Google Authorship Changes and CTR: Influencer Opinion
Google recently announced they would be removing Authorship photos from the SERPs. The headshots of authors that used to show up next to results, for content tied to Google Authorship, are gone.
The news came when Google’s John Mueller announced the change on Google+:
“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.)” - John Mueller
There are a couple of key aspects to what Mueller said here.
Mueller points to “visual design”, and in particular, “a better mobile experience” as the reasoning behind the decision. This seems in line with Google’s “mobile first” philosophy and seems reasonable as another Google employee, Matt Cutts, has said that he "wouldn’t be surprised" if mobile search passed desktop search this year. It would make some sense to remove the photos from a “mobile first” standpoint as they take up a considerable amount of space on mobile screens.
Mueller even went on to later leave a comment on his original post that further endorsed this as a decision to improve mobile experience:
So, it appears (at least from what Google employees have said) that the change primarily has to do with mobile search.
Another interesting portion of this announcement was that Mueller stated Google’s experiments indicated click-through behavior (or click-through rate) would be “similar” without the Authorship photos.
The reason this is interesting is because the only real incentives Google had to offer for implementing Authorship were vanity - in the form of having your face show in search - and increased CTR from the supposed impact that picture had. At the very least, removing the Authorship photos eliminates the vanity incentive, and one would assume removing the photo would have an effect on CTR. Without these incentives, why would people be motivated to set up Authorship at all?
However, Mueller did state that in their tests removing Authorship photos did not have a significant impact on click-through behavior.
Issues surrounding CTR became even more curious when click-through rate (CTR) data in Authorship Webmaster Tools disappeared two days later. Cyrus Shepard recently tweeted about this situation:
Google making it impossible to calculate authorship CTR by not showing stats in Webmaster Tools after 6/27 pic.twitter.com/ljYCKDLXyx
— Cyrus Shepard (@CyrusShepard) July 2, 2014
The aforementioned Mueller responded to Paul Shapiro's tweet here and referred to the loss in data as “a bug”:
This is certainly an intriguing (and developing) situation because bug or not, the timing of losing the only CTR data we have in terms of Authorship right as we lose author photos in search seems highly coincidental. The only data we had to monitor the CTR ourselves disappears right as we need it.
The notion that CTR will be relatively the same without Authorship photos has been met with a bit of skepticism within the SEO industry.
Rand Fishkin tweeted this shortly after Mueller’s announcement:
I am frustrated @JohnMu saying that it will not cost CTR. Either Google lied about the increase in CTR with photos, or they're lying now.
— Rand Fishkin (@randfish) June 25, 2014
And Larry Kim made this point in a post he wrote on the WordStream Blog:
“It does seem more than a little disingenuous for Google to suggest now, after all the work they did encouraging and convincing people that authorship photos in the SERPs would get them more clicks (and it wasn’t exactly easy to set them up), that authorship photos are actually costing people clicks or don’t help at all. So what’s going on?” - Larry Kim
Mark Traphagen offered this as a possible explanation in a post he wrote for Search Engine Land:
"Notice that Mueller does not specifically say he is referring to CTR for the Authorship results only. He actually says the comparison was on CTR behavior on the new "less-cluttered design" vs. the "previous one." So he could be referring to overall CTR across all the results on those two samples, not just Authorship. In other words, Google saw no significant effect on search behavior on the whole betweem the two designs." - Mark Traphagen
Cyrus Shepard also wrote a post on the Moz Blog in which he pointed out a theory that critics of the change believe:
"Critics argue that the one thing that will actually become more visible as a result of this change will be Google's ads at the top and sides of the page." - Cyrus Shepard
Multiple posts and studies have shown that Authorship photos can improve CTR, which is why so many influencers are skeptical of Mueller’s remarks about their tests showing click-through rates to be “similar”.
Here is what the before and after results look like.
With Authorship photo:
And here is the same result without the photo:
I’ll let you be the judge. Which of these results would you be more inclined to click on - do you even notice the byline?