Google Authorship Search Listing Blindness

Here’s an interesting way a simple UI addition can backfire. Google Authorship is a service from Google that lets you link your site to your Google+ profile. The “benefit” of doing so is that you get your Google+ picture displayed next to your listing on the Google search pages, which looks like this:

Google search result with Google+ picture next to it

After using Google Authorship on his site, Alex Yumas from JitBit was shocked to discover that their traffic fell by 90%. The site in question still held the first result on Google for the relevant search query, but having a little Google+ avatar picture next to the result text was stopping people from clicking.

Why did people start ignoring or avoiding the first result? I think this is a case of sending the wrong signal to the user. The little avatar by the search result suggests the result is tied to social media – i.e. some entry on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ – or perhaps a blog post, but not a product page. If people were searching for an article, a link of this nature might make sense, but those looking for a product page will mentally block it out.

As Alex writes, he even found himself looking past his own site in the results:

Maybe it’s because people are used to filter out the ADs, in other words filter out the first couple of results that look unusual. I just did that myself - after looking at the page I even thought for a moment - “whoa, where’s my page, it’s not even in the SERP, where is it?”

On first glance, adding an avatar might make your result stand out, especially when nobody else has one, but the fact that it stands out does not guarantee that it will also get processed. In this case, standing out actually led to the result getting dismissed right away.

That said, while JitBit lost traffic for some pages, others actually gained clicks, so it really depends on the context of the search. Read the rest of his post for suggestions on the types of pages Google Authorship could work for.

[Update 2013-06-01: Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s webspam team, has weighed in on the issue over at Hacker News saying that the decrease in traffic was due to Google’s Penguin webspam algorithm update rather than Google Authorship. I doubt the Authorship change had no effect, but if Matt Cutts is right then its impact may not have been as severe.]