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It’s Over: The Rise & Fall Of Google Authorship For Search Results

Google has completely dropped all authorship functionality from the search results and webmaster tools.

Eric Enge on August 28, 2014 at 4:53 pm

After three years the great Google Authorship experiment has come to an end … at least for now.

Today John Mueller of Google Webmaster Tools announced in a Google+ post that Google will stop showing authorship results in Google Search, and will no longer be tracking data from content using rel=author markup.

This in-depth article, which I’ve jointly co-written with Mark Traphagen. will cover the announcement of the end of Authorship, the history of Authorship, a study conducted by Stone Temple Consulting that confirms one of the stated reasons for cessation of the program, and some thoughts about the future of author authority in search.

Authorship’s Gradual Slide Toward Extinction

The cessation of the Authorship program comes after two major reductions of Authorship rich snippets over the past eight months. In December 2013 Google reduced the amount of author photo snippets shown per query, as Google’s webspam head Matt Cutts had promised would happen in his keynote at Pubcon that October. Starting in December, only some Authorship results were accompanied by an author photo, while all others had just a byline.

Then at the end of June 2014 Google removed all author photos from global search, leaving just bylines for any qualified authorship results.

At that time, John Mueller in a Google+ post stated that the photos were removed because Google was moving toward unifying the user experience between desktop and mobile search, and author photos did not work well with the limited screen space and bandwidth of mobile. He also remarked that Google was seeing no significant difference in “click behavior” between search pages with or without author photos.

A Brief History of Google Authorship

The roots of the Authorship project go back to Google’s Agent Rank patent of 2007. As explained by Bill Slawski. an expert on Google’s patents, the Agent Rank patent described a system for connecting multiple pieces of content with a digital signature representing one or more “agents” (authors).

Such identification could then be used to score the agent based on various trust and authority signals pointing at the agent’s content, and that score could be used to influence search rankings.

Agent Rank remained a theoretical idea without a practical means of application, until the adoption by Google of the standards for structured markup. In a blog post in June 2011, Google announced that it would begin to support authorship markup. The company encouraged webmasters to begin marking up content on their sites with the rel=”author” and rel=”me” tags, connecting each piece of content to an author profile.

The final puzzle piece for Authorship to be truly useful to Google fell into place with the unveiling of Google+ at the end of June 2011. Google+ profiles could now serve as Google’s universal identity platform for connecting authors with their content.

Hansson and Cutts

In a YouTube video published in August of that year. Matt Cutts and then head of the Authorship project Othar Hansson gave explicit instructions on how authors should connect their content with their Google+ profiles, noted that doing so could cause one’s profile photo to show in search results, and for the first time mentioned that — at some future time — data from Authorship could be used as a ranking factor.

Over the next three years, Authorship in search went through many changes that we won’t detail here (although Ann Smarty has compiled a complete history of those changes ). On repeated occasions, though, Matt Cutts and other Google spokespeople reiterated a long-term commitment by Google to the concept of author authority.

Why Has Google Ended the Authorship Program?

Over its entire history Google has repeatedly demonstrated that nothing it creates is sacred or immortal. The list of Google products and services that were introduced only to be unceremoniously discontinued later would fill a small phone book.

The primary reason behind this shuffle of products is Google’s unswerving commitment to testing. Every product, and every change or innovation within each product, is constantly tested and evaluated. 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.

John Mueller told my co-author Mark that test data collected from three years of Google Authorship convinced Google that showing Authorship results in search was not returning enough value compared to the resources it took to process the data.

Mueller gave two specific areas in which the Authorship experiment fell short of expectations:

1. Low adoption rates by authors and webmasters. As our study data later in this article will confirm, 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.

Because of these problems, beginning in early 2012, Google started attempting to auto-attribute authorship in some cases where there was no or improper markup, or no link from an author profile. In a November 2012 study of a Forbes list of 50 Most Influential Social Media Marketers. Mark found that only 30% used authorship markup on their own blogs, but of those without any markup, 34% were still getting an Authorship rich snippet in search. This is similar to data found in a study performed by Eric which is further detailed below.

However, Google’s attempts at auto-attribution of authors led to many well-publicized cases of mis-attribution, such as Truman Capote being shown as the author of a New York Times article 28 years after his death. Clearly, Google’s hopes of being able to identify the web’s authors, connect them with their content, and then evaluate their trust and authority levels as possible ranking factors was in trouble if it was going to depend on the cooperation of non-Google people.

2. Low value to searchers. In his announcement of the elimination of author photos from global search in late June of this year, John Mueller stated that Google was seeing little difference in “click behavior” on search result pages with Authorship snippets compared to those without. This came as a shock (accompanied in many cases with outright disbelief) to those who had always believed that author snippets brought higher click-through rates.

Mueller repeated in his conversation with Mark about today’s change that Google’s data showed users were not getting sufficient value from Authorship snippets. While he did not elaborate on what he meant by “value” we might speculate that this could mean that overall, in aggregate, user behavior on a search page did not seem to be affected by the presence of author snippets. Perhaps over time users had become used to seeing them and they lost their novelty.

It is interesting to note that (as of the time of this posting) author photos continue to appear for Google+ content from people a searcher has in his or her Google network (Google+ circles or Gmail contacts) when the searcher is logged in to her or his Google+ account (personalized search) .

When asked, Mueller said he had no knowledge of any plans to stop showing those types of results. However, some users have reported to Mark that they are no longer seeing them. We will watch this development and update here if it looks like Google is indeed removing author photos from personalized results as well.

If Google does continue to show author photos in some personalized results, it would seem to indicate that Google data is showing that when content is from someone with whom the searcher has some personal association, a rich snippet actually does provide value to that searcher. More about this in our final section below.

Study of Rel=Author Implementations

As luck would have it, Stone Temple Consulting was in the process of wrapping up a study on rel=author markup usage. A look at the data illustrates part of the problem that Google faces with an initiative like this one. The bottom line of what we found? Adoption was weak, and accurate implementation among those that attempted to set up rel=author was also bad. If that was not enough, the adoption by authors was also bad. So let’s look at the numbers!

Authorship Adoption

We sampled 500 authors across 150 different major media web sites. Here is a summary of what we saw for their implementation of authorship tagging in their Google+ profiles:

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