What’s Up With Google Authorship?

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Something’s up with Google Authorship. Three days ago, Glenn Gabe noted that his Author stats area on Google Webmaster Tools has disappeared, to be replaced by a 404. At this point in time, when Google+ authors check out their Webmaster Tools area, the Labs section is completely gone and there is no way to even click on Author stats.

This change no longer appears to be a repeat of the odd “technical glitch” that occurred back in May of this year, when Google Authorship briefly went offline at least twice in the space of two weeks. In doing so, Google+ author pictures, views and circle counts – also known as rich snippets- disappeared from the search engine results page (SERP).

No, in light of the fact that Author stats have stopped being updated since July 9th, the current change appears to be permanent.

Yet the question remains: Why? And what do all these changes mean for Google Authorship as a whole?

A brief history of Google Author stats

Google rolled out its Author stats program back in December 2011. This program was touted as a way for Google+ authors to learn how often their content was being rendered on Google’s SERP. The most successful content was noted by the highest number of impressions and clicks. Google+ authors could obtain these data simply by associating their content URL’s with their Google profile.

As an example, if you had searched on Matt Cutts’ author stats, you would’ve retrieved the following data below:

google authorship stats

A critical benefit of Google Author stats was its ability to aggregate and show the “online popularity” of the author based on how many quality pieces of content she had published. This popularity was measured using the number of content impressions and resulting clicks. Such online popularity hinted at Authorship being able to influence overall rank in the SERPs- although Google had noted that Authorship is not correlated with rank, only with in-depth-articles rendering.

Still, author rank had been a key focus of Google even before the introduction of Google+, with the search engine filing a patent for what it termed agent rank back in 2005.

It was assumed by most Google+ authors (myself included) that Author stats would always be available through Google’s Webmaster Tools. However, even back when Google rolled out the Author stats program, it was noted as an “experimental feature” that “we’re continuing to iterate and improve.” This is also probably why the feature was located under the Webmaster “Labs” section.

What does this mean for Google Authorship?

The recent removal of Author stats information from the Google Webmaster Tools is just the latest in a set of changes that have been ongoing with Google Authorship.

In late 2013, Google started cutting back on showing authors in its search results. Newer and less well-published authors saw their rich snippets reduced to a byline or completely removed. Apparently, Google had become more selective regarding whom it was going to feature in search.

Then, in June 2014, Google announced that it would remove author images and circle count from its search results altogether. This decision was explained by Webmaster Trends analyst John Mueller as being intended to “clean up the visual design of our search results” and create “a better mobile experience” and “consistent design across devices.” According to Mueller, click-through rate (CTR) was the same for content rendered with and without author images.

However, data published by Justin Briggs indicated otherwise. In his analysis, Briggs reported that although users initially didn’t respond to the rich snippets rendered on SERPs, over time, user eyeballs were drawn to the images and personal information of Google authors. This behavior occurred even when those rich snippets were located at positions 4 or 5 on the SERP. And where there were more eyeballs viewing a particular search result, the CTR also went up.

Briggs even showed how savvy marketers could optimize their rich snippet information to attract more attention and clicks.

Thus, was Mueller being completely truthful when he stated that the user experience was the same for regular search results versus those containing rich snippets? Perhaps the removal of rich snippets was a way for Google to equalize search results by focusing on content only instead of opening up the arena to those with advanced Photoshop skills.

Another intriguing idea, as espoused by Larry Kim and Rand Fishkin, is that Google removed author rich snippets because those snippets (and especially the photos) were competing with the CTRs of Google AdWords ads. As noted by Kim, “If there’s an increase in CTR for one part of the SERP, some other part is losing that click. There must be a decrease in CTR elsewhere. And that includes the ads.”

Is Google Authorship going away?

Another intriguing possibility, as described by Elisa Gabbert, is that Google Authorship as a whole was simply the carrot used by Google to get users on board with Google+ (it certainly worked on me!). The promise of personal brand recognition in the form of being called an author on the most popular search engine in the world was simply too good to pass up. And the tactic worked.

However, whether because of a recent devaluation of Google+ or a critical quotient of users getting signed on to the social network, Google Authorship is now being de-emphasized. Or perhaps it is merely undergoing a refinement, so that only a small number of elite authors with very high quality content return with their rich snippets intact.

Time will tell.

What do you think is going down with Google Authorship? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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