The big news in SEO this week was Google’s announcement that author photos will no longer appear in most search results. This is a curious move by Google, and signals the end of one of the big reasons bloggers and writers of all types flocked to Google Plus.
Going forward, instead of an author photo showing up in the search results for logged out users, along with Circles data from Google Plus, all that will appear in the SERPs is a by-line. Author photos can still show up for users logged in to their Google Plus account, depending on if they have an individual author in their circles. In Google News, a smaller author photo may appear.
So why were author photos dropped by Google? According to John Mueller, “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.)”
Interestingly, Mueller doesn’t indicate whether click-through behavior is similar on the actual search results that showed authorship photos compared to results without a photo. Just that “click-through behavior” is similar from one to the other.
His explanation also flies in the face of research done by Google and others on eye tracking. Remember this eye tracking study from 2006? With 10 blue links, search behavior is F-shaped, while “chunking” is exhibited around images where rich search results are displayed. Google is now indicating that click behavior is the same on results with images as with only 10 blue links. But eye-tracking behavior has been proven to be different depending on the presence or absence of rich media in search results.
The elimination of widespread author photos in the search results is also curious, as it raises questions about Google’s intentions with its Google Plus social network. One of the big draws of Google Plus was the ability to have one’s photo show up in the search results. This was Google’s enticement for anonymous authors to come out from the cold, join their network, start building relationships, and dive deep into Google Plus.
With Google’s focus on authority, authenticity, and veracity in its semantic search strategy, verifying an account as a real person through Google Plus was a huge piece of the puzzle. According to David Amerland’s book Google Semantic Search, Google specifically gave people an incentive to join Google Plus, establish authorship markup on their articles, and link all of their other social networks together. The main ego-bait was the author photo showing up in SERPs.
Will a simple by-line, rather than the ego-bait of an actual photo, be enough to draw new users to Google Plus? I can’t speak for anyone else, but my reaction has been a resounding “Meh.” When I do research on Google (something I do increasingly less as I’ve taken a liking to DuckDuckGo‘s results), I’ve always been drawn to authorship photos. It’s a lot easier to remember a face than a name, especially since I’m far more likely to skim over by-lines than photos.
Without the increased click-through rates I was seeing on properly verified articles due to the author photo showing on Google, I can’t think of much reason to spend a lot more time developing a presence on the social network. I barely use Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, because there’s almost NO incentive to use them and I have more important things to do than establish a presence on those other networks.
It was Google Plus that I used the most, and the selfish incentive of building my “author rank” over time and having my image appear in more searches was a strong incentive to add people and companies to my circles and engage in discussions with them (even though I was often the sole person commenting on Google Plus posts for many companies).
For now, I’m sure I’ll keep my Google Plus and see where Google takes its authorship markup, but I’ll be far less likely to continue developing my own “contributor to/authorship” profiles around the web at the same pace and with the same enthusiasm at which I once did.