Google Authorship – the 3 reasons why it failed

Google intended Authorship photos in search results to convey trust. The average Joe didn’t buy it. Here’s why.

There are so many theories floating around the Internet about why Google Authorship was canned, but let’s begin this article by quoting right from the official announcement:

“Unfortunately, we’ve also observed that this information isn’t as useful to our users as we’d hoped, and can even distract from those results. With this in mind, we’ve made the difficult decision to stop showing authorship in search results.”

In other words:

A) people were not clicking more on search entries with little author pictures attached, and;
B) in some cases people were clicking away from search entries with little author pictures attached

And this was predictable from the start. Hindsight is 20/20 vision, so let’s put on our hindsight goggles and review the three reasons.

  1. Trust and authority differ for different types of searches.
  2. People trust institutions more than strangers.
  3. People select between news and opinion.

The 3 reasons Google Authorship failed

Trust and authority differ for different types of searches

To really discover how the faces in the search results affected the average Joe (not us webmasters and online marketers), we have to reverse engineer it back to the actual searches and their intent. There are various reasons people search

  • They search for something to buy
  • They search for entertainment
  • They search for information

Let’s look at each of these three searchers one at a time.

THE BUYER is looking for a product.  In most cases, the only “authority” on that product is a known brand name.  A face next to a search result means nothing to a buyer.  If he pays any attention to it at all, it is to skip over somebody’s opinion of the product or somebody’s report on how they used the product to play a prank or make Thanksgiving dinner.  Google Authorship kindly flagged your blog post as unhelpful, so that people could skip over it. The buyer is looking to buy.

Unless, of course, the buyer is looking to first research the product, which is the case sometimes when:

  • The product is fairly unknown
  • The product is fairly expensive
  • The buyer is picky or indecisive

The fact is that most people won’t even research a real estate agent before trusting her with their most valuable possession.  Most shopping searches are not looking for reviews.  But some are.  Are they looking for one guy’s opinion, or are they looking for several people’s opinion in one place?  Yes, the big LAZY in all of us searches for a forum thread or a review site like TripAdvisor or ePinions where we can quickly see what several people have to say.  All those search entries with a single face next to them look like a whole lot of extra work for nothing. Google Authorship kindly flagged your blog for people to skip over and save time.

But wait!  What if you saw a trusted face that you recognized?  Someone you knew to be an expert on that product?

Exactly.  How many trusted experts on birdhouses or cookware or hose extensions or bedding or winter boots do you know?  I suppose if you saw Oprah’s face or Martha Stewart’s face or Consumer Reports face…  But two of those are true celebrities, and the other is an institution.  People don’t know your face, so your opinion means nothing to them.  The average blogger’s face in Google search results means nothing to 99.9 percent of searchers.

STOP THE PRESSES!

Who qualifies as a trusted source that most people would click on?  At very least it needs to be someone they know.  Here is a good first triage step: if their name is not in Wikipedia, most people don’t know them.

But even if their name is in Wikiepdia, that does not mean the average person knows them. How many country music stars are listed in Wikipedia? Now how many of them would you recognize if you saw their face in passing among the search results?  (If you are a big country music fan, feel free to replace the words “country music” above with “gastric bypass” or “LEED certification” or “contract negotiations”.)

You see?  There are very few people who are so famous that they are universally known outside of their field, and even fewer whom people might consider to be an authority on a given subject.

RESUME THE PRESSES!

Nobody cares what some blogger or journalist has to say, except those few people who actually know that blogger or journalist. Google Authorship kindly flagged those blog posts for people so they could skip over them.

THE RELAXER  is looking for a video, for humor,  for something to entertain her and help fill some down-time.  She does not want to think.  She does not want to read about entertainment.  She wants to be entertained.  If the faces next to a post are not Lady Gaga or Jimmy Fallon or Scarlett Johansson, it’s just some irritating blah-blah-blah clogging up the search results.  Nothing irritates someone in the mood for a party more than somebody who wants to just talk about partying. Google probably had to dump Authorship just to avoid being called a party-pooper.

THE RESEARCHER is looking for information.  There is some overlap with the other two categories here.

She might be researching to buy something, in which case (as I have already mentioned), she wants good, solid information from the company itself, from a trusted source like Consumer Reports, or from a review site where there are multiple user reviews at once. She couldn’t less what some unknown blogger has to say, and Google Authorship kindly flagged your blog so she would not waste any time clicking on it.

The researcher might be looking for information about entertainment.  Perhaps he loves watching Jimmy Fallon, but right now he wants to know the latest gossip on him.  If that gossip is coming from another well-known entertainer or from Perez Hilton, the face might stop quite a few searchers, and they might click through.

But if they don’t know you (Remember the Wikipedia test?), your face in Google’s search results just flags for them that this is something they can feel free to ignore, since they don’t know you and therefore don’t give a hoot what you have to say.

Many people doing research are not seeking information about entertainment or about products.  Many people just want information, and they want the most accurate and quickest information they can get.  Typical searches for information, and this list is far from complete,  might be:

  • for a recipe
  • about symptoms they are having
  • about nutrition
  • for fitness tips
  • how to build, repair or maintain something
  • for translation or definitions
  • for the latest in a current event (such as a war or a natural disaster or proposed legislation)
  • to fix a computer or software issue

If I am looking for a specific recipe or a recipe that combines certain ingredients or what spices go well with something, I want a recipe site, where there are multiple options all in one place.  I do NOT want to go through a dozen blogs about different people’s personal experience with the ingredients.  Google Authorship kindly flagged those pages, saving me the time I would have wasted clicking on them.

I will skip the one-by-one review of searches about medical information and how to build or repair things and updates about current events, etc.  I assure you that it will get repetitive.  People want solid information that they can trust, and to understand how Google Authorship repels researchers, let’s get straight to the second reason that Authorship failed…

Does a stranger's face convey trust?

People trust institutions more than strangers

You can say that you distrust institutions.  Most people do.

They say don’t trust government.  Yet, they are more likely to believe government information than information from an unknown source.

They say they don’t trust the media, that you can’t trust something just because you read it in the newspaper or see it on TV.  But if they do read it in the newspaper or see it on TV, most people will just automatically assume it’s true.  In fact, there is a whole “As Seen On TV” retail sector based on this simple premise.

They say they don’t trust big business, but ROI on advertising proves them wrong.

On the one hand, people distrust big institutions because they suspect there might be a hidden agenda.  And there often is. On the other hand, they assume that anything big institutions say is based on testing and experiments and scientific proof. And it often is.  At the same time, they assume what some random person says is not based on science or fact, but just some fool mouthing off.

Here would be an interesting experiment (Google, are you listening?):

Imagine a split test in the search results, for a few articles from USA Today or The New York Times. Half of searchers are served up results that include the journalists’ faces.  The other half are served up results with the New York Times or USA Today  logo next to them.  Everything else is random; the actual search queries, time of day, geography, etc.

I wonder how many more people would click on the logo article than would click on the face article.  Remember – it’s the same article, only the visual image would change.

Back to Google Authorship and how people reacted to it, let’s look at an example from the list of information searches in the section above. For medical information, whom would I trust?  I’ll bet you some people would recognize Doctor Weil. Or Doctor  Oz.  Or Doctor Phil.  And many of those people would therefore trust them. I’ll bet you that more people would recognize each of their names than their faces (so the picture probably doesn’t really help increase clicks to their own named websites).   And I’ll bet that many people would not clue in even on their names, much less their faces, so the picture might even detract from them.

As for anybody else, like some health blogger or health reporter for a daily newspaper, would you trust the unknown face over:

  • The Mayo Clinic?
  • A government department with the word “health” in it?
  • A university site with the word “health” in it?
  • A site with the word “doctor” in it?
  • A site with the word “clinic” in it?

Most people will look for some sign of authority, and an unknown face just doesn’t count as a medical authority.

People select between news and opinion

The same goes for other searches, such as updates on current events.  It might be very handy to pull up the results of that New York Times research project I suggested in the previous section. Although I am quite sure I know which of the two identical entries would get more clicks, the important question is who would click more on the entry accompanied by the New York Times logo, and who would click more on the entry accompanied by the journalist’s face?  And, lucky for you, I look into my crystal ball and I know the answer.

Drum roll please….

  • People searching for the latest news – the hard facts – of what happened, will click more on the entry accompanied by the media outlet’s logo.
  • People curious about what the latest developments mean, what the implications might be, what political slants there might be – opinion and analysis -  will click more on the entry accompanied by the journalist’s face.

How do I know this?  Because we have decades of training on how to read newspapers.  The Internet might be a new medium, but we take online our assumptions passed down in the offline world. We have always looked to newspapers to deliver us the news, and we will read the headlines and some of the articles to get the information we want.

There are never any faces attached to those articles.

But there are faces attached to regular columns on politics, international affairs and other topics.  We expect a less”journalistic” style when we read these.  We expect to be challenged to think about the news, not to just read it and accept it.

Flash forward to 2014 (before Google canned authorship, of course) and people searching for news would be predisposed to click on an entry that appeared to be from a trusted news source, such as CNN or BBC or The Globe and Mail. People searching to dig deeper – those prepared to invest some effort thinking about what it all means – will be predisposed to click on an entry with a face.

Big caveat: there are many other factors that will lead people to click through to a given result, including the title and the domain/URL of the article.  But in aggregate, Google authorship would have helped people choose between news and opinion.  Whether it would have done so accurately, I cannot tell.

And whether more people would have chosen to click on news, without the faces, I cannot tell (although I suspect that more people would search for news from a trusted media outlet than opinions of people they don’t know, even if they are interested in opinions).

If my suspicions are correct, Google would have incorrectly seen this as a failure of Authorship.  They likely assumed that faces are not helpful if fewer people click on articles with faces, rather than seeing this as a means of triage helping both news-seekers and opinion-seekers better find what they want.

The Future of Authorship

The real future of Authorship, should there in fact be one, lies in Google better understanding how people view authority for different types of sources.  You and I do NOT have authority beyond out limited niches and networks.  But some people do.  And many institutions do.

I did say a short time ago on a UK marketing blog (My Online Marketer) that:

“Unless Google creates a new “Opinion” search (like the News, Videos and other searches), I suspect that authorship is dead. “

I might not have been completely accurate at the time. If Google can harness this understanding of what “authority” means for various searches and flag individual author expertise and institutional expertise accordingly, it might still be able to help people find the most trusted authorities for a given search.

Or here’s a novel idea: Google could do what it is already doing: trying to float the most trustworthy authoritative pages to the top of its results, where people tend to click through the most anyway.  The face, or the logo, would not give the entry authority – it’s ranking would (and does).

 

How to instantly establish trust and authority with your website

Trust is something you have to earn, but impatient customers are ready to let you earn it easily. Here are a few ways to quickly earn their trust.

Understanding your customers and how they buy is critical to how you set about establishing trust and authority in their eyes. My caveat: whatever you read here is valid only to the point that you test it out and decide that it works for you … or that it does not work for you.

In my previous post, I showed how most people shopping for a service from an individual will not seek out articles to determine their level of expertise. They will look for other things. In the case of designers, they will look for visual samples. But for lawyers and accountants and many medical services and others, they will look for other signs of expertise and trust.

And for people shopping for physical products, I mentioned that customers don’t generally look for expertise.  But there are two key trust factors people look for:

1. The manufacturer of a product – that the product is made well.
2. The retailer – that money handed over will result in the product being delivered.

Questions customers askIn many cases, the  website is run by a retailer selling some other company’s products. In other cases, you are both retailer and manufacturer – you sell your own product.

Whether it’s a physical product or a service, people will come to your site and have the following (often unspoken) questions:

  • Is this product any good?
  • Will it deliver what it promises?
  • Will it break or is it durable?
  • Am I getting a good deal?
  • Is it easy to order?
  • Can I trust my money with these guys?
  • Will the product arrive as ordered, unbroken, on time?
  • Can I get it serviced?

Some of these questions will apply to your website, depending on whether you sell a product or a service, whether it is your own or you are just a retailer.

Read Also: Make a Winning eCommerce Shopping Experience

There are many ways to establish trust with your visitors and give them the confidence to order from you. Here are some good ones, but certainly not an exhaustive list. Which ones apply to you, depends on which of the questions above people are asking.

“See it in use” are magic words. If people can see a video of a product actually being used, it is easier to believe that the product will work well. That’s why TV advertising is so effective for physical products. Ideally, show it doing exactly what the text on your website says it can do. Show smiling faces of people pleased with its performance.

Words of praise. Testimonials are very powerful. That is why so many websites feature a testimonials page. This is a good first start; a testimonials page helps you gain trust of people proactively seeking confidence. Unfortunately, it does nothing for those people whose doubts are unspoken.

Words of praise where it counts. For those people whose doubts are unspoken, testimonials need to be right on the sales page. Ideally, each product page should have a testimonial specific to that product. That helps instill confidence in both the product and the seller, and just when it is most needed – at the point where the buyer is ready to decide. This is exactly what I do, as you can see here.

Words of praise that can actually be believed. It is increasingly common knowledge that most online testimonials and reviews are fake. It is a sad commentary on our society, but I don‘t trust online testimonials. However, there are some ways to make them more believable:

  • Add a photo of the person so that it is clear that the testimonial comes from a real person.
  • Even better, a photo of the person with the product.
  • Even better, a photo of the person using the product.
  • Be specific about who the person is, with name and town, if possible.
  • A video testimonial is even more powerful, especially if it is specific.

Offsite reviews. Put to use offsite reviews. Again, these are not always believable, witness the current crisis surrounding Yelp reviews and the widespread marketplace for fake reviews, but if you get positive reviews (real ones), you might as well quote from them and/or link to them on your website.

You have to earn your customers' trustShow its durability. If possible, take a sledge hammer to the product to show its durability. This might not work with crystal glassware; please use discretion. But remember how Tilley built its hat empire on the powerful testimonial of how the hat went through an elephant’s entire digestive system unharmed.

“Elephant trainer Michael Hackenberger of the Bowmanville (Ontario) Zoo, had his Tilley Hat snatched from his head and eaten by an elephant. Three times. Michael later would find and pick up his Hat, wash it thoroughly, and wear it. He had declined to accept a new Tilley Hat in order that we may have his well-traveled Tilley for our museum. (We were secretly pleased!)” Alex Tilley, Ontario.

Unless you are selling a service or a consumable, durability will be an unspoken concern for your visitors.

Offer a guarantee. People trust someone better who is willing to offer a guarantee.  A money-back guarantee works best. In my experience, people never ask for a money back guarantee for a physical product unless it really is broken or doesn’t work. However, for services, I have found there to be a lot of scam clients. Here is an example:

The client wanted her resume edited and cover letter written (not something we normally do), pleaded poverty for a discount (we should never have given the discount – lesson learned?) then needed two versions of the letter prepared (which we did at no extra charge). When it was delivered, she went straight to the Better Business Bureau seeking 100% refund of her discounted price because she found a missing comma and a run-on sentence. The comma she could have just inserted, and the run-on sentence actually read quite well (and we are always happy to edit anyway as part of our standard service, anyway).

Fortunately, these don’t happen every day, but they do happen sometimes, and there is often a lot of money involved (we don’t sell $10 items). So we can not offer a money-back guarantee, but we do offer a no-questions-asked escape clause in all our contracts. If you are not happy with how a writing project is proceeding, just call it off and we will settle based on how much of the work has been completed.  This is something we have never promoted; maybe we should.

Trust logos. Speaking of Better Business Bureau, displaying their logo is a symbol of trust. A professional accreditation logo works well, too. There are also trust logos related to security of payments that are worth adding. Proper placement of these can make a huge difference in conversions.  Customers need to trust you, your product, your payments and your delivery.

Read Also: 12 ways to brag without bragging online

“As seen in” logos. People trust the media. They say the media can’t be trusted, but they lie. If they see something in the newspaper or on TV, they generally believe it.  (Here is why, in case you are interested.) That’s why “As seen on TV” products sell so well. So it is worth adding as-seen-in logos to your website. You can see how this is done at www.PlantingMoneySeeds.com.

Introduce yourself. Add a video of yourself welcoming people to your website. This is common for consultants to do, but it can help any website. When people can see who they are doing business with, they are more likely to trust them than if they are just dealing with an anonymous website.  People like the convenience of shopping online, but they still like to know whom they are dealing with.  This is particularly worthwhile if you are an unknown brand.

Craft details. Describe in meticulous detail with text, diagrams, pictures and video all the care that has gone into crafting the product. It doesn’t matter what the product is, even if “craft” is not a word you would associate with it.  Show the love, the care, the attention to detail.  This will increase people’s trust in the product and in the manufacturer – and the likelihood that they will buy.

Online chat. Just having the chat available, even if it isn’t used, gives customers peace of mind.  They know that you are there if they need you. That alone can be enough to convince them to trust you with their money. Posting full contact details (address, phone and email) helps them trust also that you won’t be here today, gone tomorrow when they need help.  This is especially true if the product seems complicated and people worry that they might need help assembling or setting it up.

You don’t have to take all of these measures. Many won’t apply to your specific product or service. But the more of them you include, the more comfortable people will be trusting you with their money and making a purchase from your website.

Content marketing is not king of trust

Content marketing is very useful, but rarely for establishing trust and clinching a sale.

“Content is king.” Who could have guessed that those prophetic words by Bill Gates would today be such a well-worn phrase as to be taken for Gospel truth by pretty much everyone in 2014?

And who could have guessed that those same words would have taken on the misguided meaning that content marketing is king, with the 2014 gold rush to anything that can be labeled “content marketing”.

Content marketing can draw customers inDon’t get me wrong – content marketing is a very powerful tool for many businesses in a number of different circumstances. But the mass migration to the “content marketing” buzzword in 2014 will undoubtedly lead many, many businesses to take up something that is of little value to them, and use it for the wring reasons with predictably unsatisfactory results.

The context for the content marketing craze is the realization that authority is what people and now search engines are looking for.

Well, yes, that is true. It always has been. Google always measured website authority and trust; that’s what PageRank was (still is?) all about, as well as numerous measures of topical relevance, the longevity of a domain and how trustworthy are the websites that link to it. The difference now is that Google seems to have come up with a means of measuring an individual’s authority and trust.

Of course, the expertise of an individual is important when judging the value of his or her advice. However, no algorithm can do anything but make a rough guess on that point.

How does “authority” translate into marketing your business? Is content the marketing king? I recently found myself in a discussion with someone who insisted that content marketing is crucial because you have to build trust to make a sale, and expertise is the basis for trust.

The premise of his argument is that:

A) People read articles as part of the sales process.
B) People follow writers until eventually deciding to buy.

I disagreed, at least for most businesses.

Before going any further, let’s agree – and I think we can – that there are many types of businesses and there are many types of customers. One size does not fit all. The question for each business to determine is what methods fit its sales process and target market.

Let’s also put aside the usefulness of content marketing in the funnel, and content that is actually part of the buying process (demos, product descriptions, etc.), well expressed by Tom Shivers. Those are fairly widely useful, and not at all about building a reputation in the hopes that eventually readers will buy.

When you are the product, such as if you are a consultant or a writer or a designer, your expertise is crucial – no question about that. Trust in you as an individual and in your expertise (authority?) is your main selling point.

When the product is ball bearings or sandals, nobody cares about you as an individual. Yes, trust is crucial, but authority is not. What do they care about?

1. The manufacturer of a product – that the product is made well.
2. The retailer – that money handed over will result in the product being delivered.

Read Also: Make a Winning eCommerce Shopping Experience

In Part II of this discussion (next blog post) we will look at how to build the trust and confidence for a product (hint, it’s not by writing articles or designing Infographics) and for a retailer, too.  For now, let’s look at when the product is you – when authority can be part of the trust equation.

Nobody chooses a web designer for their articles.The number of purchases people make that are in fact expertise purchases is substantial. Consider the following services:

  • Legal help.
  • Accounting.
  • Web design.
  • Marketing.
  • Pest control.
  • Real estate agent.
  • Financial adviser.
  • Healthcare practitioner.
  • Trainer or educator.
  • Pet groomer.
  • Home renovator.

In all these cases, the individual’s expertise is crucial to the value one gets from buying, so authority on a subject matter could have a direct link to consumer trust.

One of the premises of the importance of content marketing as a means of building trust and using expertise to make sales is that people will follow you (and perhaps several competitors) for a while before deciding that you are the person to hire.

This might be the case with financial advisers, marketing help and web design. And maybe if you are planning a move in advance, you would do the same thing for a real estate agent. These are services that you might know about well in advance and might start shopping around before you are ready to make the purchase. And you might very well read their articles to get an idea of what their approach is, if you feel qualified to make some kind of judgment.

Or you might just read their sales pages and look at other trust indicators – ones that take less time and attention that reading through articles – that we’ll be discussing in my follow-up post, and maybe fill in a query form and engage in a few questions.

In fact, for web design, marketing and so many other services, a visual gallery of past projects is more likely what customers want to look at. They don’t usually have the patience to read through reams of words that they know they are unqualified to judge. But most people do feel comfortable looking at pictures and deciding if that looks professional and trustworthy.

I am not saying that articles on a website are useless. I am saying to think carefully about what a prospective customer will look for, on what basis they will decide that you have the expertise to deliver, and create the content that will be most effective – and often it is not articles or Infographics.

Who chooses a real estate agent for their articles?What about a lawyer? Chances are that you won’t even look for a lawyer until suddenly you need to hire one. You won’t read their articles for months before deciding to hire one. The same thing with accounting. And with pest control. People will not read tons of articles to decide if you are trustworthy; they will make a very quick decision – they need to find help fast!

In fact, I’ll take this argument one step further. Even if you are a financial planner or a real estate agent or a marketing consultant, what percentage of your prospects do research months in advance, and what percentage wait until the last minute, search on Google or Bing (maybe comparing a few websites), ask friends for recommendations and make a flash decision whom to contact and most likely end up hiring?

Of course, if you are shopping for car parts, clothing, gadgets, etc, no individual’s expertise will factor into the buying process.

The reality is that for the vast majority of businesses – even those based upon the expertise of an individual – informative articles on a topic will not be a major factor in converting visitors into customers.  There are more effective ways to establish trust, as we will discuss in the follow-up article.

That does not mean articles are useless, just not a priority in establishing trust within the sales conversion process.

Nor does that mean that article marketing, video marketing and Infographics are useless, just not as a means of establishing trust with visitors to most websites.

What content marketing does very well is to draw in people who are not yet shopping, people who are gathering information and might not yet know that they need your services – top of the funnel. They seek information, in so doing they find your article, they read, they learn, they realize that maybe they need professional help, they visit your website…and then hopefully you can make the sale.

In my next post I will discuss what, rather than articles and “content marketing”, will establish trust with potential customers once they are on your website.