December 2013: Authorship in Search Results Gets Restricted

UPDATE 21 January 2013: I have now published results of my study detailing who lost Google Authorship and why.

UPDATE: While composing this post, Barry Schwartz of Search Engine Land reported that Google confirms that Authorship results in search are being intentionally reduced.

It appears that the Matt Cutts-promised reductions to the amount of Google Authorship results being shown in Google Search has begun.

I have been getting an increasing number of reports from Google Authorship users, at my Google Authorship and Author Rank Community and elsewhere, that their Authorship rich snippets for search results for their content have either completely disappeared, disappeared for some sites but not for others, or are showing in a new limited form (with author byline but no author photo).

See for example, this side-by-side before and after SERPs comparison for the same query, posted by Cyrus Shepard on Google+:

Has Google Begun to Purge Google Authorship in Search?

Further evidence that a reduction is underway can be seen in this screencap from the new Moz Google Features Graph. It shows the amount of Google Authorship snippets showing in the SERPs for the past 30 days (up to 18 December 2013).

Has Google Begun to Purge Google Authorship in Search?

As you can see, it appears Authorship snippets started to decline around the beginning of December, then took a nose dive around the 12th, and after a couple of days of leveling off, have taken another plunge. It’s true that if you look at the scale of the graph it’s only about a 3% reduction overall so far, but given that Authorship has been pretty steady in the SERPs for a long time, that’s still a significant change.

Reduction in Authorship in SERPs Was Promised

Has Google Begun to Purge Google Authorship in Search?In his keynote speech at Pubcon Las Vegas this past October, Google’s Matt Cutts said that they had been testing a reduction in the number of Authorship snippets shown in search results, and they found that when they reduced them by about 15%, “quality went up.” Cutts did not make clear whether it was the quality of the authorship results or the overall quality of the SERPs that improved, or for that matter, even what he meant by “quality.”

But one thing seemed clear: at some point, the amount of Authorship snippets in search would decline, and that “quality” would be the reason, and perhaps the criteria.

For reference, here’s exactly what Cutts said at Pubcon:

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.

Three Classes of Authorship

Another change being noticed by Authorship observers is that there now appear to be three “classes” of people who use Google Authorship in terms of how they show up (or don’t show up) in search:

First Class: Full Authorship Snippet

These authors still tend to get the full authorship snippet (author photo + byline + [optional] number of Google+ circles).

Has Google Begun to Purge Google Authorship in Search?

Second Class: Byline But No Photo

These authors still get an author byline under the link text in their search results (and sometimes the number of Google+ circles they’re in, at least in the US), but no author photo.

Has Google Begun to Purge Google Authorship in Search?

Third Class: No Authorship Rich Snippet At All

These authors used to get authorship rich snippets for some or all of their content, but no longer get it.

What is most interesting here, of course, is that new “second class.” We used to only see that kind of authorship result when the author already had another result on the same SERP showing an author photo. Google only allows one author photo per author per search page. But now we are seeing these “headless snippets” appearing all by themselves. They indeed seem to be a new “middle class” of authorship rich snippets.

What Authors Are Being Affected?

It’s too early to say for sure if there are definite signs or telltale common characteristics among authors who have dropped to the second or third class of authorship. But we are seeing the emergence of some patterns from the anecdotal reports we are receiving from users whose authorship has dropped. So far the primary patterns seem to have more to do with sites than authors. In addition, there has been no discernible rankings change for most authors. So this does not appear to be an “author rank” update, but rather a culling out of sites that are not meeting some undefined threshold of quality for showing full author snippets.

  • Well-established authors who regularly publish in-depth content on trusted sites and whose content tends to get a lot of links and social shares appear to have been spared. I have yet to receive a report of anyone at that level who has dropped to second or third class.
  • An exception to above: I’ve now found a few such authors who still get first-class results for some sites on which they publish, but not others. This indicates that the loss of authorship may be more site-tied than author-tied.
  • The number of Google+ followers has no bearing. I’m still seeing first-class examples with just a handful of people circling them.
  • It is looking more and more like this may be a site-by-site assessment rather than author-by-author.  I am hearing about sites where the snippet class of all their authors dropped for the content they had published on the site. And as noted above, some authors are showing full rich snippets for some sites but not for others.
  • Connecting authorship to pages that violate the guidelines in the Google Authorship FAQ published earlier this year may cause one to drop in Authorship class. These are pages that don’t “convey a real person’s perspective or analysis on a topic.” Examples given include product pages and property listings.

UPDATE 5:42 PM EST 19 December 2013: I’m hearing from more and more high-reputation authors who are seeing changes to their authorship class that are site-specific. See this comment from Jon Henshaw of Raven Tools:

Google Begins to Purge Authorship in Search

I’m beginning to lean toward the idea that this reduction may have been applied either mostly or entirely on a site-by-site rather than author-by-author basis, or perhaps some mix of both.

Disclaimer! These are extremely early and tentative observations. While they seem to conform to the reports I’m getting from many users, I can find exceptions to all but the first. For the other three, I can still find examples here and there of people who seem to violate the principle yet still get a full first-class snippet in search. Of course, it could be that we are still in the rollout stage of this change and that more heads may roll (almost literally!) in the days to come.

Much more I could say, but I want to get this post out while this news is breaking. I’ll follow up with updates as we learn more

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