship is no different. Although Google made a number of noises about its commitment to the project, it wasn’t sacred.
So why did the experiment fail? Well, we’ve simplified it into three reasons.
Around half of Google’s traffic comes from ‘small screen’ devices, which puts huge pressures on design.
Google had actually started phasing out the photos from results some months back. This was, according to a blog from John Mueller back in June, due to Google’s attempts to unify the mobile search experience. Profile photos didn’t translate brilliantly on smaller mobile screens.
Lack of adoption
Whilst a lot of high-profile publications did implement authorship mark-up, it wasn’t as widely adopted as Google perhaps envisaged. Many non-tech savvy publications either implemented the mark-up incorrectly, or didn’t implement it at all.
Having Google+ as an identification platform was undoubtedly a handicap in this regard. Google+ adoption is still significantly below forecast and, according to Social Media Today, just 36% of Google+ accounts are active.
Google did try to address this by auto-attributing prominent authors where there was no mark-up present, although this had its flaws. In December 2012, Google attributed a New York Times article from 2010 to Truman Capote – a classic novelist who died in 1984.
“No difference in click behaviour”
Google has also cited that click behaviour barely changed with the appearance of authorship elements, suggesting that searchers found little value in the feature.
Whilst many authors felt that there was a meaningful benefit for their own click-through rates, Google has insisted that it found that the feature didn’t deliver any meaningful “value” to searchers.
Is this the end for Google’s Authorship ambitions?
Google has gone on record a number of times about its desire to persevere with the Authorship project, so many may see this as the end of that commitment. However, this is likely to be a case of ‘back to the drawing board’ rather than ‘consigned to the scrapheap’.
Executive chairman Eric Schmidt has previously written that Google would view content that has authorship data more favourably in search results.
“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.”
The principle that certain individuals know more about their subject than others is one that media consumers are very familiar with; it’s why the likes of Martin Lewis appear on every televised consumer finance debate or why ex-professionals host football talk shows, so it makes sense for Google to pursue the principle of authorship, even if the execution is different. It would be foolish to suggest that Google isn't going to continue developing some method to identify the most prominent authors and thought leaders in their respective field as a signal of quality.
Trust is an incredibly powerful thing and if the name of an established voice can add esteem to an idea or opinion, Google would be ill-advised not to capitalise on it.