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Changes in Google+ And What They Might Mean

Google+ debuted to much fanfare in June 2011 as the search engine giant sought to establish itself as a social media network. Although it has not successfully competed with Facebook in terms of how people use it, G+ has been a viable and useful alternative for businesses, not least because it can create measurable results in your website’s SEO. As all social networks, G+ continues to evolve. Here’s a rundown of some of the most recent changes, and what they might mean for the future of G+.

The death of Google Authorship

Google Authorship was intended as a way for Google to connect articles on the web with their authors – thus giving the search engine giant more information about which authors have the most credibility (as measured in traffic) on which topics, a concept also known as “author authority.” Authors would link their content to their Google+ profiles using web code “markup,” thus helping Google understand exactly who had written a given article. The theory makes sense – especially when you consider how many people have names that are similar or identical.

Google’s algorithm could then use that information to improve search engine results by ranking more credible authors and articles higher in search engine results pages (SERPs). Authors who implemented the authorship “tag” on their material were rewarded with an author photograph and G+ byline in SERPs, thus making their articles more enticing and “clickable.”

However, Google chose to end support for the Authorship program in August 2014. The search engine giant didn’t exactly say why, but one can guess that part of the problem was that not enough people were using it – Stone Temple Consulting did a detailed study of 150 top media sites, and found extremely poor Authorship adoption rates. And to be honest, Authorship required a fair amount of work and cooperation to function properly. Authors had to establish G+ profiles, and publishers of their material had to include the web markup so that the two could be linked – and the study linked above found that up to 50% of authors didn’t establish a profile, and a whopping 72% of publishers had errors in their markup.

On the other hand, Google Publisher markup, which links a company’s website to information it publishes on the web, is still supported. It works the same way as Google Authorship in that a company’s G+ Page is linked to content it publishes on the web through markup placed in the company’s website code. It is somewhat simpler to implement in that all the work – establishing the markup and the G+ Business Page – is done by the same entity, the company publishing the content.

The birth of Facebook Authorship

Social media networks often try to compete with other social media networks by co-opting some of their best features – the hashtag, “trending,” and circles are just a few examples of features that started on one network and are now ubiquitous. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Facebook is now attempting to press its advantage over G+ by adopting the Authorship feature itself!

This spanking-new feature came out in June 2015. Essentially, the way it works is that writers and publishers of web content can use a simple meta tag to connect their Facebook profiles or pages to any given piece of web content, such as a blog post (like the one you’re reading now). Then, when a link to that content is shared on Facebook, viewers can see the author/publisher’s Facebook presence and potentially follow them.

It’s important to realize that this is not nearly as powerful a tool as Authorship was intended to be. After all, we’re talking about something that happens on Facebook only and is a way to gain followers, not on Google SERPs across the entire World Wide Web as a way to gain author credibility. But it’s still worth doing, especially since implentation is super-easy and uses tools that have been around for a long time – unlike Google Authorship.

More changes to Google+

Every time Google makes changes to G+, speculation about the future of G+ runs rampant, and there have been several changes in the recent past:

  • Discontinuation of Google+ Photos: On August 1, Google+ Photos is being discontinued in favor of Google Photos. Google’s Bradley Horowitz posted on G+, “It’s important to me that these changes are properly understood to be positive improvements to both our products and how they reach users.”
  • Disappearance of unclaimed G+ Business Pages: According to Search Engine Land, unclaimed Google+ Business Pages will be closed by the end of July. (To find out how to establish your business G+ Page, consult our podcast on G+.)
  • Page posts are now gone from “Knowledge Panels”: Google+ has now stopped adding Pages’ posts to their “knowledge panels,” that is, the large ad that appears in SERPs when someone searches on your company’s name. Formerly, the most recent G+ Page post would appear at the bottom of the Knowledge Panel, which was a major incentive for businesses to post. Now, a heading titled “People Searched For” appears instead, under which are listed several similar businesses – including direct competitors! Google has clarified that the G+ Business Page posts themselves will continue to appear in SERPs, adding that “this places the Google+ posts along with tweets and other publicly crawlable links in the same fashion as any other social network.” This wording has led some experts to speculate that legal reasons are forcing Google to avoid the appearance of prioritizing its own products in search.
  • Users no longer have to have a G+ account to access some Google products: At one time, Google was encouraging participation in G+ by forcing users of any Google product, including YouTube, to establish a G+ account. As of July 27, this policy is being phased out.

The future of Google+

Attempting to read the tea leaves when it comes to social media networks is fraught with peril – but given these changes, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s some large, seismic shift in store for G+. At the very least, one expert has concluded that G+ is going through an identity crisis. In our opinion, Authorship and the Pages posts in “Knowledge Panels” were major benefits of using G+, and their absence is a disincentive for those who use G+ for business promotion purposes.

That said, Google+ Pages for businesses still offer a variety of advantages – not least of which is a large display ad in search engine results pages, even if the Page posts have been removed (if you’re unsure how to claim or start your business Page, step-by-step instructions are included here). Google Publisher markup is still worthwhile, and linking your YouTube channel, G+ Page, and website still creates results.

As many experts have noted, G+ is deeply rooted in all Google products. But Google’s Bradley Horowitz announced on July 27 that changes in the coming months will make it easier to use Google products without a G+ account. What this decreased level of integration will mean is anyone’s guess – as always in the world of social media, we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds.

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