Google Authorship, Structured Data, and the Future of Search

Published on Author Eli Fennell

Google Authorship Nostalgia

This past Thursday, August 28th, 2014, Google’s John Mueller, in a Google+ Post, announced the end of support for Authorship Markup in Google Search. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a brief analysis.

Google Authorship in a Nutshell

Google Authorship is based on a bit of web code known as rel=”author”. rel=”author” is a microformat markup used to link from a piece of authored content on the web to a profile or page about the author of the content; in 2011, Google announced it would support Authorship Markup using your Google+ Profile as the Author Link. When Google Search detected Authorship Markup in your HTML, it would convert this into “Rich Snippets”, which included things like your Profile Photo, a “byline” link to your Google+ Profile, your Follower count, links to other content by the same author, etc…, all visible right from your Search Result on Google Search. Other examples of Rich Snippets in Search Results include Star Reviews, such as appear for Yelp Business Listings in Google Search, and Video Snippets, which appear next to various Search Results, especially YouTube results. Rich Snippets, where active, are a form of “enhanced” Search Results that allows Webmasters to define important elements, which then surface directly in those results. This is both their virtue and their weakness, as we shall see.

Google initially resisted the implementation of Rich Snippets, which is not surprising given the obsessive simplicity of Google Search: a homepage with nothing but white space, a Search bar at the center, and a logo or doodle above it, with only two choices (Google Search and I’m Feeling Lucky), which both lead to a Search Engine Result Page (SERP) consisting of ten blue links, with ads above organic results where appropriate. That is the Google we all have come to know since 1998, and the Mother Ship has been hesitant to make any substantive design changes. Nonetheless, by 2011 Google was leading the way with the founding of Schema.org, a joint venture by Google, Bing, and Yahoo, and later supported by Yandex. Webmasters would now be able to define their “Schemas”, or Structured Data to use the technical lingo, for Rich Snippets and other purposes as they deemed fit. rel=”author”, to be clear, was not a product of Schema.org, but nonetheless in 2011 Google announced support for rel=”author” and its cousin rel=”publisher”, with Google+ functioning as the identity layer for these things.

Structured Data: Its Own Worst Enemy

So, beginning in 2011, Webmasters were given a powerful set of tools to “stand out from the crowd” in Google Search Results. As A.J. Kohn points out, however, this became “Too Much of a Good Thing”. On the one hand, wide adoption of structured data in some verticals meant that Search Results could easily get clogged with irrelevant Rich Snippets. Imagine Searching for a book or movie, and having every result that came up featuring a Star Review snippet. If you were Searching for reviews this would be great, exactly what you needed, but what if you were looking for information about who starred in a movie, who wrote a book, the themes a book dealt with, etc…? In those cases, Star Review Snippets would be meaningless clutter. On the other hand, Structured Data Markup isn’t always used correctly, unfortunately, which creates additional issues.

Google can solve some of these issues themselves by considering the nature of a query and whether snippets make sense for that query. If you Search with a specific modifier term, for example instead of “War and Peace” you Search “War and Peace reviews”, Google’s algorithms are more confident about the usefulness of Review Snippets and will show more such Snippets in your Search Results. Likewise, Search “Key Lime Pie recipes” and you’ll likely get more Recipe Snippets than by Searching “Key Lime Pie” by itself.

Another solution to this issue, for some types of results, is to aggregate “Rich” results into the Google Knowledge Panel. One example is the Music Snippet: Rich Music Snippets seem to have vanished entirely from Google Search Results, but certain music and song queries do generate Knowledge Panel results (the panel that appears to the right of organic results and ads for some Searches) with links to song sources, virtually identical to what Rich Snippets would have given them, but located in one part of the screen instead of scattered throughout the results. If you were Searching for such links you’ll find them in the Knowledge Panel, but if not you will enjoy an uncluttered SERP.

Then there are those issues which Google can’t fix with Structured Data in Search, and this brings us to Google Authorship. The first issue is the rise of Mobile Search, which is fast becoming the primary source of Search traffic for Google. Whereas PC’s usually have fairly large screens, even the smaller ones, allowing plenty of room for Snippets to be displayed, smartphones and tablets are simply too small for Search Results to be infused with Profile Photos, Bylines, Star Ratings, Video Snippets, etc…

The other issue Google can’t fix, in this case at least, is the competence of Webmasters at implementing code changes. Webmasters can often be counted on, and indeed Google Search would be impossible if certain things couldn’t be taken virtually for granted, i.e. Google can count on most, or at least enough, Webmasters to implement basic code correctly. Google assumes, for example, that any Webmaster with a basic level of competence knows when to use rel=nofollow to signal when not to follow links.

Assumptions of basic competence, however, have not worked out as well with Authorship. Publishership, its cousin, has far fewer issues, as Publisher Markup can be defined site-wide. Authorship Markup, however, is more specific: it is to be used only on authored content and, according to Google, should be visible, i.e. should not be buried invisibly in header codes and the like. Some sort of visible hyperlink including the rel=”author” code, such as a byline, should appear somewhere between the very beginning and the very end of the authored content.

Many Webmasters implemented rel=”author” on non-authored content instead, such as their website landing page, which should be given Publisher Markup but not Author Markup. Many others implemented Authorship Markup invisibly, in places like the header code; many SEO plugins for WordPress and other services, which promised to make Authorship Markup easy, implemented Authorship in exactly this invisible way. So what’s the big deal? you ask, Why should Google care if the markup is visible? The answer is that their goal was to be linked to your byline, not in some hidden bit of code visible only to you and the Search Engine. rel=”author” was, first and foremost, meant to be associated with your author “signature”, something that your readers would actually see on the page.

The Problem of Personal Authority

Another set of challenges Google failed to overcome related to the basic nature of the project: defining and measuring Personal Authority. Defining Publisher authority is fairly easy comparatively, even in the web era; while the barriers-to-entry of being a “Publisher” are not as great as they were when little existed but Big Press, like the New York Times, or small private publishers whose works would never achieve wide syndication, it remains fairly trivial to define an authoritative Publisher. Defining an authoritative person, however, is much more difficult, especially as few individuals generate as many secondary signals as a publisher, or are as consistently associated with a particular topic or niche.

Even without rel=”publisher”, Google knows that CNET is an authoritative tech reporting site. They could know this even without a link profile, as CNET leaves significant secondary traces of their authority, like frequent mentions in other news sources. Knowing the authority of any given author of a CNET article? That is much more difficult, especially as Search users simply aren’t generating enough Searches for specific authors (excluding those whose authority can be established by secondary signals; but most of us are not Stephen Kings). Very few individuals, as yet, have a “Personal Brand” strong enough, established enough, or organized enough to generate these same signals to the same degree. That some small percentage do, in fact, achieve this measure doesn’t really help a company whose algorithms are based on Big Data, not rare exceptions to the rule.

Not that Google didn’t try to deal with these issues, to be fair. Perhaps no one has ever tried harder, in fact. If trying hard enough guaranteed success, we’d all be extolling the virtues of AuthorRank right now. In the three years the project existed, Google tried increasing or eliminating Authorship Snippets for certain queries and verticals, creating a multi-class authorship system (full Rich Snippets for some, partial Rich Snippets for others), and finally reducing all snippets to a simple author byline. In the end, nothing delivered results worthy of the investment.

Even if Google had managed to overcome to the lion share of these issues, the issue with cluttered mobile results would have remained and likely been enough to severely limit the scope of the project, if not kill it entirely. Perhaps, had Searchers taken to Searching more for specific authors, it might simply have been a matter of limiting the snippets to modifier queries, like adding “author” to the end of a Search for a specific name. Unfortunately, without serving any particular need Searchers may have, and without producing better Search Results, Authorship was merely a waste of processing power, and an obstacle to a more unified look for Mobile and Desktop Search.

Authorship is a Canary in the Structured Data Coal Mine

Authorship tells us everything we need to know about the future of Structured Data Markup in Search. It shows us, on the one hand, that Webmasters were never going to get their dream world where the appearance of their Search Results lay entirely in their own hands, with Google merely serving up the result and any accompanying snippets as defined by your HTML. The potential for abuse, misuse, or simply annoying Search users was always too great to believe this would ever happen. Google will choose to honor or not honor markup as they feel works best, ignoring it entirely in some cases, while in others reserving it only for those cases where it would be most relevant and effective.

On the other hand, I do believe it shows that structured data markup remains important, even if it doesn’t always produce Rich Snippets. Google wants to understand things, not just strings, and the more signals Google receives the more confident they can be. Google Authorship may be over, for example, but their attempts to understand individual authority are only getting started, and snippets or no snippets, Authorship Markup linked to your Google account is a strong secondary signal Google may yet make use of, now or in the future. Some forms of markup don’t even promise Rich Snippets, but are nonetheless important for Semantics, which is the very future of Google Search. Furthermore, Google continues to experiment with how to use Markup in Search, and the only way to guarantee not benefiting from this is to remove or fail to include Structured Data.

Structured Data isn’t just some trick to get a better appearance in Search: it is, as the name suggests, how the structure of your site is defined. Providing a better structure is sure to benefit you and your users, regardless of your exact appearance in Google Search. Use any form of Structured Sata that is relevant to the purpose of your site, and you can be sure your effort was always worth it.

Authority isn’t defined by how Google shows you in Search, but rather by your ability to provide querents with the information they seek, when they seek it, in a structure as accessible and comprehensible as possible. There is such a thing as “AuthorRank”, if by that one means Google’s ongoing attempts to rank the most authoritative sources highest, in fact there always has been. The only way for Google to know the authority of a site, however, is by crawling its content, and the better structured the data data is for this purpose, the better.

I love technology and how it changes our lives. There’s something almost spiritual about how new technologies connect and empower us. And it’s really cool, too.

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