Google Plus Author Photos Removed From SERPs07/16/2014
Google recently announced the end of author headshots in search results, unapologetically citing UX considerations on mobile.
Though still in its infancy, Google's Authorship program has already been incorporated into the search marketing plans of every website that maintains a blog, and has rapidly became a cornerstone of modern, best-practices SEO consulting.
It's been clear to us since the launch of Google Plus that this new social network was going to become very important to legitimately growing and maintaining a site's search visibility long-term, as we know that Google has been seeking to minimize their reliance on links as a primary ranking signal since links are easy to game and hard to police. Thus they introduced verifiable identities for content creators.
Google encouraged adoption of the Authorship program by asserting early-on that having a recognizable author headshot appearing next to their works in the Google SERPs would increase their CTR, and thus their organic traffic. This was proven to be true.
Except, as part of this announcement, Google's Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller said:
Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.
I don't think John Mueller is lying, but we know CTR goes up with author photos, and if we know that, Google definitely knows that. So I think John might have been intentionally vague here. After all, if you zoom out far enough, every trend flattens out. He obviously didn't mean "the results that used to show author photos aren't getting any lower CTR now that we've taken the photos away," because that would have been lying.
It's probable that Google realized the author photos were taking clicks away from the ads without improving relevancy signals (e.g., results with author photos had higher CTR but the bounce rate back to the SERP was the same), which is probably the simplest theory that fits the data.
Later in the same Google Plus comment thread, Mueller added:
the best way to be resiliant [sic] with regards to algorithmic changes is to have a truely [sic] fantastic site. If you have the choice between making your website significantly better, or tweaking it to follow any new change, I'd always recommend focusing on your website first. Chasing algorithms is almost never the best use of time.
Of course he's right -- if you're in it for the long-term, you're more likely to eventually wreck your search traffic playing blackhat games and hoping you don't get caught. But he's referring to authorship headshots in SERPs, which Google directly stated to be a legitimate tactic for improving your organic CTR.
All petty details aside, even without author photos showing up in search results, it's still important to establish authorship and continue to feed and water your Google Plus profile and the Google Plus page for your website, because these activities build a strong signal base that Google intends to leverage for ranking purposes, and the sites that don't have content created by verified identities are going to lose visibility.
That's not chasing the algorithm. That's modern search marketing integration.