If you reached this post via a Google search, then you likely didn’t see my smiling face next to the search result – or anyone else’s for that matter. That’s because Google has done away with the most visible feature of authorship, the author image.
More than just a point of pride for authors, the profile picture in the search results was a major selling point for implementing authorship, as studies showed it could significantly improve click-through rates in the SERPs. Google’s decision to remove the images has frustrated digital marketers and left many wondering if authorship is still worth implementing at all.
Why did Google remove the author images?
The reasoning behind the change, as stated by Google’s John Mueller, was “to clean up the visual design of our search results, in particular creating a better mobile experience and a more consistent design across devices.” According to Mueller, the move was really just another step in Google’s ongoing initiative to declutter the SERPs and optimize their “mobile-first” design strategy.
But as with nearly any major change to Google organic search results, many SEOs questioned if the move really had more to do with increasing clicks and revenue from paid search results. Mueller sought to assuage these fears, stating: “Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.” Yet this seems to go against common sense, having a search result that stands out certainly gets it more attention and therefore more clicks — not to mention that studies have shown this to be the case.
IMO, most compelling explanation for Google removing profile pics from search is that it distracted from ads, and cost advertisers clicks
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) June 25, 2014
Many prominent figures in the SEO community spoke up to express their discontent with the decision, including the above tweet by Rand Fishkin (Founder of Moz). Yet at the end of the day, the real reason behind the change doesn’t matter. SEO professionals play in Google’s world and when the rules of the game change, we have to adjust our game plans accordingly.
So what’s really happening with click-through rates?
So far, there hasn’t been a “smoking gun” in terms of what effect the loss of author images has had on click-through rates, though some studies have claimed otherwise. CTRs can vary depending on many different factors; isolating the effect of CTRs based solely on the loss or presence of the author image is difficult and may have in fact flawed some of the initial studies. To make the comparison even more difficult, Google stopped updating author impression and click data in the ‘Author Stats’ section of Webmaster Tools on June 27 and have since removed the section entirely.
It’s probably safe to assume that authorship snippets that over-performed at their ranking position will now see some unfavorable variance in click-through rates, but the data to make that case hasn’t materialized yet.
Is authorship still worth implementing?
With the most visible and immediate benefit of authorship gone, we are left with the question: is authorship now worth implementing at all? The answer to this question is still undoubtedly yes. Although it may shift in priority, authorship still offers enough benefits in the near and long-term that it shouldn’t be left out of your strategies and tactics.
Despite the headlines, author photos haven’t disappeared entirely. Logged in users will still see author photos in their personalized search results; though the images seem to appear less frequently than they did in the past. While author images may be all but gone, the “by author” line still tells searchers who wrote the content. In a way, the “by author” line actually aligns better with the main initiatives and goals of authorship. Authorship snippets that perform well are doing so not because a shiny picture caught searchers’ eyes, but because searchers respect the author and their work.
Finally, Google’s much fabled “agent rank” patent could become an actual ranking factor in the near future. The patent, filed by Google nearly a decade ago, hinted at the use of author authority to create an AuthorRank metric similar to PageRank. Google’s Matt Cutts recently confirmed that a form of AuthorRank is used as part of the “In-depth Article” algorithm. If AuthorRank does get rolled into the main algorithm, authors that have been building their authority with Google from the beginning will have an edge over their competition.
All in all, the largest result of losing author images is that the focus of authorship has moved from a short-term tactic to a long-term strategy. Investing in authorship now might not have the same immediate return as it used to, but the potential long-term payoff makes the investment worthwhile.
Cover photo via Globe University