Google Authorship – How and why did rich snippets disappear?
For the past three years, SEO experts and content marketing connoisseurs have waxed lyrical about the importance of Google Authorship in search results. However at the end of August, John Mueller of Google’s Webmaster Tools said that it would stop showing this information because it wasn’t “as useful to our users as we’d hoped.”
But was Google’s Authorship program worth it? How did it all come about? Why did Google decide to end it and what did it achieve? Here’s a more in-depth look at this little experiment that grew over quite some time but ended so abruptly.
How did Google Authorship come about?
The Authorship experiment can trace its roots back to 2007, as Google’s Agent Rank patent described a system for connecting content together with a digital signature, which would represent one or more authors. The author would then receive a score based on trust and authority signals relating to their content. This in turn would influence search rankings.
This remained a theoretical idea until Google announced it would begin to support authorship mark-up in accordance with schema.org’s standards. It started to encourage webmasters to apply on-site author tags and connect their content to individual profiles.
Then in June 2011, all the Authorship pieces fell into place when Google+ was unveiled and user profiles acted as a universal identity platform. A video featuring head of webspam Matt Cutts and Authorship project head Othar Hansson appeared shortly afterwards, which revealed that in the future, data from the program could be used as a ranking factor.
From then until now, the Authorship program has undergone several changes and various content creators believe it was a must-have online attribute. Even though Cutts and other Google staff reiterated their long-term commitment to the project, it came to a rather sudden end in August 2014.
However, the fall of Google Authorship has actually been a gradual one. In December 2013, Google reduced the amount of author photo snippets shown per query, just like Cutts previously promised. Then all photos were removed by the end of June 2014, leaving just a by-line from qualified authorship results.
Why did Google Authorship end?
According to Mueller, there were two main reasons why Google decided to end the experiment – low adoption rates and no real value to searchers.
Poor levels of adoption
Despite the buzz and urgency that some people gave Google Authorship, participation was patchy and in some cases, non-existent. Various sites attempted to integrate Authorship but did it incorrectly, while others felt the mark-up and linking process was too difficult to implement.
One study found that only 15 of Forbes’ 50 Most Influential Social Media Marketers had Authorship. However, a further 17 still received a rich snippet result anyway due to Google’s auto-attribute authorship, which was introduced in early 2012. This had its problems too, as there were numerous cases of misattribution like Truman Capote being listed as the author of a New York Times article 28 years after his death.
Therefore, Google was struggling to implement its initial objective of identifying authors, connecting their content together and using trust and authority signals as ranking factors.
Little value for searchers
In addition to low adoption levels of Authorship, Google also found that searchers weren’t that influenced by it either. After eliminating photos in June 2014, Mueller said that there was little difference in click behaviour between rich snippets and regular results. Several marketers and content creators were shocked by this news, as they truly believed it brought in higher click-through rates.
What’s more, Mueller also revealed that photos were removed because Google wanted to unify the user experience between desktop and mobile search. As well as taking up limited screen space, author photos also used up valuable mobile bandwidth.
But perhaps more importantly for Google, data indicated that users simply weren’t getting sufficient value from Authorship results. While the definition of ‘value’ is unknown, it probably means that users were not affected or influenced by author information and that over time it lost originality.
What did Google achieve and was it worth it?
Although many may think the Authorship program was a failure, it is yet another project in a long line of Google services that has been introduced and then discontinued fairly hastily. But this only goes to prove that Google constantly tests and evaluates every product to make sure it achieves in-house objectives and widespread user satisfaction. Patently, Google Authorship wasn’t up to scratch and thus was given the boot.
It is clear that Google wants to pursue the idea of author authority in order to provide the most accurate and appropriate results to users. In Eric Schmidt’s book, “The New Digital Age,” Google’s executive chairman said:
“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.”
This time round, Google’s approach didn’t quite work due to two main issues. However, there is little doubt that the world’s biggest search engine will continue to find ways to improve the overall user experience and deliver the most relevant results possible.
What did Google achieve? Well it found out that users aren’t overly concerned whether results include a photo and by-line from the content’s author. Google also learnt that the growing popularity of mobile search meant including as much information as possible in a results page might not be a good thing after all.
Was it worth it? Undoubtedly. From here, Google can work on new ways of connecting authors with their content and improving the relevancy of search. In the future, Google’s Knowledge Vault project and its commitment to semantic search are bound to make a difference. Upcoming incarnations of authorship might not be as obvious or noticeable, but they will probably be better and more accurate.