Google Calls Takebacks on Authorship Photos: An Alternate Theory


When Google announced a couple of weeks ago that Google+ authorship markup would be disappearing from the SERPs, Larry and Rand Fishkin were on the same page – both suspected that the reason for the reversal was a loss of clicks on ads.

authorship photos

As Larry put it, “Clicks on the search results page are basically a zero sum game. If there's an increase in CTR for one part of the SERP, some other part is losing that click. There must be a decrease in CTR elsewhere. And that includes the ads.”

Do I think this theory is plausible? Sure, for two reasons:

  • You’d expect that Google would test the feature before they told SEO’s to start using it. So it’s suspicious that we are now being told that the author photos have no positive effect.
  • Images have been shown to increase CTR on the paid side (in product listing ads and Shopping Campaigns), so why wouldn’t they increase CTR on the organic side as well? Rand, for example, has said that attaching his author photo to the Moz SEO Beginner’s Guide increased CTR/traffic from organic search.

Not everyone likes the theory, though; Bill Slawski, for example, has been vocal with his criticisms on Google+ and elsewhere. He said in a comment on our blog:

Google has conducted and published usability studies explaining why they have removed smaller photos for social annotations in search results when people endorsed or shared those results. It had nothing to do with less clicks on ads, and everything to do with no one clicking on those results.

Even if the usability studies are accurate, this doesn’t explain why they pushed the feature so hard in the first place, of course. In any case, I’ve got an alternate theory: My theory is, click-through rate has nothing to do with it. Authorship photos are going away because Google+ is going away.

Authorship Photos Were a Dangling Carrot for Marketers

Think about it – how did authorship markup work? It was wired through Google+. Maybe Google pushed authorship markup in the first place not because photos increased CTR, but because they hoped the lure of author photos would increase adoption of Google+.

google authorship

Google told us author photos increase CTR because otherwise, no one would go to the trouble to set it up; it was notoriously difficult to get working properly. The switcheroo suggests one of the following is true:

  • If they are now planning to abandon (or shall we say “de-emphasize”) Google+, all that work is going to so be lost, so they might as well admit that author photos didn’t work the way they said they would.
  • Alternatively, maybe they are just claiming that photos don’t increase CTR to distract from the real reason they are going away. (Markup will be broken when your Google+ profile dies.)

Maybe Google+ Isn't Dying, Just (D)evolving

I’m not the first to suggest that Google is killing Google+ – there have been rumors of its impending death ever since Vic Gundotra left the company in April. Google has denied the rumors, but it’s telling that they’ve been seeming to back off Google+ in the past year (after ramming it down our throats for two years in a row). At the very least, they're not banking everything on G+ anymore. It looks like they may scale Google+ way back so it's more like a management platform for various Google services, not a competitor to social networks like Twitter and Facebook. In that scenario, it wouldn't make sense for Google to essentially give away free branding to SEO's in the form of authorship photos.

I know a lot of you SEO’s love Google+ and don’t want to accept that it might be joining the Google Graveyard. But having loyal users didn’t stop Google from killing Reader when they decided that adoption didn’t justify the resources.

What do you think? Do you like my theory better than Larry’s?

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Russ Jones
Jul 07, 2014

It sure worked as a link building campaign -

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 07, 2014

I went ahead and made your link an active link.

Isabella Jane
Sep 13, 2014

Authorship was just like a passing cloud in the playground of Google+. Let's wait and watch what Google could bring us in the future with another bang!

Jul 09, 2014

I'm sure they're right in saying that Google has gotten rid of authorship photos because less people were clicking on ads. But I can't see Google killing Google+. They've invested too much time and effort into it. I think they'll find a way to make it succeed or die trying.

Dogh Peter
Jul 09, 2014

Hi . i dont think google is going to kill google+.because this social network. i know this is not very sucessfull network .but goolge+ is not very old.May be this will take some time for enagaing more people .i think google is in hurry to kill google+.but there is no official announcment .

Jul 09, 2014

Ah, so that's why those pics disappeared! And here I thought Google just hated my face. I don't doubt the authorship pics obstructed paid clicks. Google can't afford to miss out on potential ad revenue.

Yeasmin Akter
Jul 12, 2014

Hi Elisa Gabbert,Nice post! Is it true Google also takes away Google +? Actually I'm confused.

Jul 15, 2014

Not sure one way or another about the why, but I do know one thing. You  said "they hoped the lure of author photos would increase adoption of Google+"It did increase adoption. 

The Other Elisa
Jul 23, 2014

I respectfully disagree with all the theories I've heard put forth thus far, and here's are a few examples why:

Google is being sued in the United Kingdom for allegedly helping its own business by steeringcustomers away from competitors in search results.
Google is being sued in the United Kingdom for allegedly helping its own business by steering customers away from competitors in search results. - See more at: is being sued in the United Kingdom for allegedly helping its own business by steering customers away from competitors in search results. - See more at: is being sued in the United Kingdom for allegedly helping its own business by steering customers away from competitors in search results. - See more at:
Google is poised to offer a set of voluntary concessions addressing complaints about its search practices,according to a D.C. source familiar with the matter.
     I have yet to hear a theory that weighs in the enormous international government pressures that havebeen bearing down on Google over the past five years.  Everyone just seems to assume that the issue isabout traffic diversion from sponsored ads.  But when Google offered attractive authorship, it promoted useof Google+.  Other businesses like Yelp make businesses pay for preferred top results in their space, and payfor a more robust profile, with reviews playing a major role.  And here comes Google+ with maps that no longerdepend on third party reviews. Instead we have circles, powerful brand and company profile pages, authorship,you name it - all free - and who really wants to pay Yelp anymore?If we see Google making voluntary concessions that do not make sense, as the authorship CTRpremise is not making sense, then there must be something bigger at play.It is my humble theory that if Google is taking a hit in advertising revenues and scaling back it's own best interests,it is doing so to serve the greater good of Google's ability to live to grow another day.

Sherri Grotts
Jul 25, 2014

I don't usually comment on Blogs written by people who are so much more advanced in their knowlege than me, but this time I'm making an exception.  I really got a lot out of this article and the comments.  I happened upon this article when I typed in "why does Google Authorship have to be so difficult?"  I'm no Einstein, but I'm certainly not stupid either.  Between taking online classes and doing independent research on my own, I feel like I've gotten a lot more computer savy since I started in March,2014.  To make a long story short - my website: was compromised mid-May, 2014.  They completely took over my site, and somehow hacked in to my sign in information and everything!  Anyway, as part of my lessons day before yesterday, they taught us how to enter information in our profile on our website.  They taught us to connect our website to our Google + profile, and our Google + profile to our website.  I've spent 2 full 8 hour days trying to prove that I do, indeed own this website, with no luck.  Even some of the most advanced members where I'm taking this online course are stumped and can't figure it out!  Google keeps coming back saying the owner of the site is a name I never even heard of.  I'm the one who paid $187 to Blue Host in March,2014, and the cost of registering my domain was included in that price.  I understand the importance of SEO and being verified by Google, but I am at witts end as to what to do.  I'm a fighter, by golly!  I've spent way too much time, money and effort into getting my webpage up and running to give up now. 

Aug 09, 2014

As someone who heavily relies the organic traffic, this change had an awfully-negative impact on my website and my articles' visits have decreased by 50-60% since the last month. Google is really bad, and are becoming much like everyone else. I first started advertising on Facebook and it was paying off as I've been getting MANY visits every single day and making solid profit. Facebook then "killed" my pages by decreasing their reach so I started doing SEO and I've been ranking pretty high. But then all of sudden I was losing visitors and it seems it's due to this update. 

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 09, 2014

Maybe not! But Anon's comment below on sunk costs seems relevant.

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 15, 2014

Of course it did!

Megan Marrs
Jul 07, 2014

Ooh interesting theory Elisa! Could Google finally be giving up on Google+? As annoying as all the forced Google+ usage has been the past few years, I think I'd be more angry if, after all the effort and pushing and hemming and hawing about Google+, they decided to call it quits. You've already got me at least semi-adjusted Google, don't pull the plug yet. As more users seem increasingly dissatisfied with Facebook, I really see how Google+ could emerge in a space between Facebook and LinkedIn. I'm not sure I buy that Google is giving up on its golden pony just yet. But who knows, maybe you are right and they are cutting their losses. 

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 07, 2014

Certainly a lot of SEO's have really embraced Google+! And I bet they'd be pissed if Google took it away, but Google hardly lives to please SEOs...

Taylor Clark
Jul 07, 2014

I have to be honest, this was the first thought that came to my mind too when they took them away. That would mean a major let down to lose Google+ considering the integration they forced on us with Youtube.

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 07, 2014

...which everyone hated, right?! Maybe they finally realized that they are pissing off users of sites that were already working like a charm. I feel like there are tons of warnings signs that G+ is going to at least be downgraded but ... all we can do is wait and see!

Andy Hunt
Jul 07, 2014

Hey Lisa - you covered this point well on the blog and I just wanted to re-emphasize that I think Google getting rid of Google+ is extremely unlikely. I worked in the marketing department during the initial launch (although on another team) and I have a really hard time believing that they are simply going to do away with it for the amount of investment of time, money and resources that were put in. Knowing someone's online identity - even being able to track when they are logged in - is extremely, extremely valuable to the company, so even if the SERP images didn't have the desired effect, I don't think the product is going away any time soon.Another more practical way of checking this would be to do a quick LinkedIn search to see who within marketing is working on Google+, and if you do this you'll still see a good # of people listed as active. Anyway, just my two cents! Will be really interesting to see what they do with it this year.

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 07, 2014

Thanks for the input Andy! I can totally see them keeping it but in a different form -- as you say the benefit is in "knowing someone's online identity" -- but I suspect there are other ways of accomplishing this without the pretense of a social network, if you're using enough other Google products. For example, the idea that you can no longer log out of Gmail on your mobile device. Might just take a while to reach a recognizably new form.

Andy Hunt
Jul 08, 2014

And I realized after I posted this that I got your name wrong - sorry Elisa :)They may scale this back but I don't know - there was such a gargantuan effort. It's also not to say that there aren't people using G+ as a social network because there are, it's just not at the same scale as Facebook or somewhere else.Anyway, thanks for the post!

Jul 08, 2014

You would know way more than a random person such as I would, so you're most likely right, but...econ 101 says that the time, money, and resources that were poured into Google+ are sunk costs, so if G+ isn't bearing enough fruit or is costing more than its worth, then it would make sense to cut it off.

Scott Taft
Jul 07, 2014

I love this speculation! So I'm gonna throw my own theory into the ring.First, Elisa, this is a great explanation but I have to disagree with you. I am one of those SEOs who would hate to see Google+ go away but I really don't think it is or even being downsized anytime soon. In fact, I agree with Megan Marrs that it could surpass Facebook once that platform becomes overwhelmingly annoying.My theory is that Google is trying to level the playing field again. To your point Elisa, Google is not always on SEO's side. Authorship, though relatively easy for us techie types, is on the more technical side. It was defnitely something left up to SEOs to take advantage of and boy did they ever. I think Google realized it was being overused and pretty much just by SEOs or companies using SEO firms.And it definitely was being overused. I remember numerous times visiting a product/service landing page with an author image when the content had no byline, date or any need for an author at all. It was strictly being used to increase CTR. I guess I'm giving Google a lot of credit in saying they want to get back to their original mission of always providing the best search experience for its users. 

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 07, 2014

That's an interesting theory Scott! It seems like photos would have to have an effect on CTR one way or the other -- but maybe Google felt that only SEO's (with all their manipulative hijinks) were taking advantage, and regular authors were not. The problem is, they made it way too complicated. I did notice that when I googled something SEO-related, almost all the results had author photos. When everyone is on the same playing field, the benefits are going to be flattened again.

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