Google+ Vanity URLs Can Break Authorship: Proof

Matt CuttsI make my living as an SEO consultant, and I’m going to call out Matt Cutts on the quality of his posts. I may find myself homeless in six months, but I’m still going to write this post. Because, in reality, I hope Matt has a sense of humor and he’ll realize that I don’t really think he’s a low quality author. Heh heh, right Matt? But the fact remains that his face does not show up in the search results on the Official Google Webmaster blog. In fact, some of his own blog posts don’t validate in the Rich Snippet Tool.

Crazy, right?

Welcome to the misinformation superhighway.

Google Announces Low Quality Sites and/or Authors May Lose Their Authorship

My photo disappeared in the SERPs for a while. This upset me a great deal and I must admit, I took it personally. One might say I became obsessed, and that wouldn’t be too far from the truth. However, I was able to recover and I announced, on Google+, that I would get it back the very day before it reappeared, right here. I couldn’t rely on anyone else or their opinion, because those with authorship intact weren’t really super-vested in finding a solution. It’s so much easier to just link to Matt Cutts. After all, it’s human nature to want to feel like you “won” and that maybe Michael George lost his authorship because he’s simply not a good author. After all, that’s what Matt Cutts says. Nanny-nanny boo-boo!

I really hate suck-ups. If I have to suck up to a publicly held corporation, just to stay in business, then I’ll find something else to do. Maybe I’ll tune pianos. Or buy a food truck. I’d really, really like to buy a food truck… But I digress.

I kept it to myself, until today anyway, but I knew authorship was simply broken, because Matt Cutt’s authorship was and is broken. At least, some of the time. Like when he posts on a low quality site, such as the Official Google Webmaster Central Blog (sarcasm folks).

I searched and searched to see if anyone else noticed that authorship was broken but all I could find were articles that linked to this Authorship FAQ and shook a finger in the reader’s direction. See? If you only read the FAQ, you’d know all this stuff already! But, ironically, I can’t trust the writers who link to it, because I can’t find a single blog post that mentions that authorship is broken on the very post they link to: authored by the lovely Maile Ohye. You’d have thunk, with all these experts opining on authorship, someone would have noticed.

Now I certainly do not want to embarrass Maile. In fact, it’s so absurdly ironic, that I’m 99% sure it’s intentional. There is just no way that someone could write a post specifically about the rel=author tag and then misuse the rel=author tag in the post itself. The odd part is, in all of the comments in her post, nobody mentions it. On every blog post that discusses authorship and links to this FAQ, nobody mentions it. Do I win a prize Maile? Well, just in case it was an unannounced secret contest, here’s a couple screenshots. The first is from the Rich Snippets testing tool, which is missing her face:

Maile Missing Authorship


The error is on lines 557 and 558. She has a few spaces after the query string operator, essentially breaking her authorship.

code snippet


While I don’t know how long it’s going to last, here’s the link to the error in the rich snippets tool.

Maile’s authorship isn’t broken though. Her authorship is totally intact. Her link is just broken, that’s all. But since I found that, I thought it would be interesting to start going through the Google blog to see if I could find somebody who’s authorship was actually broken, so that I could support my hypothesis (which I’ll get to, eventually). Because, after all, if the Google blog isn’t considered a “trusted authority,” or it’s author’s aren’t considered to be experts in their field, then who the hell is an authority?

Matt Cutts Declares the Official Google Webmaster Blog to Be Low Quality

Okay, not directly, but Google did announce that they were going to improve the Google Authorship rich snippets feature. Matt Cutts announced that the ability to have and use rich snippets may be taken away for “low quality sites in the coming months.” When asked about it, Matt Cutts told us “I can confirm that this change has happened.”

I wouldn’t say Matt Cutts lied, because he did confirm a change has happened. But not at all the way it was presented. Not at all. Because that change actually hurt his own authorship, and the authorship of other Google employees.

It All Went to Hell Around October

Let’s establish some basic facts:

  • “Google” is a database; more importantly, it’s a set of databases and tables that interact with each other. That is to say that the Big Google is a database that interacts with, as one example, the Google+ (Plus) database. Or the Google Places database. But anyone who works with Maps / Places full time knows that these database interactions are not always smooth, and in fact, are often the stuff of SEO nightmares. Sometimes I lay awake in bed and shake my fist at the ceiling screaming, “Why Google Maps? Why?!?” But that’s another story. The databases don’t always play nice together.
  • The Google Databases and their accompanying algorithms change every day. Hummingbird? Come on. The algorithm changes every day. When something big happens, or perhaps Google breaks something- as I believe happened with authorship- they make an announcement. Otherwise, change is constant. This is why I don’t worry too much about algorithm changes. It’s changing right this instant! (Did you feel a disturbance in the force? No? Then you’re clearly not a Jedi.)
  • “Algorithm” is a fancy way of saying software. Or vice-versa. I can’t remember. Essentially, when we query the Google database, we are using Google’s software to interact with the Google database. You aren’t using “the internet”; you are using an online application called “Google” to query Google’s database.
  • I don’t believe any software in existence has ever been issued bug free. Google is in constant beta. If something is always being improved, and according to Google, they are always improving- then it’s never finished. It’s a product that’s essentially in early beta testing. We all trust it with our lives, but rest assured, until Google announces they are finished with the algorithm once and for all, then you are using a software product in beta.

Enter the Google+ Vanity URL

Check out the image below. It is a graph of the drop in authorship being displayed in the SERPs from MozCast.

authorship decline

Actually two pretty big things have happened with Google in the past few months. Authorship has dropped and Google+ has given us the ability to use our names in our Google+ profile links- the so-called vanity URL.

Google announced that they would be “rolling out” the authorship changes on October 29th (click here). Now take a look at that graph again. Back in the day, I worked as a systems analyst for General Motors; but you don’t have to have a degree in M.I.S. to figure this out.

I strongly believe- and still do believe– that authorship was affected, and in many cases broken, by the vanity URL roll out. I wanted to find out if anyone else agreed with me (nobody ever does), so I started searching. As is typical, all of the information I found was the same. One person after another, simply trumpeting the Google message, without checking into it. Well, my authorship was gone, and I depend on it, so I can’t afford to be a lemming. I can’t just shrug my shoulders and accept what they feed me or I won’t be able to feed myself. I came across this post on Google+, from John Mueller, who is also a Google employee.

Opinion on Vanity URL

He writes that “authorship works fine with vanity URLs.” Okay, but there is one tiny problem with his post.

You guessed it. John’s authorship is broken on the very same page he uses as his example, to show that authorship still works. This whole thing became a comedy of irony. Here’s his example post, which- in and of itself- is not related to authorship:

Here’s a link to the rich snippet tool that shows it’s broken.

And, in case it changes, here is the screenshot from the rich snippet tool.

rich snippet test

I also recorded everything on video while I worked, so that once Google fixes this, this won’t be marked as a work of fiction.

John’s broken authorship was also pretty ironic, and may also be intentional, although I can’t figure out how or why. As God as my witness, the two Google bloggers I cover in my examples above were the first two that I found. This was starting to get weird. So I took a look at John’s code and this is what his authorship link looks like (line 545):

<span class="byline-author">Posted by <a href="">John Mueller</a>, Webmaster Trends Analyst</span></div>

Man, it just doesn’t get any prettier. Unlike Maile, John’s code is picture perfect. He’s got the byline; he uses rel=author properly; and to top it off, in perfect form, it’s even in a class called “byline-author.” In other words, it’s technically perfect.

For some reason though, his face doesn’t appear in the SERPs for this post, or any of his posts on the Google blog. Are you starting to question the whole “quality” argument yet? I think John’s a damn fine author; so why doesn’t his employer’s robots agree?

However, I still didn’t have the evidence to tie it all together. John’s rich snippet result is just plain weird. It doesn’t detect authorship at all. It doesn’t detect anything. He links to the blog in his contributor section, just as he is supposed to. So while it’s totally interesting to stare at his code and wonder, I needed to find someone who was having the same problem that I was having.

And Then I Found Matt…

I kept going through authors in the Google Webmaster blog. Believe it or not, some don’t even have authorship set up. Don’t they realize how important it is? And some just do it wrong.

This one is missing the link relation tag (rel=author):

As is this one:

And another:

But the post that gave me what I needed is a post on Manual Webspam Actions, by Matt Cutts.

Yes, my insides are churning a little bit. There is a good chance Matt will read this post. There is a 100% probability that a Google employee will read it. Just remember the “do no evil” thing, okay guys and girls? I know you could easily have me killed with a laser beam from outer space, but please don’t. There are people that love me and I’d be missed.

Here are some screenshots. We’ll start with Matt’s post not validating in the Google rich snippet tool:

Matt's missing face

This is unlike my example with Maile- which is just plain broken and unlike my example with John Mueller, which is just plain weird. This profile was the one I was looking for. This one holds the key. This is, ironically, the profile that allows me to hypothesize on the vanity URL being the issue. Check this out:

Dead Link

They say you need a link from the contibutor-to section in order for authorship to work. In reality, and for anyone who has studied authorship, we know that any links- in that particular module on your profile- will work with authorship.

So did Matt mess up? No, of course not. I checked, and Matt does have a link to the Google Webmaster blog from his profile. Just like many of the authors that work and write for Google.

Don’t Worry Matt, I can fix it!

“My old man is a television repairman, he’s got this ultimate set of tools. I can fix it.” ~Jeff Spicoli.

The problem is in the way you link Matt. The vanity URL is breaking your authorship, regardless of the bill of goods they are trying to sell you. The developers are in cahoots. All you have to do is change your link in your blog post and have it point to your old Google profile link. Then, your authorship will come back. I realize that vanity URLs have no effect on authorship, but try it anyway. Then, the algorithm, which currently thinks that either you or the Google blog are of low quality- will suddenly and instantly deem you as high quality. Neat, huh?

Don’t believe me? Check this out. In the link below, I use my old “number” URL to link to Google+. And everything looks great.


test twelve

I set these up as simple HTML pages. I wanted everything to be as clean as possible. I didn’t conduct tests with WordPress or anything else that could muck up the results. I just typed out a page in my favorite plan text editor, TextWrangler for Mac. It has a cowboy feel to it and I live in Arizona, so there you go. I’m a “text wrangler”. How butch!

Now let’s take a look at another page:

Just Like Matt

So here we can see that regardless of what Google or Google’s employee’s may say: the vanity URL does affect authorship.

Why Did It Happen?

In the first example, I link a clean page to my old profile. In the second example, I link to my shiny new vanity URL. On my vanity URL profile, there is no link to GuruEffect. But on my numbered URL, there is a link to GuruEffect, so they are clearly not the same thing.

My first draft of this post went on for 2500 words and I’m really trying to trim the fat. I realize I have two kinds of readers- those that want a technical explanation and others who would rather not have the tech-crap. I myself hate tech crap, and would rather spend my time watching Drunk History …or doing anything really. Computer nerds bore the hell out of me.

In a nutshell, you actually have two Google+ profiles. The key is the 302 redirect. Google didn’t destroy your old profile. It’s still perfectly intact. They didn’t replace your old page with a new page; because if they did that, they would have done a 301 direct. But because they reserve the right to remove vanity URLs or start charging for them in the future, they kept your old profile intact and duplicated it in another spot. I know, because I just took a stroll down memory lane and visited my old profile.


That’s it. That’s my old profile, and you can see it’s trying to redirect me to the new vanity URL. The only thing you can see, with the naked eye, is the “moved temporarily” message. That’s a browser message, those words are not actually on the physical page that’s still located on my old URL. If I view the source code of this page, I will see my Google+ profile.

Now without getting into great detail about database parity and terms like mirroring- please allow me to introduce a theory. You know, like the theory of gravity. I can see it with my bare eyes, and we all know it exists, but we don’t know exactly why.

When Google implemented the vanity URL, and they duplicated (not moved) all of our profiles, some of us suffered a loss of data- that is, it did not carry our profile link to the new vanity URL. You can see it with your eyes, but in the database table that stores information about authors- that field was corrupted during migration.

It didn’t happen to everybody. It didn’t happen to Maile Ohye, but it did happen to Matt Cutts, and it did happen to me (*blushing!*). When they duplicated Matt’s profile, and thousands of others- there was a loss of database integrity. Google can’t come out and admit they lost a ton of data, because their primary function in our infrastructure is to store data; so instead, they told us that they were penalizing low quality sites or authors while they fix the screw-up.

That’s the good news. If your self-esteem was injured, as mine was, I want you to feel better.

Bottom line? If you lost your authorship, switch back to the old URL. If it doesn’t come back for you, then you might be a low quality author.

But guess what? That’s been in place for a long time. A year ago, you couldn’t just set up a Google profile and write two spammy articles on Viagra to get your face to show. Trimming out crappy authors has been on the agenda for as long as I know. So what changed just recently?

Vanity URLs my friend, vanity URLs is your answer.

I have much more to say about this topic, so if you want to stay ahead of the curve, follow me on Google+; I’ll give you some free advice now and again. My head has been spinning with this information for months and I feel like I just had a mental enema. Now, I’m off to have a beer.