In the middle of December 2013, Google Authorship mysteriously disappeared for some authors and their content. The following is our investigative report on those disappearances. Find out who made off with (some) Authorship results and why (and maybe how to stage a happy reunion).
For several years now Google Distinguished Engineer and anti-spam czar Matt Cutts has delivered the keynote at Pubcon in Las Vegas. It’s become a highly-anticipated speech, as Matt seems to save up a lot of juicy revelations about the future direction of Google Search for this talk. In 2013 he did not disappoint, with previews of a number of projects and enhancements Google is working up for search.
But among the most unexpected of those revelations was an announcement that Google would be cutting back on the amount of Authorship rich snippet results shown in search. These are the search results we’ve all seen by now, typically including at least an author’s Google+ profile photo and a byline:
In his keynote, Matt said that in testing they found that reducing Authorship results by 10-15% increased the quality of those results.
We want to make sure that the people who we show as authors are high quality authors. And so we’re looking at the process of possibly tightening that up. It turns out if we reduce the amount of authorship we are showing by just about 10 or 15 percent, we’re radically able to improve the quality of the authors that we show. Which is another nice signal for those searchers and users who are typing into Google and say, “Ah, I see this picture, I see this person is an author. This is something I can trust. This is content that I really want to see.” So it’s not just going to be about the markup; it’s going to be about the quality of the author.
“Possibly tightening that up” went from a possibility to reality in early December 2013. Here’s how it looked on the Authorship tracker in the Moz Feature Graph (which tracks the presence of special features in Google Search across a wide variety of search queries):
It looks like the reduction began on or around December 9, 2013, and leveled off around December 19, with another smaller reduction just after Christmas. It has remained relatively stable at its new level since then.
It was almost like someone crept into the Google Search results one dark night and kidnapped a bunch of them. Will they ever be seen again?
Characteristics of Authorship Kidnap Victims
The reduction was first picked up by observers like Cyrus Shepard, who noticed that some queries where he had previously seen a great many Authorship results now had fewer. But that wasn’t the only change.
Demoted to Second Class
As I noted in my post “Authorshipocalypse! The Great Google Authorship Purge Has Begun,” some authors appeared unaffected by the reduction, others had their results completely disappear, but there emerged a new “second class” of Authorship results: still a byline but no author photo: We used to see byline-only results only when an author already had an Authorship result with profile photo elsewhere on he same results page. Now these are displaying as a kind of “Authorship second class,” still an Authorship result, but without the impact of the face photo.
Making the Cut (Or Not)
But the appearance of some Authorship results was not the only effect of the December cut. The way the reductions worked out on an author by author basis was all over the map. Authors reported any of the following:
- No change at all. The author appeared to be getting about the same Authorship results she was before December.
- Mixed change by site. The author lost (or went down to “second class”) Authorship snippets for some sites on which he publishes, but not others
- Mixed change by content. The author lost (or went to second class) Authorship for some pages of her site, but not others.
- Mixed by authors within a site. Some authors on a site still show Authorship snippets in search for their content on that site, but others do not.
- Total loss. The author lost all authorship snippets for all of his content on any site where he publishes.
And just to make it more confusing, there are authors who experience mixes of the above categories!
Queries Gone Queer
Dr. Pete Meyers of Moz observed that the biggest discernible change was at the query level. That is, some number of queries just stopped showing Authorship results altogether. That’s really what the Mozcast SERP Feature Graph above was showing. The Feature Graph tracks a set of queries and measures how many of them show the feature at all. So it’s an all or nothing measurement. If the feature is shown even once for a query, then that’s a positive. If it doesn’t appear at all, that’s a negative.
Therefore, the drop off we see in that graph is really a drop in queries that show Authorship snippets, not individual results or authors that show it. Pete dug deeper into the queries in the Moz data set that did still show Authorship snippets. His findings are in the following chart:
As you can see, there is no significant statistical difference in the number of authorship results shown for the test set of queries after the purge. So the best we can say at the query level is that it appears that Google did make a reduction on a query-by-query basis, and that for many queries where Authorship remains, the number of results showing Authorship didn’t change all that much. (By the way, in his Moz article Pete lists a sampling of queries that lost Authorship snippets. It’s interesting to note that they are all head terms. Might be an indication that Google wants Authorship to be associated more with content that is more specific.)
But Wait, There’s More! It would be tempting at this point to say, “case closed!” and declare search queries as the culprit in the Great Authorship Kidnapping of 2013. But not so fast! There are still suspects at large. Don’t forget about the individual author cases listed above, where some authors saw some or all of their Authorship results disappear. There is much more at work here than just queries, and I’ll discuss why in a moment. But first…breaking news!
A Few Hostages Released?
This just in! In mid-January I began receiving reports that some authors who had lost authorship altogether were beginning to see a total or partial return. Did Google ease up a bit on the Authorship cuts about that time?
Authors such as Dustin Stout, Ray Hiltz, and Michael Davies reported that they had lost all authorship snippets for their blogs in December, but in mid-January they began seeing some or all of them return.
This is common in Google updates that change the status of sites in rankings. When first instituted, the update is usually “rough” and takes down more sites than was probably intended. Google does a damage assessment, tweaks the algorithm, and some sites get their ranking status back. It appears they may have done that with the Authorship purge as well.
Here is another bit of evidence that some hostages were let go:
Some of the queries that Pete Meyers listed in his Moz post as no longer showing any Authorship results now have at least a few, for example, here’s one that now shows on the first page in a search for “crohn’s disease” for which Moz’s metrics earlier this month showed no Authorship results.
I still see some authors being held hostage who probably shouldn’t be, and even some crazy anomalies that just can’t be right. One example is Stone Temple’s own Eric Enge. As I expected, I found all his Authorship to be intact after the December purge. Eric has a sterling reputation in our industry. He writes very popular and widely quoted and linked-to content, and only on the highest quality sites. But then I found one inexplicable hole: his authorship results for his posts at Copyblogger have completely disappeared. Copyblogger is a highly respected site, and everyone else who uses Authorship there seems to still have it in search. But not Eric. It’s totally without reason that I can see. I’m hoping future adjustment to the Authorship algorithm will correct such oversights. (Eric notes: “me too!”)
Some Ransom Notes
More breaking news on the Authorship kidnappings! We’ve heard from the kidnappers (Google).
As is common with Google, their messages are cryptic. But lets see if they confirm some of what our investigation has turned up so far.
Ransom Note #1: Delivered to Search Engine Watch
Jennifer Slegg of Search Engine Watch got Google to make some statements about the Authorship reduction. Go to her post to read their full quotes, but here are my takeaways:
- “…we rolled out new algorithms designed to show author photos when they’re more likely to be relevant and interesting.” This could be, at least partially, a reference to the query-dependent reductions uncovered by Pete Meyers we discussed above.
- “…the algorithms now try to estimate the quality of documents an author typically writes.” So “document quality” (whatever that means) is a factor. Could Google be applying some of the content quality algorithms they developed for updates like Panda to Authorship?
- The comment about what “an author typically writes” is intriguing as well. Is that an indication that some kind of author score was developed, based on overall content quality? Does that mean some authors, based on their track record, are more likely to have author photos showing than others? The anonymous Google spokesperson went on to say, “If an author typically writes high quality content, that author is more likely to be relevant to you.”
- “We also rely on social signals designed to show you author portraits for the people you’ve circled on Google+.” This we’ve definitely seen. If you have lots of Google Authorship-using authors in your Google+ circles, you will see more Authorship results in your personalized (logged in to your Google account) search, and you’ll see some who aren’t getting such results in “regular” (non-logged in) search results.
Ransom Note #2: Delivered by Googler John Mueller
John Mueller is Webmaster Trends Analyst for Google Webmaster Tools, and has become beloved for his highly informative weekly “office hours hangouts” on Google+ Hangouts On Air, where he answers questions from his audience.
In last week’s office hours hangout, my friend Joshua Berg asked a series of questions about the recent changes in Authorship. You can hear those questions and John Mueller’s responses in the video below. He starts talking about Authorship at 53:30 into the video (so advance it to that point), but Joshua’s interesting follow-up questions start at 59:36):
First Joshua asks, “Is it safe to assume that the quality and authority of the web site is a contributing factor in showing Authorship results?” John responds with several factors that could affect whether an Authorship result is shown:
- Is the author someone that Google recognizes as someone they “should show in search in general.”
- Does the person searching know this author? (I.e., are they in their Google+ circles.)
- Is the content high quality?
- Is it published on sites that are known for publishing high quality content?
John summarized by saying that “all of those things sort of come together naturally to let us know that you’re an author of high quality content.”
Joshua then commented that he had seen situations (as have I) where Authorship shows for a particular author for some sites on which he has published but not on others. John responded that “that’s definitely possible.” He also noted that it’s possible it “varies depending on the query” (confirming what Pete Meyers of Moz had seen).
So to sum up, it sounds like any or all of the following now come into play in determining when, where, and for what an Authorship result is shown in search:
- Author reputation (a trust score of some sort?)
- Relationship to the searcher (but only in personalized search)
- Content quality
- Site authority and trust level
- Query suitability
Let’s take a deeper look at each of those. But in order to do that, I first will call another witness!
We Hear from the Victims!
Yes, you heard it right. We managed to establish a line of communication with some of the Google Authorship kidnapping victims. We reached them via my Google Authorship and Author Rank community on Google+. I asked the almost 18,000 members there to get in touch with me if they were sure that they had seen some change in the amount and/or way their Authorship was showing in search since December. I also asked to hear from others who (like myself) had seen little or no change.
I heard from several dozen members who told me, often in great detail, what results they were seeing before and after the December reduction. I’ve spent the past month combing through the various sites in their G+ Contributor To links, looking at their content, the link graphs to that content and the sites it’s published on, and how their results are showing in search for various queries. I would now like to bring that testimony together with the Google statements and other data we’ve already seen, and give my opinion on each of the Authorship criteria I pulled from the Google statements.
I want to emphasize first that everything that follows is my subjective opinion. It has been very difficult to nail down hard data on this. But I believe I have now spent more hours investigating this than anyone else likely has, I’ve looked at data from many different sources (as you’ve seen), and I have the experience I’ve gained from nearly three years of observing and testing how Google uses Authorship. So, take my opinions for what you think they’re worth Also, I’m going to leave out personalization and query factors as I think we’ve already established those as definite instigators.
Common Factors in Loss of Authorship in Search:
Factor 1: Author Reputation
This one is bound to be the most controversial, because in my experience, as soon as I even raise the possibility that Google may be using some kind of author trust scoring, a number of people begin to shout, “Author Rank!” Author Rank has become kind of the Holy Grail of Google Authorship for some advocates. It’s the idea, based on some old Google patents and intriguing but somewhat ambiguous statements from Googlers that Google will someday rank author’s content based on a topical authority score.
The basic concept of Author Rank is that wherever Google has the ability to verify (or at least have high confidence about) the authorship of a piece of content, that content would be parsed for its topicality, and then the social and other signals around that content, combined with all the other topically-related content from that author, would be combined into a topic authority score for that author, which in turn could be used to boost the ranking power of his or her content in search.
Disputing about whether or not some kind of Author Rank is in effect would go way beyond the scope of this article, so I’m not going to get deep into that subject. And I don’t think we need to be thinking Author Rank (necessarily) in order to talk about some kind of Author reputation/trust evaluation in effect.
So. Google says that they look at the quality of documents the author typically writes. What have I seen in my sample of “victims”?
As I’ve looked across my sample, it does indeed appear that in some cases there are authors who seem virtually impervious to Authorship kidnapping. These authors seemed to maintain their Authorship results for nearly everything they’ve written connected to Authorship, regardless of the site. In every case that I saw, these were authors who had the following:
- A reputation for high quality content
- A long history of publishing such content
- Content that consistently get lots of social shares and attract plenty of quality links.
While it’s impossible to map out an exact list of factors that typify such authors, the characteristics I just mentioned are almost invariably present.
I’ll also add for the Author Rank crowd that I could find no evidence of any kind of topical authority at play in this. If an author is “non-kidnappable,” then her content tends to show a full Authorship result no matter the topic of the content.
So first conclusion: there does appear to be some kind of Authorship reputation score, but it only helps the highest-reputation authors.
Factor 2 & 3: Content Quality and Site Reputation
I’ve combined factors 2 and 3 because I found them to be so interwoven that it was nearly impossible to assess them separately.
In my survey of the sample authors, I came across many instances of sites (publishers) that seemed to have lost Authorship results (or had them severely reduced) for all authors on the site. In other words, to all appearances, the site lost Authorship privileges. Something about the site itself seemed to cause Google to take away Authorship in search results for any of its content.
I’ve also found a number of examples where Authorship is being shown partially for a site. This occurs in one of two ways:
- Some authors on the site get Authorship results, while others don’t. I want to qualify here that I am speaking only about authors for whom Authorship is properly set up for their content on the site and whose content verifies for Authorship setup in Google’s Structured Data Testing Tool.
- Some pages or content on the site that used to show Authorship in results no longer do, but other pages or content still do.
Note: some sites show a mix of those two effects.
Bill Hartzer has suggested that the link graph of a site or individual page in a site might be the determining factor. I suspected this as well, but can’t find a strong enough correlation consistently between the Moz, Ahrefs, and MajesticSEO rankings for these sites and pages that lost or kept Authorship results to say that this is the only factor. It may certainly come into play, but if so is only one of a number of factors.
Conclusion two: There is a site and content quality (publisher) aspect to the loss of Authorship results.
While it’s difficult to nail down what that aspect entails, and there are exceptions to every pattern I saw, I think the following are true on the whole:
- Sites with higher domain authority, a long history with Google, that have never been penalized, and that consistently publish high quality content from highly-reputable authors, tend to have a better chance of having all or most Authorship results show for qualified content.
- Individual content pages within a site that do not conform to Google’s guidelines for Authorship as expressed in the Google Authorship FAQ published last fall are more likely to have lost their Authorship in search. Similarly, authors for whom most or all of their Authorship was connected to such non-conforming pages were more likely to have lost Authorship results. Pay particular attention to guidelines 1 and 7, as they seem most pertinent.
- In some cases, content that is newer and/or has a weaker link graph pointing to it may be less likely to display Authorship, but the evidence for this is weaker than the other two.
One overall observation: While I obviously think there are multiple factors that contribute to earning or losing one’s Authorship results, I do NOT think they are all equal. From my observations, publisher factors are more important than author factors, at least for now. That is, it appears Google went after the “low hanging fruit” in terms of what is already easy for them to do: assessing site and content quality. Grading authors is a lot tougher. I think they are beginning to do it, but it’s not as big a factor. For now.
Recovering the Victims
So, we’ve established that a “crime” took place (the kidnapping of some Authorship results in search), identified the suspects (Matt Cutts and the Google search quality teams, who were concerned about a glut of Authorship in search and wanted to pare it back to improve quality), and we’ve identified the likely characteristics of kidnap victims.
What about bringing some of those victims back home?
Based on what I’ve observed, I make the following recommendations to anyone either looking to get back home after being Authorship kidnapped, or to anyone who would like to build toward an immunity to such kidnapping in the future.
1. Publish only on high quality, trusted sites.
It’s an old saw that “you are known by the company you keep,” but it’s certainly more true in online content and SEO all the time. Authorship comes with its privileges, but it also means that Google is better able to track not only what you write and how its received, but where you choose to publish. If you seek out publishing on low quality sites, what does that say about you? Here’s a rule of thumb: any site that would let you publish on it without any check of your work or reputation, don’t go there.
This just in from the news desk! As I was preparing this post for publication, Google’s Matt Cutts released a new blog post titled “The Decay and Fall of Guest Blogging for SEO.” While it’s primarily a rant about the too-widespread practice of churning out endless low quality guest posts that have no reason to exist other than to create links back to a site, we should see this as yet another sign that Google is serious about going after low quality content and the sites who publish it. You don’t want your Authorship anywhere near that sort of stuff.
2. Create quality over quantity.
Stop worrying about how much you write and how many different places, and concentrate more on producing content that serves a genuine purpose, that stands out and says something unique and worthwhile, that is truly helpful or answers a question in a way no one else has already done. Above all, as my friend AJ Kohn says, be memorable.
While I’m mentioning AJ, he’s a great example of quality over quantity paying off. He hasn’t guest posted in years, and even on his own blog (Blind Five Year Old) he puts up a post on average just once a month. But every single one is epic. They’re all knock it out of the park content. But AJ has no problem ranking well in search, gets plenty of traffic, has no lack of clients for his business, and gets invited to speak at top conferences. I’m not saying you need to imitate his practices, but you sure could learn a lot from him. (A great read from AJ and apropos to this article: “Build Your Authority, Not Your Author Rank.”
3. Be careful where you connect your Authorship.
We’ve seen some evidence that users are losing Authorship in search results if they have connected their Authorship to pages on sites that do not contain content that Google considers Authorship-worthy. Your best guide here is the aforementioned Google Authorship FAQ, again in particular questions #1 and #7.
4. Build and nurture your social networks.
From everything Google has been saying for the past several years, it is clear that they are going to judge you by the company you keep, not only in terms of publishing sites, but the social circles in which you hang. Already we’ve seen that in Google’s own social network, Google+, profiles gain varying levels of authority, and that authority is in part determined by the trustworthiness and authority of the others who engage with that profile.
But more importantly, your social network are your reputation builders. If you’ve worked hard at building a network of real relationships, made up of influential friends and enthusiastic fans, they will be sharing and engaging with your content. They’ll make it known to others, creating a growing layer of positive social signals all around you. At Pubcon last October Matt Cutts said that social signals are for long-term benefit. Over the years, if your are continually and consistently getting lots of positive engagement with your content, you will be more likely to become one of those impermeable authors I wrote about above.
Final word: If you’re a Google Authorship kidnap victim (or just haven’t even gotten on their radar yet), I want to hold out some hope. I am confident this Authorship update is not static. That is, it’s not some permanent box you’ve been sealed into. You can break free and become a highly-visible author, but like anything worthwhile, it may take time. Keep working at it, be consistent, keep your standards high. We’ll have a welcome home party once you’ve arrived.
Photo credit: Cat meme photo by Byron Chin. Used according to a Creative Commons attribution license.