The Origin of Google Authorship
Turn the clock back to June of 2011, when Google announced its new authorship program as a means to better attribute content to authors for a range of purposes. The announcement included a major tie-in to Google plus, which was a very new and significant focus for Google at the time.
Why did Google want to tie content and authors together? Industry pundits offered different interpretations. Mine focused on how it would affect rankings for authors and non-authors.
In fact, Google’s own team came out saying that identity authentication for content authors was a major piece of the rationale behind the program. The natural conclusion was that this served to better enforce Google’s growing anti-spam stance.
Google has used penalties rather extensively over the past four to five years for just this purpose. For example, its first webspam penalty (Google Panda) was released in February, 2011 to combat on-page items such as duplicate content, shallow content, poorly written/low quality content, content scraping and reposting, and similar Black Hat SEO tactics that were junking up the SERPs.
Following on the quality-related penalties, Google was pushing for authors to have their content marked up wherever they contributed content. It was natural to think that well-known authors with solid reputations would compose content that should be deemed high quality. In this way, the world’s leading search engine would have another lever to pull when calculating the best results for online searches.
Of course, success with authorship was dependent on widespread adoption. While some segments of the market were on board (SEOs for example, which one would expect), the majority of content generators simply ignored or decided not to comply with the new potential for Google Authorship.
Then, Without Notice, Authorship was Abandoned
Much to the chagrin of Authorship supporters worldwide, Google decided to pull the plug on author markup in August of 2014. After spending over three years working to drive adoption, Google decided that authorship as we knew it was failing to achieve its original vision.
While unexpected, it was not a complete surprise for Google to abandon ship with Authorship. Several months prior to the announcement, Google had already stopped showing author photos within search results, regardless of whether or not content was marked up. It sold it as a change made for “improving the user experience,” but clearly it was much more.
Author photos were the most visible benefit of marking up content for authors. With those gone, there were all sorts of rumblings from “What is Google doing?” to accusations that it was simply trying to inflate click throughs on PPC advertisements.
But many of us overlooked the obvious conclusion: that Authorship was on its way out. Google cleared up that situation with the announcement.
Google’s guidance about Authorship was noncommittal at that time. Should authors remove it? Its answer — feel free to use or not. It can’t hurt, but won’t provide value, at least in the near term.
Case Closed ... Or Is It?
Post announcement, many people in the SEO industry stayed the course and continued using Author Markup. That fervor started to wane in recent months. Even my own agency started to make it optional in audits and website deployments.
Why force the issue when it likely has no future impact on ranking or SEO?
The topic was hardly mentioned again until Oct. 1, 2015. At SMX East, Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land asked Google’s Webmaster Trends analyst Gary Illyes whether it was worth using author markup any more. Illyes’ answer surprised everyone at his keynote speech.
Illyes said to stay the course "... because it is possible Google might make use of [rel=author] again in the future."
Wow! This was the first time Google said anything of that nature. Mark Traphagen, a well known and credible SEO himself, analyzed the situation in detail. He found no concrete plan, but suggested keeping authorship markup on our websites. His thought is that Google may start using it again when enough websites and authors adopt it.
What Does This All Mean?
Before all of this transpired, I had put a lot of time and effort into client education about what Authorship is, how websites should be marked up, and why it mattered in the grand scheme of SEO and Inbound Marketing. The vision was that the author of any content can be factored into the overall algorithm for content quality.
For writers known to be knowledgeable on a particular topic — and who write good quality material — their new content should be of interest on merit alone. This is a very valid concept for anyone with interest in search engine optimization.
Who knows what Google will do or when they will do it? The smart decision is to stick with author markup and watch what Google does over time. Having worked with both marketing and SEO for well over 15 years, I’ve learned that positioning yourself for success is never a bad decision. In this case, it pays to stay the course just in case.
Do you still have author markup present on your website? Why did you decide to keep it or not?