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Google drops authorship from search results: what should your firm do?

Google drops authorship from search results: what should your firm do?

Google's Authorship project has officially ended. Last week webmaster trends analyst John Mueller announced in a Google+ post that Google will no longer show authorship information in search results. After three years of use, Google has stopped supporting authorship markup and removed all authorship capabilities from webmaster tools.

A read of the post's comments eliminates any doubt about the decision. Mueller repeatedly stated that Google is not processing any authorship data — this is not “just a UI change.”

Mueller said the decision to discontinue Authorship was difficult but was based on extensive testing and user feedback. Google will keep experimenting with other ways to use semantic code to enhance user experience.

The promise of Authorship

Google Authorship allowed writers to connect their identities to articles they published anywhere online by adding a digital signature to individual pieces of content. Once Google could track an individual author's activity, it could theoretically use that data to rate the author's trust and authority.

In 2011, Google began supporting and encouraging the use of authorship markup. Lawyers could use a short piece of code known as the author tag to identify linked content as their own. The HTML5 markup language supported the author tag before Google began to harvest the data; Google's work involved developing a way to use the existing code structure.

But if an author could simply use a little code to claim content, what was to prevent users from pretending to be someone else? The key was the roll out of Google+. To prove their identities, authors had to mark content as their own and then connect it to their Google+ profiles. Through the linking of content to and from a Google+ profile, Google could verify you were who you claimed to be.

From a business perspective, this was good for Google. Implementing authorship meant bloggers had to create Google+ accounts. Google's social network benefited as marketing professionals encouraged clients to sign up and reap the benefits of the new feature.

What was Authorship's potential?

Authorship promised to be a boon to both writers and searchers. Authors could build their influence and identify themselves in search results with both a picture and byline — hopefully encouraging higher rankings and increased traffic. And searchers could find more relevant and valuable content as results were refined to fit their individual tastes. By combining data about an author's authority with data about the searcher's interests and social circles, Google could show searchers content from authors they were more likely to know and trust.

Many search marketing professionals believed authorship data was being used as a ranking factor. Writers build authority and authority influences results — the progression is logical. At Custom Legal Marketing, we encouraged lawyers to use author markup to help with search marketing.

The conclusion that authorship information affected placement in search results was not based entirely on speculation. In a 2011 webmaster video explaining how to implement Authorship, Google's Matt Cutts said it could potentially be incorporated into Google's algorithm as a ranking factor, and he seemed excited about the possibilities. In his book, “The New Digital Age,” executive chairman Eric Schmidt said, “Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification.”

Despite the initial excitement, author data has apparently not been used as a ranking factor recently. In the comments following his post, Mueller addressed the concerns of several people worried about how Google's decision would affect their rankings. Mueller said, “authorship was not used for ranking” and that articles rose to the top of search because they were just great articles.

Why is Authorship disappearing?

Google's decision to stop supporting Authorship is not entirely unexpected; it has been slowly dismantling Authorship over the past year. In December of 2013, Google began reducing the number of photos shown in results and by June of 2014 it had eliminated author photos in results altogether. Then in July, Google announced that it would allow the use of pseudonyms in Google+ profiles, which significantly undermines the core concept of identity verification.

Google Authorship did not evolve in the way that developers had expected from the outset. Mueller's statement that author data was not used as a ranking factor is one indication that Google was never able to use the data to adequately predict relevant results.

According to Mueller's post, authorship information, “isn’t as useful to our users as we’d hoped,” and author details “can even distract” from results. He said that according to Google's own statistics, the absence of author information does not reduce traffic to sites or increase clicks on ads.

Google discovered that author photos did not significantly affect click-through rates, despite studies supporting the theory that posts with pictures receive more engagement. What holds true on social networks did not translate to search results. The fact that author photos did not seem to influence user behavior was a key factor behind Google's decision to stop displaying the photos completely in June.

Additionally, despite Google's attempts to explain Authorship and make it easy to set up, usage never grew to desired levels. Many people found it too difficult to execute. A comprehensive post on the subject at Search Engine Land describes research showing that approximately 70 percent of authors posting to large sites did not link their content to their Google+ profiles. And when writers did attempt to use the markup, they often failed to set it up correctly. Poor implementation and poor user engagement spelled doom for the Authorship project.

What is not affected by this decision?

If you are already using authorship markup, leaving the code in place will not harm you. Google will just ignore it. Google says it will still continue to display other rich snippets, like reviews and events, but will ignore author markup entirely.

Publisher markup will still be supported. Whereas Authorship was linked to individuals, Publisher applies to entire organizations. Publisher links content associated with a website to a Google+ business page. If your firm has linked your site to a business page, Google will still recognize the connection.

Mueller also said that people would continue to see relevant Google+ pages and Google+ posts from people in their circles in search results.

The demise of Authorship will not affect the basic practices behind good search rankings. Attorneys who produce quality pages that speak to the needs of their colleagues and clients will still do well. Engaging with others and publishing content they want to like and share is still the best way to show Google your pages are worthy of rising to the top.

Kristen Friend
Kristen Friend holds two bachelors degrees from Indiana University and an associates degreee from the International Academy of Design. As Art Director for Custom Legal Marketing, her work has been awarded Webby Honorees, WebAwards, Davey Awards, Muse Awards, W3 Awards, and many others. She is also a contributor to Entrpreneur Magazine through the Entrepreneur Leadership Network.