What We Still Don’t Know About the Death of Google Authorship

After years of experimentation, Google has pulled the plug on Authorship. We were told it was removed because it no longer improved the search experience for users. But is that the full story?
September 8, 2014

After years of experimentation, Google has pulled the plug on Authorship. We were told it was removed because it no longer improved the search experience for users. But is that the full story? What if the announcement wasn’t just the result of Google’s no-sacred-cows ethos, but was actually part of the Authorship strategy from the beginning? Here’s the conspiracy theory: I think it is entirely possible that Google conceived Authorship, in full or in part, to bait every author online to feed Google nice clean structured data so that Google could consume that data and improve its algorithms to the point that it no longer even needed said data. (I may be crazy – what do you think? Tweet your feedback or your own conspiracy theory.) In other words, Google always intended to use Authorship data for its own purposes, but never fully intended to leave author photos in search results.

The Life and Death of Google Authorship

A (very) brief history of Authorship:

  • 2007 – Google’s Agent Rank patent outlines a framework that assigns a digital signal to an author (aka “agent” – Come on, that has “conspiracy” written all over it.) that is used to connect all of his/her content.
  • 2011 – Google announces Authorship markups. Webmasters are encouraged to mark up their pieces to help Google connect content and build Agent Rank.
  • 2011 – Shortly thereafter, Google+ is unveiled and becomes the perfect identity platform to support Agent Rank by connecting agents to their content.
  • 2012 – Due to low adoption rates, Google tries to figure out authorship itself, but auto-attribution doesn’t always work.
  • 2013 – Google reduces authorship by 15% to show only the most authoritative agents.
  • 2014 – Photos are removed from search results, and Authorship is finally killed off completely.

The reason Authorship was shut down? We are told that it just didn’t improve the user experience enough to justify keeping it alive.

What We Still Don’t Know

The gaping question is: Why did Google kill Authorship in its entirety? Authors and webmasters would have been more than willing to continue to feed Google authorship data in the hopes of gaining even the smallest edge in rankings. Google could have benefitted from this data indefinitely. But apparently Google is no longer processing authorship markup data at all, thus we no longer need to worry about providing it. The are only two explanations I can think Google would do this:

  1. Google is shuttering the Agent Rank program in its entirety. Perhaps it was a failure, or maybe it just didn’t deliver as high a return as expected, but if the Agent Rank program was going away, there would be no need for authorship data.
  2. Google no longer needs Authorship data from webmasters for its Agent Rank algorithms. In other words, Google is confident it can programmatically determine the author of each important piece of content online without specific authorship markup.

There are other possible reasons. Maybe there was just too much authorship markup spam? Surely the great Google could address that. Maybe the Authorship systems just cost too much to maintain? That’s right, Google has been low on cash lately (dripping with sarcasm).

What Now?

No matter the reasons, Authorship is gone. We’re going to continue writing content, and our best bet is to take a cue from the Local SEO arena: Be consistent. Wherever you contribute content, be consistent. Use the same byline, contact info, social links, etc. The more clear signals you can give Google about your authentic identity, the better. What if Google really did pull a fast one on us with Authorship and use us for the data we could provide? Well, there was probably little we could have done about it then and little we could do now. I guess you can always block your site from Google and focus your SEO efforts on Bing and Yahoo!… (Tweet @seonate with your own comments or theories.)

Nate Dame
CEO and Founder
Nate is the founder and CEO of Profound Strategy, a results-oriented SEO consultancy trusted by forward-thinking companies, including a few of the world's largest B2B and technology brands. Profound Strategy builds holistic SEO strategies, supports internal teams, and offers full-service execution to create an organic search presence that generates significant revenue.

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