Google Removes Authorship Photos from Results Pages
Almost exactly three years since Google introduced authorship markups to their search engine results pages, they've made a big change in the process that has come as a bit of a shock to the SEO world. In an attempt to "clean up the visual design" of the SERP's, Google's John Mueller announced last week that authorship profile photos and Google+ circle counts would no longer appear in both desktop and mobile search results. Mueller's announcement indicated that, according to Google's experiments, click-through behavior would not be affected. Many SEOs are skeptical of this claim, however.
What Exactly is Authorship?
Authorship is becoming an increasingly important concept in content creation because it seems to coincide with Google's ultimate goal of returning the most relevant, expertly-written content related to a user's query. In a nutshell, authorship means that a piece of content can be attributed and linked to a real, verifiable person, usually through Google+. Setting up an author profile with Google+ takes a little work but, until recently, it would allow your Google+ headshot, circle count and byline to appear next to the article's title in the SERPs by using a "rel=author" markup on your page.
Google (and searchers, presumably) like authored content because it directs people to articles written by verifiable experts, provides a human element in article selection, ensures content quality (hopefully), and discourages plagiarism. As online authorship has evolved, Google has tweaked their algorithm to give preference to "high-quality" authors over writers of "low-quality." Author rank tools and WordPress plugins have started to pop up, claiming to help users understand their rank as an author and how to improve it.
How the Loss of Authorship Photos Affects SEO
So far, Internet marketers and bloggers are divided on whether or not the loss of Google+ headshots in SERPs will have an effect on rankings or click-through rates. Again, Google has insisted that the new design will not change click-though behavior. However, it just seems like common sense that a user would be much more likely to click on an article whose author appears in an attractive photo directly next to the description, rather than just a title with a clickable author name.
Some tech experts are downright outraged at the new design, citing many examples of how eye tracking studies (even one published by Google) have shown a link between social items such as author photos and higher click-through rates. To some, it seems as though the photos were removed not to de-clutter the design but because they distracted from paid ads and ended up reducing clicks for advertisers.
Either way, Kristine Schachinger at Search Engine Watch has already conducted an experiment showing that the loss of authorship photos can lead to a serious reduction in impressions. It should be noted, however, that a smaller version of the authorship photos will still be published in Google News results.
Authorship is Still Important
So is it even worth it to use authorship markups anymore? What about a Google+ account? While search experts are also divided on whether or not a Google+ presence has any value, the short answer is it couldn't hurt. Google may end up placing more importance on Google+ in the future, and it would be better to have an established presence if and when that happens. Also, despite the possible hit that click-through rates could now suffer, authorship still shows readers and Google that your content is likely more trustworthy and valuable than a non-authored article. Now, it may just be even more important that the content is extremely high-quality, rather than trying (even just partially) to rely on an inviting author headshot.