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Google Removes Authorship Photos and Circle Count from SERPs

By Unknown, blog post 27/06/2014

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Google has announced major changes to how authorship is shown in search results. Profile photos and Google Plus circle count will be removed from results, reducing authorship to a simple byline.

The byline will continue to link to the author’s Google Plus profile, but many are worried that the subtle annotation will go unnoticed by users.

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Authorship search result before the change (above), and what it will look like after (below)

In a statement made earlier this week, Google Trends Analyst John Mueller stated that the decision was purely based on UX considerations:

“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.)”

The changes are currently being rolled out globally to both desktop and mobile search results over the next few days.

Why Is Google Doing This?

Despite Mueller attributing the change to UX concerns, many commenters are throwing out theories of Google trying to gain more AdWords revenue. Most notably, Moz Blog’s Rand Fishkin added his support of this theory by tweeting, “IMO, most compelling explanation for Google removing profile pics from search is that it distracted from ads, and cost advertisers clicks.”

Others seem to think Google is trying to reduce the Google Plus presence in SERPs, or even phase out Google Plus altogether, despite many marketers saying that authorship photos were the main reason they created their Google Plus accounts in the first place.

However, online marketing consultant Mark Traphagen is taking a more pragmatic approach to this development, saying that while “real ‘author rank’ as a direct ranking factor is off in the future, it may be that Google is ready to send the message that when it comes, the boost will only be for those who have proven themselves to be truly top-notch content creators — the trusted, respected elite.”

What Does This Mean For Businesses?

While there have been many ‘the sky is falling’ predictions on what this means for businesses (just read the comments on Mueller’s original post), it’s still too soon to accurately predict how this will affect the way users search.

Previous research supported the claim that the authorship profile photo had a significant positive impact on CTR (click-through rate), even if your site wasn’t in one of the coveted top three positions. Now many marketers are worried that their click-through rates could plummet.

Social media consultant Eli Fennel welcomed the change, stating, “the visual element [of authorship photos] doesn’t signal personal authority. It is simply a ‘hook’”. In a later comment, Fennel looks beyond CTR to other consequences of author photos, “suppose CTR did go up for image results, but bounce rates and additional searching for the same or similar queries also went up. That would indicate people were being drawn away from the best results by the prettiest results.”

What Do We Think?

After letting the initial shock subside, it seems that Google is simply making way for further changes, and this is just one step along the way. It’s hardly time to be abandoning the Authorship, er, ship, as it seems likely that Google Authorship will become even more important in search results in the near future. As it stands, the update doesn’t change how Google ranks results, just in how it displays the results.

I have no doubt that the absence of author photos will have an effect on which results get chosen, which makes crafting your titles and description vital to the success of your content. Though Mueller’s claims on click-through behaviour remaining similar are vague at best, CTR and other metrics will require careful monitoring before we can assess just how big this update is. Until then, we wait.