Google Giveth & Google Taketh Away Author Icons

Google recently announced they’d be removing a major element from their search engine results pages (SERPs) that they’ve been featuring for the past couple of years: author icons. Since this is something we Local Marketers have enthusiastically encouraged, what does this mean for businesses now? Should you still incorporate authorship markup? Here’s the skinny from my POV.

Reversals in Google development are nothing new, of course. Google seems to take one or two steps forward and then a step back multiple times in a period of only a few years.

Remember Google Labs? Remember Google Hotpot? Remember the earlier names for Google Places for Business, for that matter? (It was previously named “Google Local Business Center,” and, I think, something prior to that as well.)

It’s probably necessary to experiment and “fail fast” in the search engine industry, although one truly wonders why they perform all that usability and user experience testing if they’re going to deploy relatively temporary changes.

Aside from ranking changes, major adjustments to SERP displays arguably have the biggest impact on a business’ search traffic.

Google Author Icons Gone

Google Author Icons are now gone from search results listings, leaving something of a black hole for businesses that previously enjoyed the enhanced rates that came with them.

Why Are We Losing Author Icons?

The revocation of author icons was, perhaps, somewhat predictable. When they emerged, I described them as a sort of “gift” or “bribe” Google was providing to webmasters in return for integrating with their major social media effort, Google+. The increased visibility in SERPs from authorship icons was blatantly an incentive for content creators to join the platform.

HubSpot’s Ginny Soskey stated that the tiny author pics were “one of the main reasons we all set [Google+] up anyway.” And, once Google achieved a certain amount of G+ usership — or perhaps decided the effort was not performing as they desired — the incentive might be expected to disappear.

It’s possible that Google+ did not achieve the level of widespread adoption the search giant was hoping for. Adopters of authorship markup consisted largely of tech-savvy bloggers, companies and search marketers; most small businesses and less-savvy individuals and organizations simply didn’t do it.

I think either they achieved the social usership level they desired, or the platform just wasn’t performing as hoped — both explanations seem plausible, considering the announcement that author icons would be going away came not long after the news that Vic Gundotra, father of G+, was leaving Google.

Impact On Local Business

So, just what is the impact to business listings, now that the author icons have gone the way of the dodo bird?

First and foremost, we can reasonably expect the click-through rate (CTR) on those listings to decrease — and likely, sharply. Research performed numerous times indicated that listings sporting author icons and other rich snippet effects enjoy a greater CTR than the plain text listings.

Now, usability research from within Google itself established that CTR was also greater if the user recognized the photo of the author — such as if the author was a friend/connection from within your Google+ circles, or a well-known writer.

From this research, Google had already made some modifications to listing layouts with author icons — such as invoking them to appear more as part of personalization when individuals you’re connected with had articles in your search results. They’d also recently reduced the numbers of listings sporting the author icons, as well.

The author icons had already seemed to disappear from the local listings pack, prior to the announcement that author icons would be going away altogether.

The listings using author markup coordinated with Google+ author pages will still have a little different treatment in search results — they’ll sport a byline at the beginning of the snippets. But of course, this just isn’t as visible nor eye-catching as the icon treatment.

For sites that have not already incorporated authorship markup, is this subtle listing treatment enough of a benefit to justify the time and effort to incorporate authorship? Quite probably not.

Hopes For More Graphics Dashed

The hopes that many held that Google would proceed further with the icon treatments, enabling a similar iconified listing to appear for publishers and company pages, didn’t particularly materialize, although Google has shown publisher logo icons at times in conjunction with news results. The dial has been turned further backward, rather than being turned further forward to more graphically enhanced SERPs.

Most rich snippets are sufficiently eye-catching (in terms of listing visibility) that they are beneficial to pursue. Recipe rich snippets continue to sport photo icons, for instance.

But unless your name is somewhat recognizable to your audience of potential customers, the current version of author snippets likely does not benefit you enough to be worth the effort. In fact, it’s possible that they might even take up too much valuable snippet real estate that would be better used for more meta description — giving you a better chance to convert searchers into customers.

If you’ve already incorporated the authorship, you likely enjoyed some benefits that may stick around in terms of marketshare for some time into the future. The increased CTR of your listings likely continues to factor into your rankings to some degree. It may not be worthwhile to re-engineer your presence to remove the author snippet treatment unless you reasonably think you can get a better-performing snippet by doing so.

It’s still possible the pendulum could swing back to showing author icons again at some point in the future. Currently, this move would appear to erode Google+ usage, making one seriously wonder if they perhaps intend to rearrange it or decommission it. Stay tuned for the next changes that might be in store as a trickle-down effect from this development.

We really must wonder at this point if the Google+ Local Maps integration might be rolled backward as well — the integration path between the two disparate services was rocky at best, and never seemed fully realized from my perspective.