You may have noticed something slightly different about Google Search results lately: all those cute little photos which accompanied a lot of articles have disappeared. And if you are a little on the nerdish side, you may also have spotted a little Google+ post by a guy called John Mueller (Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google) explaining why.
In the post he says:
We've been doing lots of work to clean up the visual design of our search results, in particular creating a better mobile experience and a more consistent design across devices. As a part of this, we're simplifying the way authorship is shown in mobile and desktop search results, removing the profile photo and circle count. (Our experiments indicate that click-through behavior on this new less-cluttered design is similar to the previous one.)
I personally don’t find any of this particularly convincing – or helpful – really: for a start, we’re living in the era of responsive design, where sites are purposely designed to mutate – often quite radically – to suit different devices. There’s no huge need to have consistency across devices: it’s a question of having a design that works best for each device (this is probably why the mobile versions of other Google products often look very different to the desktop versions). Author photos certainly worked fine on a desktop machine; maybe not so well on smartphones, but you don’t need to remove a design element from a desktop version of an application to create a better mobile experience. I personally disagree that the photos constituted ‘clutter’ too – they made things less text-heavy and helped you to spot articles by authors that you admired more easily.
As for Mueller’s assertion that clickthrough behaviour on the new design is similar to the previous one – well, this is a rather disingenuous statement. Firstly, some webmasters will take issue with this, claiming that they experienced better clickthrough rate for links that were accompanied by an author picture than for those without; but secondly, even if we take Mueller’s statement as being true, ‘similar’ is, in the context of a discussion about statistics, an extraordinarily vague choice of adjective. And finally, what sort of clickthrough behaviour are we even talking about?
I think that what Mueller is saying is that “the number of people clicking on paid ads vs organic results on the new design is similar to the previous one.” And I believe him. The problem is that ‘similar’ could well mean ‘ads are getting 1% to 3% more clicks than organic results under the new regime’. Sounds innocuous enough – until you work out what 1 to 3% of $50bn dollars is: 0.5 to 1.5 billion dollars. Would you let some cute little photos deprive you of $1.5bn? Call me cynical…but no.