One of the things that I truly enjoy about online interactions is that we are more free from the biases and prejudices that are associated with physical appearance.
In the real world,
We form first impressions from faces despite warnings not to do so. Moreover, there is considerable agreement in our impressions, which carry significant social outcomes. Appearance matters because some facial qualities are so useful in guiding adaptive behavior that even a trace of those qualities can create an impression.
~~[Social Psychological Face Perception: Why Appearance Matters]
Therefore, it is a bit surprising that this important aspect of Google’s Authorship tool, has thus far gotten very little attention. In fact, since its introduction, Google Authorship has not only gotten a host of glowing reviews, but is also generally accepted as a necessary component to online writing or money making success. SEO gurus and pretend gurus everywhere take it as a given that showing our faces in search results will help us ‘get more traffic‘.
Nary a negative post was presented, until recently, when the folks at JitBit claimed that authorship actually caused a 90% drop in traffic. Of course, such a post that so flew against the grain of conventional wisdom got pounced on and readily denounced.
What I found most interesting though, is not really “who is right and who is dead”, but rather that the following discussions were mostly focused on the more technical or structural aspects of issue, rather than its more human aspects.
Google Authorship – The Good
We would expect that in a page full of text, pictures will grab our attention.
However, this excellent post by Justin Briggs shows that this was not originally the case. In the beginning, people filtered out authorship information. This was because we have gotten so used to scanning through search results in a fixed, efficient way, that initially, we simply ignored all the “new stuff”.
Later results from Google, however, show that social annotations are beginning to gain traction with users. In particular, eye tracking data show that users not only fixate on the top search results, but also on those links with authorship images.
Therefore, are all the gurus right? Can we can gain an edge in getting traffic simply by enabling Google authorship in our posts?
The good news is that the results clearly show that authorship pictures draw the eye and draw user attention, even when our article may not be at the top of the search results page. However, it is worth noting that results may change when more authors decide to put up profile pictures, and text only entries become the exception rather than the norm.
The bad news is that the results say nothing about click through rate (CTR), much less about a user’s emotional reaction.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” but those words will be different for different people depending on background, location, religious or political affiliation, and more. In fact, it is likely that when it comes to faces, some of those words will rub some people the wrong way. This may lead to a drop in CTR and other long term side-effects.
Not all attention is good attention, and having the “wrong face” may trigger a negative impression, and cause us to lose viewers.
Google Authorship – The Bad
Clearly, most of us do not look like der Führer. However, social psychology literature tells us that we cannot help but form opinions about others based on their looks.
For example, attractive people are more likely to create a good impression during job interviews, they are more likely to get votes in an election, they are more likely to receive help, and have a greater ability to change someone’s opinion.
The effects of facial appearance are broad, and may affect our decisions even in objective or fact based matters, e.g. criminal justice decisions.
The impact of faces is shown in our impressions of people as well as in our behavior towards them, such as whom we help, whom we hire, or whom we ask for a date (Zebrowitz, 1997). Appearance matters not only when our reactions to a face are arguably relevant to our choices, but even when those choices should be driven by more objective information. For example, facial appearance predicts criminal justice decisions (Eberhardt, Davies, Purdie-Vaughns, & Johnson, 2006; Stewart, 1980; Zebrowitz & McDonald, 1991), as well as congressional elections (Todorov, Mandisodza, Goren, & Hall, 2005).
~~[Social Psychological Face Perception: Why Appearance Matters]
This is not the end of the story.
Psychology studies also show that not only do we like attractive people more, but we also associate those positive feelings to the objects and products that appear together with them or around them.
This is why product companies pay top dollar to advertising agencies to create commercials with exactly the right ‘look’ and exactly the right face for their target audience. You may not consciously realize this, but these commercials make you associate the product with the good fuzzy feeling you feel from watching a pretty face.
The next time you go to the grocery store, you are likelier to pick those brands over others.
The same is true of a negative impression. It will affect how others view our words, the products on our site, whether they click through, or whether they leave and never return.
Google Authorship – The Ugly
If a pretty face is all that it takes, then why not just put up a pretty face? Will that bring us online fame and riches?
Unfortunately, it is not so simple.
In the context of online authorship, we are already very conditioned to look out for fake profiles. Spammers often put up pictures of actors and models in the hopes of positively influencing their readers.
A profile picture that is too professional or too attractive will simply be taken as fake, and the content, reviews, and products will be painted with the same brush.
The truth is, whatever picture or face we use, there will invariably be some biases or prejudices attached to it, from some of the people who are searching for our keywords.
- Likely, our picture will create a positive impression with some.
- Also likely, our picture will create a negative impression with many others.
It is simply not possible to please everyone, which is why the look and tone of advertisements are always targeted based on a well-specified group of people.
The disturbing aspect of this trend is that now, ‘looks‘ are becoming important in an online context. Biases and prejudices associated with physical appearance, that were previously only the purview of real-world interactions, will start to play a bigger role in our online activities and success.
Is Google Authorship Good or Bad for Traffic?
As we have discussed above, this is a complicated issue.
- On the one hand, our authorship picture gets us greater user attention.
- On the other hand, our authorship picture may form a negative impression with our viewers, which may be longer lasting and farther reaching than originally anticipated.
We will be ahead if the effects of greater attention, outweigh whatever negative impression arises from our authorship image. Unfortunately, I think that the latter will win out.
Most online site audiences are pretty diverse, therefore, it is likely that many of our readers will be quite different from us. Our profile picture will emphasize those differences, and may turn off various groups of people simply because of “lack of similarity”. For example, he has a Beagle in his profile picture, whereas I am more of a Poodle, Labrador, or Yorkie fan. Biases based on culture and belief will also play a big role.
In contrast, if there is no picture, we leave it up to each member of our audience to construct a visual appearance solely based on the strength of our words and personality. This is not unlike how fans are frequently disappointed by the actor choices of their favorite book characters, when the story gets adapted to television or the big screen.
In a book, a character has as many faces as there are readers. On the screen, a character only has one face.
This suggests that the risk of a drop in click through rate (CTR), resulting from the activation of our authorship picture, is very real.
At the very least, simply turning on Google authorship and slapping on our best high school photo will likely *not* result in success.
If I were to test Google authorship again –
- I would only turn it on for certain posts, in particular, those that would most benefit from added user attention in the search page. I would not disrupt any pages that are already ranking well and getting good traffic.
- I would think very carefully about the audience of those pages, and craft a profile picture that will have positive appeal for that group.
- Not all users are equal, of course, so I would focus on those who will most help me achieve my goals.
- I would make sure to minimize the negative impact of authorship on my site, create a separate test profile if necessary, and only conduct experiments on a small portion of my content.