What Makes for a Good Author Photo in the Local Results? (Part 1)

What makes for a good Author photo in the Local results?

Author photos are increasingly showing in Google’s local search results. Since first appearing in local results in February of this year, author photos have slowly and steadily increased in frequency. In most markets you may only see one author photo in the local results but in some markets a preponderance of results display them. This blended result from a legal search in the Orlando market, with its variety of images, put the question front and center as to what makes for a good avatar in local results.

The interesting variety in the array of photos in this particular search result – some old, some young, no women, bordered, without borders, bright colors, muted colors, looking left, looking right – immediately elevated for me the idea that click through rates AND conversions would in all likelihood be influenced by differences in these photos. In looking at the results perviously, I had encouraged my client, Moses and Rooth Attorneys at Law, to use an open, friendly close up photograph. But after showing these results to several people I realized it likely that there was more to avatar photo preferences than met the eye. And that the role of an author photo in local might be different than in general search results.

I wanted to better understand the issues with these photos so I embarked on an effort to learn how other experts might address the situation and how consumers might evaluate these photos. I invited Cyrus Shepard, who has done thorough testing of his own author photo, AJ Kohn who has written extensively about authorship and Matt McGee, an editor at MarketingLand that has written broadly about social (and who has the best avatar of all time), to give their opinions as to which of these photos were most effective and why.

The second prong of my effort to understand how these images might influence results was to create a consumer survey using the Google survey tool to ask 1500 adult internet users the question: If you were selecting a lawyer based on these images, which would you select? The results of the survey with comments from Cyrus, AJ and Matt will be published in the very near future.

My goal in doing this exercise was not to profile the ideal avatar photo but to start a conversation to get myself and others thinking about what questions we should ask when creating these photos, how might the role of avatar photos for local differ than that of regular author photos and how to get started advising a client as to the direction they should take. In other words, what is a good starting point for your local author image.

I gave Cyrus, Matt and AJ the following charge:

1) Which avatars in the above search result do you prefer and why?

2) What makes for a good avatar. Are there design principles or other general guidance to use when creating one?

3) I am going to do a Google survey and see what consumers say about this specific group of photos

4) And then show you the results of the consumer survey so you can comment and add additional insights

Before I share the initial, pre survey impressions of Cyrus, AJ and Matt with you, take a moment to examine the avatars yourself and decide which ones you like best, which ones you think would perform best in the real world and why…..

Cyrus Shepard

1. At first glance, my eye is attracted to the 2nd photo (B-Umansky) most likely because of the bit of color with the high-contrast red tie, which is coincidentally one of the two colors thatย presidential candidates always wear.

2. Some guidelines I suggest for a good avatar:

  • Use of color. A splash of something bright helps draw the eye in otherwise monotonous SERPs – just like our eyes are trained to see the yellow/gold of review stars. My own photo performed best with a red or yellow/orange background.
  • Right-facing (eyeline towards the search results) is better than left-facing, which tends to draw the users eye away from the page. Straight into the camera is another good choice.
  • Attractiveness can’t be denied. I have a suspicion that attractive women photos do very well with certain demographics. See Felicia Day below.
  • For some reason I prefer real backgrounds instead of a studio look. By placing the 2nd lawyer above in a real setting, he projects an air of authority that isn’t staged.

These are by no means definitive or scientific. A good photo is going to depend on the target audience and hard to measure factors such as trustworthiness (especially for lawyers ๐Ÿ™‚ interest, empathy, attractiveness, etc.

Hope this helps! Below is my opinion on a popular Google avatar, and my take on what she could have done better.

AJ Kohn

1) Here’s my feedback on the avatars.

A: My least favorite. Darker colored background and a shifty looking photo. I think it’s the side view with the eyes looking back that makes it that way. It doesn’t convey trust.

B: Toss up for favorite. I hate the black border and usually like a closer shot of the face but it looks (from a far) like he’s in a court room which, oddly, instills trust.

D: This might convey authority to some but it’s super stodgy and I can’t really see his face.

E: Toss up for favorite. I like the lighter background, though I might go with a color instead, and the tighter shot on the face. But he looks a bit … goofy.

2) For my money a good avatar usually means a tighter head shot with the person looking directly into the camera on a background that delivers contrast and potentially color. In short, you want to see the person easily and clearly at a glance. Some of these principles might change on the vertical. So the ‘in the courtroom’ photo might be interesting. But I’d go with the former as the control and the latter as the challenger.

In your Google Survey is there any way to rotate the order of the photos? I wonder if the order of the photos might change the perception. Maybe that’s another test in and of itself? Either way, I think this sounds like interesting research and look forward to the results!

Matt McGee

1) I think your clientโ€™s (Moses & Rooth) avatar is the best because itโ€™s zoomed in the most to show the person. And he looks happy, which is a draw to me, without looking silly or unprofessional. That said, Iโ€™d prefer to see some more contrast in coloring because it starts to blend in a bit on the white background of the page.

The first avatar is too monotone for my tastes, and the gentleman looks nervous about being photographed.

I really dislike the black frame on the second avatar because it seems like a waste of valuable pixels to me — it’s way too thick. But, last week at SMX Social Media, one of the speakers was saying that Facebook ads with a thin red border around the image had a higher CTR than ads without the red border on the image. That makes me wonder if there’d be similar results in the local example we’re looking at. I can see how a thin red border might draw the searcher’s eyes more than the border-free images.

The third avatar (result “D”) has the same problems as the first two — too far away to see the person, too monotone.

2) As far as what makes for a good avatar, I imagine it depends to some degree on your target audience. My gut opinion is that vivid colors and/or contrasting colors are best, because it helps the image stand out. And, as I said above, I like the avatar to be zoomed in far enough that I can see the details of the person’s face.

I guess the thing I like the most is when avatars are unique. Everyone seems to have a portrait-style photo that just gets shrunk down to mini-size in Google’s search results and they all look the same. I’d really prefer to see something creative that — in the case of attorneys like we’re reviewing here — still conveys trust, authority and professionalism.


Tomorrow (or soon there after ) we will be doing a follow up post detailing the results of large scale consumer survey with their answers (and comments by Cyrus, Matt and & AJ)ย to the question: If you were selecting a lawyer based on these images, which would you select?

So what do you think? Which avatar is better and why?

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
What Makes for a Good Author Photo in the Local Results? (Part 1) by

18 thoughts on “What Makes for a Good Author Photo in the Local Results? (Part 1)”

  1. Having come from direct marketing into online marketing 10 years ago, it was always a rule that photos should face in to text. But seeing the lawyer photos above really brings it home.

    I’d add that the photo has to promise what the searcher is looking for. When looking for a lawyer I’d go for someone looking older and authoritative. But I’d apply a different set of criteria if I were looking for other services or kinds of content.


    1. @Rob
      There are a lot of variables in these photos so while I tend to agree that the face should turn toward the text I think I would want to test that more if I could. (I would gladly accept $ for additional consumer surveys if you interested. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

      I wholeheartedly agree that the choices are very industry specific although I think you will see that the choice differences seem to be predicated on a range of other factors as well.

  2. I agree with @rob, it’s going to depend on the service or product you are representing.

    It’s a great subject, and I hope we see a lot more research on it. We recently completed 4 marketing research projects for clients. One of the factors we look at is the average and most common (by percentage of buyers) age group of the individuals who buy from them. All 4 are in different industries, and all 4, the buyers age’s was in line with the clients (or the person doing the selling) age or at least “generation”.

    This subject has the potential to be expanded dramatically. It’s more than colors, and such, it’s also the commonality a viewer see’s in the picture with themselves and there expectations.

    Again, great information Mike!

  3. For law firms specifically I’d choose Umansky (#2). It looks friendly but confident. I do wish it were cropped closer.

    I wonder how easily you could split-test images in order to have hard data on which images bring the best response, especially considering how different the reaction could be among different industries.

  4. Should be interesting – and well worth doing.

    Yet there are so many variances.
    The photos alone can come with a huge number of factors;
    Facial Expression

    Then you have the different audiences. Not only may you find different ages/genders have slightly different preferrences, but I think it may well change on sector/industry as well.

    That’s a huge number of tests … and, at the end of it all, when the Author Snippet in the SERPs becomes common place – the “best”, which will likely to have gained in popularity and presence, may have less effect … and the previously “less effective” images may perform better.

    So can we look forward to more tests and results?

  5. I choose #4
    – light background (not white though) allows headshot to stand out
    – smiling, friendly face; approachable yet still professional
    – facing text
    *I would have preferred a tiny bit more neck and shoulders be included, and to include the red ‘power tie’ from the second photo would have been icing on the cake ๐Ÿ˜‰

    note to Andy… get new headshot image – ack!
    Thanks Mike ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. I really love this stuff. Could I suggest that we are being a bit narrow in our assessment. To really understand results, it would be of great value to understand the people the results are coming from. How one Group rates
    this, (say the obvious), like their location, or their age, occupation, income levels, hobbies, would take the information to a brand new value level.

    For me I am drawn to number 4. He has Gray hair, I have grey hair. I appreciate Gray hair. I liked Jay ( Number 4) as well. Looks friendly, that’s important if you are a bit intimidated by Attorneys or Law firms.
    Mike- if I am talking to much feel free to delete…

  7. Hi, All! My avocation is video and photography and I agree with Lyndon and Andy. If commissioned to do a shoot, I take all these things into consideration, because at the end of the day, creative art tends to be quite subjective. That said, if time and budget allow, I will often take multiple approaches, capturing several poses, expressions, environments, etc., and align the finished product with the target media, audience, demographic, etc. That said, I’d also go for Umansky–without that heavy black border.

  8. @Mike Bayes
    Google survey does provide very granular demographic results down to age, sex, income, location & urbanicity IF you get a large enough sample size to get details at that level. The survey I will publish tomorrow does have worth at the top level of any of those but not much deeper. Dig in and see what you think.

    I wanted to use those doing the work to take their best shot and then see what we can learn from a consumer pov and then compare the two results. Fortunately AJ, Cyrus and Matt were all game.

    I have not figured out a way to split test in real time. Cyrus did a great job of testing his avatar changes (link above).

    I think you are right on all fronts… lots of variables in the photo itself and lots of different viewers, all of which will influence outcome.

    As to more research, I am willing but will need additional funding sources rather than doing out of pocket like I did on this one.

    We will know tomorrow whether you are close to the average. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I did not like the black border either……

  9. Neat post, Mike. I think you have to take into consideration not what a bunch of marketers (like me) might thing, but what a person having legal trouble might think.

    If I was in trouble, the dark background avatars would feel murky and ominous to me.

    If I was out to ‘stick it to someone’ legally, maybe those dark photos would look powerful and threatening (the persona I might wish my go-get-’em lawyer to present in a courtroom).

    If I was looking for a lawyer to do my estate planning, your Moses and Rooth looks the friendliest.

    From a purely visual standpoint, the red tie in #2 drew my eye first, but the distant perspective and black border lessen the impact.

    So…your guy should take a new photo with the same expression and he should sport a red tie in it, from a purely visual standpoint.

    But emotionally, that’s just a whole different story.

  10. You do realize what is going to happen here? Everyone is going to come to a general consensus on the key elements to have in your avatar photo, thousands will update their photos to fall within these “rules”, and then Google will pull the rug out from under you.

    Personally I hate avatars, notably in how they are being used within the local search realm. I am actually shocked that your clients were able to agree on which attorney would be associated with the listing for their firm. In my use of local for personal searches I have caught myself passing right by the listings with avatars as they appear to be less professional and more “blogish”.

  11. The particular niche should certainly be considered, but it seems that general principles will hold true. In the first second or two I want to grab the eye. Seems color will have the most impact on that. If options, time, resources, etc… are limited, the simple choice to go with the red tie (or blouse) could make a big difference.

  12. Mike:

    AWESOME series here. I’ve always wondered about this very topic. I agree with what many have said here – that contrasts probably work best with the person facing the search results. And like others have said, I think the photo will depend on the industry and target market. In addition to that, I think you need to see what others are doing in your niche so you can do something different.

    What I’m fearful of is that fast forward a year from now when everyone’s photo is showing up. We’ll all become blind to them like we have to banners. They won’t even stand out anymore – no matter what you do. I know…how about animated gifs:) Actually, that’s a good question…could a guy use an animated gif as their photo?

    Travis Van Slooten

  13. As promised Mike, I’m no longer a lurker ๐Ÿ™‚

    This is just the kind of information I was looking for regarding authorship photos! Here I was thinking of backgrounds and shapes, never thinking of the actual clothing itself to help the author standout….sigh

  14. I like #2, but I would think that the effectiveness of the avatar would have to also do with what the customer is searching. For instance, my firm practices bankruptcy law. I think that a customer looking for a bankruptcy lawyer wants a gentler touch than say someone looking for a divorce attorney. I would think that this would have to be one of the criteria in selecting the right avatar.

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