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Is the end of Google Authorship a blow to PR thought leadership?

Posted by Ian McKee on 29th August 2014

type writerWell, c’est la vie, Google Authorship. John Mueller of Google’s Webmaster Trends has announced in a Google+ post that the search engine will no longer be showing any kind of authorship data in search results.

What could have been

If you’re unfamiliar with what Google Authorship mark is (was?), it’s a method of marking up web pages so that the authorship can be attributed to a particular individual. Google had connected it up with its social network Google+, which essentially functions as Google’s index of individuals’ identities on the web. If you had ever seen a person’s profile photo pop up in search results next to content they’d written, that was Google Authorship.

Google had actually already removed those photos in June, leaving only by-lining links to profiles next to results. But the real reason that Google Authorship was a big deal for PR practitioners was its potential for thought leadership positioning.

It was never entirely clear whether Google had actually started giving preferential ranking to content with authorship markup. But from its inception, the implication was that at some point the authority of a particular author would add weight to a particular article. This was a potential way for individuals to have authority on topics, in the way that domains traditionally do in search engine results. An individual’s position as a thought leader could have a traceable impact across the web, and in Google’s all powerful search results.

Whether this was ever actually in play is hard to see, but the potential was huge. If an individual had built their authority, they could bring that with them wherever they chose to write on the web.

Where are we now?

The reason given for the decision by Google is that authorship markup was not proving to be useful to users. Nothing is a sacred cow in Google, everything is an experiment and can be given the chop at any time, especially if it is not serving the user.

Reading on Search Engine Land about how well Google Authorship has been taken up by publishers reveals that really, the writing was on the wall. With some verticals virtually neglecting to implement it at all, how could it be useful for users and not send confusing signals about the importance of different types of content? Mueller also says that it had little affect on user interaction.

However, Mueller does not say stop using authorship markup in his post, he just says Google is ceasing to show that markup in results. He also says the following:

Going forward, we’re strongly committed to continuing and expanding our support of structured markup (such as schema.org). This markup helps all search engines better understand the content and context of pages on the web, and we’ll continue to use it to show rich snippets in search results.

Authorship markup was, after all, just another part of structured markup, the additional rich snippets of code one can add to web pages to indicate their content to search engines. Most other structured markup does not result in a search result looking different, it’s just a way of indicating some of the contextual data around the content for search engines.

What should you do?

So it’s possible that authorship markup will continue to have some kind of importance despite no longer visually affecting search results. However, it’s going to be a lot trickier to track, and even fewer authors and webmasters are going to bother using it now this announcement’s been made.

We’re also told that we’ll still see posts from friends on Google+ in search results if they’re relevant to the query. A (slightly less compelling) reason to continue building a network on the social platform.

In any case, the best advice we can now give is to keep using the appropriate markup on your content. You may or may not see it change how search results appear, and it may or may not have any effect on how authoritative an individual you might be on any given topic. But it’s unlikely Google will stop trying to track more contextual information around content any time soon, so it’s advisable you provide that contextual data.

photo credit: geishaboy500

Ian McKee

Ian started out his career working in travel PR, working for tourist boards, airlines and hotel groups. Whilst there he carved out a position as a digital communications expert, managing social media, SEO and email marketing campaigns for clients.