Can Google Authorship Really Cause a Huge Traffic Drop? [Case Study]

google-plus-authorshipAlex Yumashev created quite a stir with his claim that Google authorship decreased his traffic by 90 percent. He certainly got my attention, as I had recently spoken at a conference as a proponent of authorship and had also written "Google+: A Quick Start Guide" to help people get started with authorship.

If authorship turns out to be a double-edged sword, that could be a real problem. After reading Yumashev's "analysis" and takeaways, it looked to me like he got one of his takeaways right: "Google Webmaster tools is a must". The remaining conclusions were dubious and challenged by many, including Matt Cutts, who wrote in a Hacker News thread:

"Authorship had nothing to do with this site's drop. The site has been affected by our Penguin webspam algorithm and that accounts for the drop."

Alrighty then, case closed. Just another example of correlation being confused with causation.

Still – even if that is the case, the question remains: are their cases where authorship does more harm than good? I left a comment at the end of the Yumashev post that a key takeaway could be that "authorship and product pages aren't always a good match."

This hypothesis was both challenged and supported by other commenters weighing in. I have had the same debate when talking about this publicly. My conference speaking partner, Jim Rudnick agreed with me – product pages and authorship don't mix. Many conference attendees, including the moderator did not see it that way. I would love to find data on CTR by page type to put this argument to rest.

A Google Authorship Case Study

While participating in a roundtable discussion at SES New York, I met a principle of a company that sold business productivity software. They were interested in setting up authorship for their website.

These guys are web savvy and didn't need a lot of help, just some guidance to get things rolling. After a one-hour consultation, they had the tools necessary to confidently tackle Google+ authorship.

A few weeks later, I received an unexpected email:

Hi Chuck

Hey, we have authorship set up (e.g. type "business productivity software" into Google) as attached.

However while it's only been in place for 2 weeks now, our sales have "dropped" by 20% since it went live. Is that usual?

Kind regards,
Business Owner

Normally, I would dig into this and see what the root (real) cause was, but we weren't engaged to do that. The business partners declined my request for access to Google analytics. Our scope of work was limited to a one-hour consultation on the set up of Google+ authorship.

Although Yumashev wasn't the only instance of a negative authorship experience that I've seen, reports of bad experiences are pretty rare. My personal experiences and those of my clients have all been positive. I offered the following response:

Hi Business owner:

Not at all. Some controversy was stirred up a few weeks ago regarding this topic when someone claimed traffic dropped by 90% after authorship. Matt Cutts was pretty peeved by this and jumped into the conversation saying it was Penguin not authorship causing his problem. A good read on this topic can be found here: http://justinbriggs.org/how-does-google-authorship-impact-ctr

Hope this helps

Chuck

Since we didn't have the green light to solve the puzzle, I was hoping to put the business owners on the right track. I wanted them to know the Yumashev claim had been debunked and research on user behavior and social annotation ran counter to their experience.

It seemed clear that something besides authorship was at play. The client wasn't buying it

Thanks Chuck, I appreciate the advice.

Supposedly based on this article, people don't notice it, however we've had a sharp drop-off.

I'll wait another week and if the trend continues, we'll have to remove Authorship, unfortunately.

Kind regards,

Business owner

That kind of response makes me nervous. It looked to me like a classic case of correlation being credited with causation. I wanted this team to stay open to all possibilities.

Hi Business Owner:

Please keep me posted on how this all works out. Correlation does not necessarily equate to causation. Keep an open mind to other potential factors.

Thanks

Chuck

And, as you probably guessed, here's how it ended up:

Hi Chuck

Unfortunately I've had to pull the pin on Google Authorship - it's clearly reduced sales rather than increase them. I'm guessing it's because people see my photo and because they don't know me, they don't click the link.

We've kept our whole business the same over this period, so it's pretty indicative.

Amazing that others actually found that it increased sales though.

Kind regards,

Business Owner

Being an analytical guy, I'm immediately suspicious when someone concludes, "I'm guessing it's because people see my photo and because they don't know me, they don't click the link". There is no evidence or pattern of user behavior to support this hypothesis. That said, I'm curious at this point to see what happens, once authorship is removed:

Hi Business Owner -

I'm really interested in this and am wondering if you could give me a brief recap of the series of events - the impact - your reaction and what happened (and how soon) things change after dropping authorship.

Regards

Chuck

Leading to:

Hi Chuck

Basically, the day after it went live, I could see our signups for our service had dropped significantly (20%). We waited a week and they were down by 20% overall, so I changed the profile photo for another (different colors etc). We waited another week and signups still down by 20%. I've just asked for it to be removed, so it will be proof in the pudding if they go back within 1-2 weeks to where they were.

Kind regards,

Business Owner

For the sake of clarification, according to the client, traffic was off by 20 percent resulting in a 20 percent drop in revenues. The CTR was not affected. In my mind this was just one more clue that something besides authorship was at work.

It came as no surprise to me that removal of authorship didn't solve the problem, but things got even worse after the removal:

Hi Chuck

Signups are down again this week, and we've had a message posted in our Webmasters account from when Authorship was applied, as attached.

Search Results Clicks Have Decreased Significantly

2 minutes of research turned up this http://www.jitbit.com/news/183-how-google-authorship-decreased-our-traffic-by-90/

They had exactly the same issue. We've removed authorship form our site, but it's stuck to many long tail pages it seems. Overall, a very bad result indeed (sales are currently down by 33%).

Any tips on how to remove authorship from a site completely, after we've removed the code?

Kind regards,

Business Owner

I addressed the jitbit claim, again, along with his other concerns:

Hi Business Owner

Please see my thoughts below

Hi Chuck

> Signups are down again this week, and we've had a message posted in our Webmasters account from when Authorship was applied, as attached.

CP: Is it possible that we have a correlation in timing without authorship being the cause of the problem? A deep dive into the analytics could be helpful to figure that out.

> 2 minutes of research turned up this http://www.jitbit.com/news/183-how-google-authorship-decreased-our-traffic-by-90/

CP: I'm familiar with this case. Google says its Penguin, not authorship: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5792268

> They had exactly the same issue. We've removed authorship form our site, but it's stuck to many long tail pages it seems. Overall, a very bad result indeed (sales are currently down by 33%).

CP: You may have the same problem, but if so, it isn't an authorship issue.

> Any tips on how to remove authorship from a site completely, after we've removed the code?

CP: Remove the code & unlink the profile and everything should go back to anonymous as the pages get indexed.

The takeaway here is to keep an open mind about what may be causing this. Maybe it is authorship, but maybe not.

I was certain that my point-by-point response would clear up any misconceptions. But, then again:

Hi Chuck

I've come to the conclusions as follows:

- we added authorship, we noticed that sales didn't increase, they reduced a bit and so did traffic, nothing major but a noticeable difference.

- so after 2 weeks, as it didn't "increase" sales, I removed it on the 24trh. On the same day, Google Webmasters reported the major issue in the message, and it immediately dropped our rankings and traffic substantially from that day onwards (about 30% of revenue drop immediately until today).

It seems that Google has had a really negative reaction to the removal of authorship from the site (reported in the "structural issues" message we received).

That's where we're at so far - I'll know more in a weeks time.

Kind regards,

Business Owner

In short, they concluded that adding authorship caused a drop in traffic and removing authorship triggered a Google retaliation in the form of an even more dramatic drop in traffic. I'm not buying it, but I'm also not able to convince the client, otherwise.

Hi Business Owner:

Just checking in to see how things are going. From everything that I have read, this analysis seems to make the most sense to me: http://aberrant.me/no-google-authorship-didnt-decrease-your-traffic-by-90/

Regards

Chuck

Not surprisingly, they're still not buying it:

Hi Chuck

It's not the case for us. It sounds like the guy who wrote the original post didn't know much about internet marketing and also, I don't believe what (Google) has said (that it's just Penguin) as it's their way of protecting their stance on Authorship.

In our case, we had a major event take place on the (Xth) of (the Month) as attached.

Within 24 hours:

- we deleted authorship

- we immediately got the notice

- we immediately got penalized for rankings

- we immediately saw major traffic drops

- sales within 3 weeks dropped to 50% (which we've had to top up with a massive Adwords spend to keep us going)

I've hired an independent SEO Expert to investigate further and it's not looking good.

Given that it all happened within hours of the removal of authorship, it's a clean cut case to us. I could write about it for hours as we have a lot of stats on it now, but to be honest publishing anything will be a waste oftime as Google will just say that we've been Penguin slapped (and given that the Penguin changes were a month before and we never had any issues from them - we know it not to be the case).

So we're back to trying to build high quality links to get out of the penalty imposed.

Kind regards,

Business Owner

I'm assuming the client hired an "independent SEO expert" to review his situation, as we just couldn't understand this is all about Google authorship.

Being stubborn, I decided to go rogue and check out the website, anyways. I turned up some issues that could contribute to a Panda problem. Finally – I had the "smoking gun" and here's the client's response:

Thanks Chuck

While it's important, I'm not convinced it's the root of the problem as for probably 12 months now, we've continually tried various tricks to solve the same problem as it's been reported in Google Webmasters. Google hadn't penalized us for this to date. It would have to be a co-incidence that it decided to penalize us for it on exactly the same date that we removed Authorship (within hours), and that's too much of a coincidence for me to swallow :-)

The fact remains the within hours of removing authorship, we got the Webmasters message and instantly dropped out of rankings for our entire top search terms.

Kind regards,

Business Owner

Now I'm willing to concede that authorship may have played a role in this. But not for the reason the client thinks. Instead, it's possible that all of the changes on the site triggered a site-wide crawl, which then, kicked in the Panda algorithm and fallout.

Final Thoughts

I would love to report a happy ending, but this is still a work in progress. I'm pretty confident that once the Panda related issues are resolved, the website will recover. The client still isn't buying it.

So what do you think – is the client right? Is the timing of the penalty clear evidence that Google is retaliating against his decision to remove authorship? Or do you agree with me that the cause is more likely to be algorithmic in nature and this is a case of correlation being mistaken for causation?

I really want to thank the client for allowing me to tell this story. These are some really smart and web savvy guys that are absolutely convinced that authorship is the root of their current problem. I know they're anxious to see the comments and further examples proving them right and me wrong.

Did you know that 98.7 percent of the people killed in automobile accidents brushed their teeth the morning of the accident? Be careful driving home, today.