More and more, Google has been showing pictures of article authors next to search results. But what began ostensibly as simple adoption of industry standard Web markup seems to have become an exercise in promoting the Google+ social network.
In June 2011 Google began to pilot a way for content authors to associate a photo and an author byline to the display of their articles in Google search results. Google extended the pilot to Google News searches in November 2011.
The addition of author information in search results continues Google’s support of microformat html markup to enrich a search result, a concept originally pioneered by Yahoo as enhanced results, called rich snippets by Google and known by Bing as Tiles.
Why Authorship Markup & Rich Snippets Are Worth The Effort
Rich snippets offer websites the chance to stand out from the crowd in search results, enticing more clicks in the process. Authorship markup is particular visible due to the presence of an author’s photo – humans are wired to gaze at photos of people.
The combination of an author photo and byline can add credibility to what might have been just another otherwise anonymous search result. A domain name in a result listing can pull just so much weight.
Authorship Rotates Around The Author Profile / Hub
Google’s implementation of author rich snippets requires an author profile page containing an author head shot photo. The photo will appear in the rich snippet; originally it was positioned on the right, before assuming a spot on the left.
Google also creates an author byline which links to the author’s profile page:
Google has many sources available for author hub pages. Websites which contain high quality content, including news outlets, usually have their own author profile pages which, by virtue of association, will be as authoritative as any of the content by that author on that site.
Content authors may also manage their online digital identity by promoting their profiles on one or more social networks, from the business oriented LinkedIn to the more general Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
In its authorship markup pilot, Google has chosen to support just one authorship profile hub, Google Profiles, which is just a click or two away from what appears to be their real objective, the promotion of Google+, discussed in more detail below.
Google’s Authorship Markup Isn’t Search Engine Agnostic
Google’s choice to limit author profile options to their own Google Profiles is rather troublesome as content authors must actively promote an external profile to the detriment of their own profile or a profile on an independent site of their choosing.
Promote? Indeed. Google requires links to the Google / Google+ Profile from the author’s website, with no mention of provisions for using the infamous rel=”nofollow” link attribute or the less invasive <link> html tag.
As other search engines will be indexing this Google specific code too, Google Profiles have an unfair advantage in search results not just in Google but in those Google competitors as well.
Google also promotes the author’s profile page as a byline link included in search results for the author’s content. Instead of a search engine user clicking directly to the author’s site, a user can easily be diverted to another Google property, Google+.
On a social media site, the goal is to use engagement to keep a user from leaving, not too unlike Charlie and the MTA.
Given Google’s effective search monopoly in many of the markets in which it operates, its hard not to interpret Google’s promotion of Google Profiles/Google+ as a not so subtle conflict of interest. What is truly surprising is that this behavior is so uncharacteristic of Google.
Adherence To Industry Standards? Maybe, Maybe Not
In initial announcements, Google touted their adherence to industry standards in designing the authorship rich snippet markup specification. They noted the use of rel=”author” (credited to html5, it isn’t actually new) and the XHTML Friends Network rel=”me”.
Google even said they support article content markup specified by the search engine industry sponsored Schema.org project (like sitemaps.org, schema.org was conceived to allow websites to implement functionality compatible with all major search engines).
Yet as long time Microsoft watchers will know, the devil in the details. Google’s authorship markup documentation omits any mention of the Schema.org standard and implies a requirement to use a Google/Google+ Profile, a detail clearly not part of the schema.org specification.
Perhaps one of Google’s authorship markup showcase examples does use Schema.org markup – the curious will have reverse engineer each example in a quest to find the answer.
After the first few months of the authorship markup pilot, Google also said they would support non-standard ways to link content to Google Profiles. The first change was to allow the rel=”author” anchor tag attribute to be specified as a URL parameter ?rel=author instead.
Presumably, this was done to facilitate implementation in CMS systems which don’t allow easy specification of anchor tag attributes. Unfortunately, this variation breaks html5 and Schema.org standards, an important point Google failed to mention.
When Do Authorship Snippets Show Up?
Once an author has diligently implemented authorship markup and tested it using the Google rich snippets testing tool, Google will need to recrawl existing articles before an author’s photo and byline can conceivably show up in search results.
In reality, Google is still piloting authorship markup; in November 2011 Google finally added the phrase “Google doesn’t guarantee to show author information in Google Web Search or Google News results” to their documentation. Translated, that probably means that only “authoritative” sites, those with lots of quality incoming links and other signals like frequent updates, are candidates for consideration, and only for searches in English on Google.com.
Unfortunately, in their promotion of authorship markup Google is not at all clear on this point, setting up false expectations for many of those who invest in authorship rich snippet markup implementation.
Judging from Google’s deployment of other rich snippets, Google will most likely become more permissive over time as to who they recognize with authorship snippets and authorship snippets will eventually be rolled out internationally.
The Prominent Promotion Of Google+
After a cursory reading of Google’s authorship markup documentation, its easy to come away with the impression that Google requires authors to have a Google Profile as it in some way will allow Google to better trust an author’s content.
Yet, there is nothing in the current Google Profile model (that without Google+ integration) which intrinsically vests a Google profile with any greater authority than an author profile of an author’s choosing. It seems that Google has a not so hidden agenda to promote Google+, promotion which manifests itself in multiple ways:
- Google’s authorship markup documentation says to use the Google Profiles icon, to link to the Google Profile. What does g+ have to do with a plain Google Profile, one asks? As an alternative, Google illustrates the use of the anchor text Google+. This can be changed, as long as the + remains. Yet if rel=”author” information is already included in a link, there appears to be only one conceivable justification in requiring the use of a + in the anchor text: promotion of Google+ since many will inevitably use Google’s suggested Google+ as their anchor text. The link Google uses in their documentation example? plus.google.com, not profiles.google.com.
Taken together, its no wonder that a casual observer can be forgiven for confusing Google Profiles with Google+ profiles. A purist could create a Google Profile not linked to Google+, but Google isn’t going to go out of their way promote this option any more than Facebook promotes its little known Business Account.
- Google is mum on the use of rel=”nofollow”, which should be a requirement given that authors are linking to their Google Profile through not so subtle coercion: they need to maximize their visibility in the search engine which has an effective monopoly in many of the markets in which it operates.
- Google does not allow authors to promote their own, arguably more authoritative, author profiles. Or maybe Google does as they did say in their initial announcement that they support schema.org markup, but there’s no word on this nor an example in Google’s authorship markup documentation.
- Google does not explicitly allow authors to specify alternative profile pages on competitor sites like LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. None of these profiles are intrinsically more or less authoritative than a plain Google Profile.
- Google says that as an alternative to linking, authors may publish, for all to see, a verified email address in their Google Profile and ideally include the same email address in their articles.
It it isn’t so clear how Google could reliably match the two if the email address isn’t included in the website containing the author’s content – anyone who has experienced Google Maps local business data merging knows what can happen when the algorithms get it wrong.
A second problem with this suggested implementation is that people should never expose an email address in plain text on the Web unless they want to radically increase the number of fake Rolex watch offers, Nigerian 419 solicitations or worse that arrive in their email inbox. Email spammers “harvest” bare email addresses which appear on the web for these nefarious purposes. While some email systems (read: Gmail) have great spam detection, best practice says to avoid the problem at the source.
In its rush to promote Google+, Google is aiding and abetting email spammers. Note that the email verification process just proves the email address works – there’s nothing in the verification that says the person is who they say they are. This is not the same level of Google Profile verification Google once offered as part of their Knol system.
- The “enhanced” Google+ Profile does contain additional signal information which Google might argue is important in determining the authority of a specific author. It tells Google how many people have the author in a circle, how many people have shared a contribution from the author in Google+ etc. Yet Twitter profiles, as an example, contain essentially the same information.
- At the end of October 2011 Google added Google+ specific annotation to authorship rich snippets – the related announcement took for granted that authors use Google+ profiles; there was no mention of basic Google Profiles.
- In November 2011, Google began to prepend a + to an author’s name in the SERP byline. Google has promoted this syntax in Google+ as an alternative to the de facto standard @ notation first popularized on Twitter to refer to a specific person.
What Say Bing, Yahoo, Yandex & Blekko?
Bing supports some rich snippet formats, at least for users in the US, specified using microformats or Schema.org markup but there’s no sign they’ve yet implemented author specific markup, nor has search alliance partner Yahoo.
Yandex, the leading search engine in Russia and some eastern European countries, is beginning to support enhanced search result mark-up as a member of schema.org group. At emerging search engine Blekko, folks are aware of microformat markup but they don’t seem to be using it themselves.
What Google Should Do Next With Author Markup
- Document how to implement search engine agnostic authorship markup using the Schema.org specification and demonstrate that Google does indeed support it.
- Provide greater clarity as to who is eligible for authorship enriched search abstracts. A multitude of Google blog posts encourage content authors to deploy authorship markup without setting reasonable expectations as to when, if ever, an author would actually be eligible for authorship snippets. Add “strength” feedback to the snippets markup testing tool. If results are limited to English searches on Google.com as seems to be the case, say so. The casual international reader of Google announcements isn’t going to be aware of this important detail.
- In a similar vein, provide guidance on what authors should do to avoid losing rich snippets, e.g. will changing to schema.org markup penalize an author?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.