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.

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.)

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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