Googler John Mueller shocked the SEO industry last week with his announcement that Google is removing authorship photos and circle counts from the SERPs.

The big question is: WHY? Why would Google kill a feature they had said would instill user trust in quality search results and help valuable content stand out?

Why did they want us all to implement it in the first place?

Was anything we were told about Google+ authorship markup and profile images in search true to begin with?

It didn’t take Moz’s Rand Fishkin long to tweet his thoughts on the motivation behind the change:

google authorship

And even more pointedly:

google plus authorship

Since Google+ authorship and the rich snippets with photos in search results were implemented, we’ve seen eye tracking studies point to additional attention for the enhanced results. We’ve seen research from Catalyst and Cyrus Shepard – and even Google itself – supporting the notion that results with authorship photos have higher click-through rates than their plain text counterparts. Our own internal research also confirms this.

google authorship images

Image via Moz

It does seem more than a little disingenuous for Google to suggest now, after all the work they did encouraging and convincing people that authorship photos in the SERPs would get them more clicks (and it wasn’t exactly easy to set them up), that authorship photos are actually costing people clicks or don’t help at all. So what’s going on?

Google Authorship Clicks Had to Come from Somewhere

Clicks on the search results page are basically a zero sum game. If there’s an increase in CTR for one part of the SERP, some other part is losing that click. There must be a decrease in CTR elsewhere. And that includes the ads.

We know images in the SERPs have a big impact on users and are intent- and click-sucking monsters. Google knows this, too, which is why Google’s Shopping Ads (formerly Product Listing Ads) aren’t plain text.

Maybe Google realized they were giving away free branding with authorship markup – at the expense of paid clicks. Besides, they have their own Sponsored Posts on Google+ for authors who want to promote themselves.

Was it another way for Google to “break the spirits of SEOs,” by taking away a feature they had adopted wholeheartedly? That may be taking things too personally.

However, it’s pretty clear that Google’s excuse for removing author photos from organic results – decluttering and improving user experience with no effect on CTR – just doesn’t hold water.