Social Media

Can Changing Your Profile Picture Manipulate Google Authorship?

Over the last few months Fresh Egg’s social media team has been looking at the way Google uses its Authorship markup (rel=author), and attempting to find out what the search engine allows and forbids when it comes to social annotations. You may have already seen our post on an paper in early 2013 which stated:

[…] users had a 60% chance of fixating on the annotation when placed at the top of the snippet block.

Prior to Google releasing this information, SEO consultant and web strategist, Cyrus Shepard, blogged about how optimising his Google+ picture increased traffic to his site by 35%. We wanted to carry out our own experiments however, to see how we could manipulate social annotations.

Test one: the arrow

The social media team started adjusting their Google+ pictures, to see if Google would allow us to coax clickthroughs from search results in this way. I had previously seen a nice example of an avatar attempting to influence users from social media consultant and writer, Don Power:


I decided to experiment with this, though a little more overtly. On Friday 26 April, I changed my Google+ profile picture to an arrow icon Once I had picked the arrow image, Google asked “Are you sure people will recognise you in this photo? It doesn’t seem to have a face in it.” However, Google did not prevent me from applying the arrow picture anyway.


I checked the SERPs to see if my change had been implemented and the arrow could be immediately seen. I tried several search queries I know posts of mine rank for, for which my new icon also appeared.

arrowI checked this again on the morning of Saturday 27 April and my Authorship markup had completely disappeared from my posts. Google were on to me! I changed my image back to a picture of my face but it took a further 12 hours for my Authorship to reappear in search engine results. Had I been penalised by the almighty Google?

Test two: the peach

We conducted another Google+ image experiment, with slightly different results. We chose a picture of a peach for the avatar of one of our team members. This does not fit with Google’s guidelines which state you should choose an image with a human face in it. However, unlike the previous arrow icon, it is not overtly trying to influence CTR (despite the fact the fruity icon resembled a bottom somewhat!)


Again, the image appeared in the SERPs immediately. However, Google removed the image within two hours. While the peach was gone, Authorship markup was not removed – a blank avatar was simply displayed instead.


It is possible that while Google decided that site author, Lilla Allahiary, was a real person (and thus: awarded Authorship), her image may have been removed for violating the search engine’s content policy, which states:

"Your Profile Picture cannot include mature or offensive content. For example, do not use a photo that is a close-up of a person’s buttocks or cleavage."

Oh, come on Google! It was clearly a peach…

SEO consultant and web marketing strategist, Andrea Pernici, posted a detailed blog on Moz in July 2012, which detailed his experimentation with Google+ avatars. He tested a number of different images, including those without faces, images including more than person and cartoon faces, as well as some low quality images. Pernici concluded that none of these seemed to be removed from his Authorship markup, which continued to show in SERPs. He also suggested that if rel=author is not displaying in SERPs, this could be related to the authority of the G+ profile, though there is no solid evidence to suggest this.

Therefore it would seem that Google have cracked down (no pun intended) on ‘suggestive’ profile images in recent months.

Test three: the cartoon

I decided to test the cartoon option for myself, to see whether this would also affect my Authorship.


I was confident that Batman does have a face and that Google would realise this. Alas, I was Batman for two full weeks and no Authorship appeared in the SERPs for my posts during this time. After ditching the superhero and returning to my normal, smiley face, Authorship took 18 days to reappear.

It has recently been reported that Google is experimenting with brand Authorship. This will work similarly to how Google Authorship currently works but company logos will be pulled in instead or faces.

This was noted by Siege Media founder, Ross Hudgens, who also noted that brand Authorship results were not limited to brand term searches alone, but appeared for relevant organic keyword searches as well. He observed that brand Authorship was active for a few days, but then disappeared, meaning what Hudgens saw was likely the result of a Google test.

If this change is implemented, how will this alter the rules for Google+ avatars? Will Google favour familiar brand logos in SERPs over individual authors and how will this affect trust signals? Will this stop brands using rel=author for individual authors all together?

Does author image affect CTR?

Many webmasters have written about how changing your Google+ profile image can increase clickthrough rate (CTR).

As mentioned previously, Cyrus Shepard found that clickthrough rate improved when he experimented with his rel=author image.

He felt that image quality could be a contributing factor for CTR and so he decided to test this theory with a variety of different images, including more aesthetically-professional shots on different coloured backgrounds. These, over time, DID improve Shepard’s click-through rates, by around 35%.

cyrus-shepardImage source:

Cyrus goes on to say that there is no perfect image – he claims it “depends much more on [the] audience and content”.

There may be no perfect Google+ profile image but there are certainly good, bad and plain ugly ones! Here’s some examples I came across:

The good



These are good headshots where you can see the author clearly. Such images are likely to increase trust signals.

The bad



If you can’t clearly see the person in the image, or there are two people in the image who look like they’re in a boy band, this is unlikely to benefit traffic levels to the page.

The ugly



Change your image now if it is garish as well as not depicting a clear headshot!


So what have we found? Google will only apply Authorship SERPs markup to human faces and may penalise you if you flounce this rule. It is difficult to say whether it is a human or a robot that checks for faceless images but images in violation are certainly picked up on fairly quickly! This meant we were unable to see if the presence of Batman could help to improve clickthrough rate.

If you want to heighten your chances of gaining some free extra traffic to your site or blog, ensure that you have a professional, headshot, akin to that of Cyrus Shepard, for your Google+ profile picture.

It will be interesting to see if brand Authorship images begin to appear within search results soon, and how their implementation will affect Authorship generally.

We’re continually performing tests here at Fresh Egg, and there are more experiments on the cards for the social team soon.  Be sure to look out for further blog posts around the subject of Authorship, as well as Publisher markup.

Would you like to find out more about how the Fresh Egg social media team could advise you on implementing authorship on your website or blog? Get in contact with us today.