In Plain English: Making Sense of the Recent Google Authorship Update

Updated with data from Wordstream

Think you’re a big deal? If not, you’d better get started. With the recent authorship changes, influence matter more than ever.

First, Let’s Refresh

In 2011, Google launched Google Authorship as a way to link the content authors create with a Google+ profile. Historically, Google has provided benefits such as a headshot image appearing next to content in Google searches.

Google Authorship has shaped the way that we thought about search. For many it was in the vanguard of changes that Google introduced in an attempt to better gauge the trustworthiness of content amidst an ever-growing sea of spam.

What Happened

This past week, the foundations of the search world was shaken when Google analyst John Mueller announced that Google was removing author photos and Google+ circle counts from search results across platforms. Specifically, Mueller said:

We’ve been doing lots of work to clean up the visual design of our search results, in particular creating a better mobile experience and a more consistent design across devices. As a part of this, we’re simplifying the way authorship is shown in mobile and desktop search results, removing the profile photo and circle count. (Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.)

In the past, authorship included both a headshot and a count of social influence:


Now, however, the authorship result is much more streamlined:

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 12.20.27 PM

Implications for Marketers

So, what are the implications for marketers? We see three keys for marketers to consider:

Negative Impact on Authorship CTR: The most commonly cited reason for deploying Google Authorship in the past has been simple: users are drawn toward the headshot and the circle count lends social proof – all of which has been estimated to increase click-through-rates 30% – 150%.

It should be noted that Mueller explicitly states that, “Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.” So, how does this square with the previous research? I suspect that Mueller is being somewhat evasive in his language – using a much larger data set to make the comparison rather than focusing on informational queries that we most commonly associate with Google Authorship. That, or Google is flat out lying.

At the end of the day, the implications from thousands of usability studies are simply too persuasive – the human eye is attracted to faces and, with that gone, a big differentiator will be stripped from how authorship previously separated itself from other, standard listings.

Increased CTR for Google Ads: At the end of the day, clicks on a search results page is essentially a zero sum game. If we believe that the authorship listings had an increase in clicks versus their non-photo brethren, it follows that Google believes that they were stealing clicks from their ad units. And, if there’s one thing we know about Google it’s this: everything Google does, it does using copious amounts of data to generate more revenue.

Update July 15: Data from Wordstream seems to support our initial reaction and support the theory that the change is a transparent attempt to subtly drive more ad revenue. Wordstream found that the removal of author photos increased CTR on ads by up to 45%.

For individual marketers, this impact will be lost in the noise. But, across their network, we believe that the net result will be more clicks on Google ads.


Google+ Gets Even Quieter, If That’s Possible: Google+ has largely been a failure. It’s simply never gotten widespread traction. For marketers, however, the as the New York Times noted, the plus in Google+ has mostly been about Google itself. It’s been clear that the advantages conferred by Google+ for marketers has been about search – ad extensions and authorship being the most notable examples. And now one of those advantages is, at least on the surface, gone.

Does Authorship Still Matter?

It’s important to note that Google Authorship is not dead. While one of the primary (and most obvious benefits) of Google Authorship – an improved CTR – is gone, it is likely that Google is working on using Authorship to promote results from trusted authors.

To get started with Google Authorship, see here.

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