Google’s authorship rel=”author” markup: unfairly promoting Google+?


In June 2011 Google introduced a way for content authors to enhance the display of their articles in Google search results by associating a photo and an author byline to the result. The addition of author information in search results continues Google’s rich snippets implementation, a concept originally introduced by Yahoo as enhanced results.

In implementing authorship markup, Google said they’ve used existing standards such as the anchor and link tag attribute rel=”author” from HTML5 (in reality, rel="author" has actually been around for a while) and the XFN (XHTML Friends Network) defined attribute rel="me".

Google search result with author photo and link
Figure 1: A Google search result with authorship markup; this case includes Google+ follower count

Why implement rel=”author” authorship markup? Click-through.

Contributor to option in a Google Profile
Figure 2: Contributor to option in a Google Profile
An author photo and byline should give content greater credibility and visibility in search results when compared to anonymous results. Greater credibility and visibility should then result in increased click through, which is most likely a Google ranking signal in and of itself. Unfortunately the greater click-through effect will most likely decline over time as more competing sites add authorship mark-up. Google has also stated that they are experimenting with with use of authorship as a ranking signal.

rel=”author” implementation details

Google has chosen to use Google Profiles as the source of an author’s photo and to provide a destination for the byline which appears in search results (Google profiles are Google+ profiles for users who have signed-up for Google+). An author is thus required to create a Google profile if they don’t yet have one and they must add their site to the list of Contributor to sites in their Google Profile. The profile must include the author’s photo, which must be of high quality, although high quality is left undefined.

In the second iteration of authorship markup documentation, Google said that an author must to link from their Google profile to the home page of the author’s site. It actually appears that the link to the author’s site can point to anyplace on the domain unless the domain is shared by multiple users, such as with hosted blogs (e.g. blogspot.com, wordpress.com). From a user point of view, the link should actually point to a page on the site which will be useful to a visitor, i.e. the section containing the articles or to an author page listing all of the author’s articles.

Each individual author article can either point to an author page on the same site, which in its turn points to the author’s Google profile, or an article can link directly to the Google profile. Generally authors will want to promote an author page, such as those available in CMS‘s like WordPress, on their domain rather than a Google Plus Profile. In its second iteration of authorship market, Google began to support a non-standard URL parameter ?rel=author. Presumably many encountered difficulty in trying to add an attribute, specifically rel="author"and rel="me", to their links.

Google authorship markup flow for a site with its own author profile pages
Figure 3: Google authorship markup flow for a site with its own author profile pages

The above diagram illustrates Google’s first iteration authorship markup syntax, in black, for a website which includes author profile pages. According to Google, this syntax will continue to be supported even though Google doesn’t refer to it in their second interation documentation. A syntax variation introduced in the second iteration, the ?rel=author parameter instead of the rel="author" attribute, is indicated in red.

Google authorship markup flow for a site without author profile pages
Figure 4: Google authorship markup flow for a site without author profile pages

Google authorship markup mark III: email option simplifies implementation for those who like spam

The nuances of Google’s crosslinking requirements are without doubt a major impediment to authorship markup adoption. In late October 2011 Google introduced a simplified, and in many cases automatic, way to associate website content with Google+ profiles. If a person publishes their email address on their Google+ profile, verifies that indeed, it is their address and includes the same email address in ALL their articles, then Google will apparently link those articles to the author’s Google+ profile.

This is only a great idea if an author would like to increse the amount of email spam they receive – email spammers use automatic robots to “harvest” plain text email addresses across the web, a small detail Google neglects to mention. As web best practices go, this is a great example of what not to do. Yes, some email systems like Google’s own Gmail, are very efficient at dealing with spam, however it is best to avoid the problem at the source.

Google authorship markup flow for a site without author profile pages
Figure 5: Google’s third authorship markup option which associates content pages with a Google profile via an email address.

Update 2012-04-03: This process has since been improved so you don’t need to publicly display your email address. Follow the authorship instructions here.

Results aren’t immediate nor is there international support yet

Once implemented, it will take a while for author information to show up in Google, if at all. Google must recrawl the impacted pages and must decide that the author is sufficiently “authoritative” to deserve author rich snippets. The authorship feature is still in a pilot phase and seems to be limited to results in English on Google.com, as has been the case with the recent introduction of other new features such as Google Social Search. Uncharacteristically, Google didn’t say this explicitly in their original announcement.

Test your rel=”author” implementation with Google’s rich snippets tool

Google provides a testing tool to verify rich snippet markup and simulate search result output. Do note that the tool can indicate false errors – it did so for a few months for its own author example. Also it isn’t always updated in a timely fashion – as an example, it wouldn’t recognize the second iteration authorship syntax, ?author.

Google's rich snippets markup testing tool
Figure 6: Google’s rich snippets markup testing tool

Articles will be listed on author’s Google Profile +1 tab

Google notes that once implemented, an author’s articles will appear on their Google Profile +1 tab, even if the author hasn’t clicked +1 on the article, by virtue of authorship markup.

Update 2012-04-03: This is no longer true.

Google’s documentation makes implementation seem harder than it should be

While authorship markup shouldn’t be too hard, Google’s documentation, currently only available in English, does little to make it easy. In its second iteration, Google discusses linking directly from an article to a Google Profile, then goes on to say the link can be in a site-wide header or footer or on an author profile page – perhaps a bit more guidance and a diagram would be in order (no, people should not have to suffer through a multi-minute video to find the pertinent bits).

Consider several of the details which could be better clarified. A single Google Profile is accessible using at least 6 different URLs.

  1. The first version, branded Google Profile i.e. https://profiles.google.com/109425077132341219276
  2. The Google Profile version with the friendly name alias https://profiles.google.com/sean.carlos
  3. The Google+ branded version https://plus.google.com/109425077132341219276

Each of the above is available in http and https versions making a total of 6 variants. Surprisingly, a Google Plus branded profile using the friendly name alias doesn’t work. It gets even more complicated. https://plus.google.com/109425077132341219276 redirects to https://plus.google.com/109425077132341219276/posts

In their documentation, Google uses the Google+ form, https://plus.google.com/109412257237874861202, leaving it unclear if Google Profile URLs can or cannot be used for Google+ users.

A quick analysis of Google+’s own sitemaps files seems to indicate that Google uses the plus.google.com domain for Google Profile users who are also now on Google+ and profiles.google.com domain for users who have not yet joined Google Plus.

Another implementation hurdle is the link itself to the Google Profile. Google now says it must contain the + character visible in the anchor text which points to the Google profile. Yet Google then implies you don’t even need to use anchor text, you can use a Google+ image instead. No need for an arbitrary + in the anchor text, as long as Google+ is promoted, got it? Or maybe not?

Update 2012-04-03: Google no longer requires the specific anchor text Google+. Unfortunately, the don’t seem to support the less invasive <link> which they did support for rel=publisher attribution, although they’ve removed reference to this in their English language documentation although I still see it mentioned in their German and Italian documentation.

Google notification feature

Its possible to notify Google of authorship implementation. The notification is optional but apparently it is intended to allow google to get into contact if they do discover problems with an implementation.

Bing and rel=”author” support

Bing has not yet announced a similar initiative but Bing does document microformat support and they are collaborating with Google on the schema.org project.

Google seems to have ulterior motives in asking sites to promote Google+ profiles

Google insistence that sites link to a Google profile is a significant weakness in Google’s authorship markup implementation. While offering to support the use Google profile as a source of an author’s photo makes sense, it shouldn’t be the only option:

  • Most CMS‘ have the possibility to set up author profile pages and arguably that would be the best option for most sites. Google should be able to pull the necessary photo off of an author page, perhaps by requiring a bit of microformat markup language, but that wouldn’t be hard to implement as a plugin or a standard in any of the common CMS, such as WordPress, Joomla or Drupal.
  • Out of fairness to other web publishers, other sites offering public people profiles which include outgoing links, such as LinkedIn, twitter and Facebook, deserve equal consideration.
  • Google profiles do not offer any guarantee of authenticity except in rare cases. While Google did at one point have a procedure to verify profiles via Google’s Knol, that procedure was shutdown. Currently VIP Google Plus Profiles may be verified at Google’s sole discretion. Yes, Google has introduced a verify email option, but publishing a plain text email address, as Google currently requires, is the best way to increase Spam in your inbox, as previously discussed.
  • While it isn’t explicitly mentioned in the Google Profiles rules, a person is most likely allowed just one Google profile. If they chose to use their Google profile for their personal social life on the web rather than their professional side, they’re probably not going to want to link to it from their professional articles.
  • Google should support the less invasive <link rel="me" href="https://plus.google.com/109425077132341219276" /> syntax which would allow an author to “claim” their Google profile by linking from their site without inadvertently sending their visitors to the external Google Profile, as is the case using Google’s required <a rel="me" href="https://plus.google.com/109425077132341219276" />Sean Carlos+</a> syntax (and its ?rel=author variant).

What is clearly behind Google’s push of Google profiles is a desire to promote Google+. While many may have had suspicions to this effect, the proof emerged with the announcement of further Google+ integration. Tellingly, Google’s documentation is silent on the use of rel="nofollow" so as to not unfairly favor another Google property in Google search results, never mind in Bing, Blekko, Yandex or any of the few others which remain today.

Google Authorship, the Film


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About Sean Carlos

Sean Carlos is a digital marketing consultant & teacher, assisting companies with their Search (SEO + SEA = SEM), Social Media & Digital Media Analytics strategies. Sean first worked with text indexing in 1990 in a project for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Since then he worked for Hewlett-Packard Consulting and later as IT Manager of a real estate website before founding Antezeta in 2006. Sean is an official instructor of the Digital Analytics Association and collaborates with the Bocconi University. He is Chairman of the SMX Search and Social Media Conference, 13 & 14 November in Milan. He is also a co-author of the Treccani encyclopedic dictionary of computer science, ICT & digital media. Born in Providence, RI, USA, Sean received Honors in Physics from Bates College, Maine. He speaks English, Italian and German.

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