The Fallout From The Google Image Search Revamp

By now, you’ve probably already read plenty of posts all ranting and raving about the sheer audacity of Google’s newly updated image search. The internet has been awash with an overwhelming and emotional backlash to the recent image search change, which was originally confirmed as rolling out in a Google Plus post on January 24th. I mean…as if they dare to choose how they display information and data to their own users. The cheek of it!

So what’s everyone moaning about?

Well, quite frankly there’s been a lot of fuss about this recent change (even more so than there is normally). And rightly so! This update is up there with the release of Penguin in terms of the knock on effects it has had for website owners and SEOs the world over.

A lot of people have said that this is one update too far. A thread started over at Webmaster World for example, has been one of the hottest threads on the forum ever since the update was first rumoured to be rolling out.

But this update goes so far beyond the initially obvious implications such as a few visitors here and there, or a smattering of pageviews. The fallout is so much more than that and it is genuinely worrying. So grab yourself a strong cup of coffee or an equally strong whiskey, and let’s get to grips with why this particular update is causing such an uproar, and why you too should be worried about it.

googletearGetting down to business…

Let’s think about image gallery websites or wallpaper websites for example. Now clearly these guys make up a very small minority of the total number of sites on this beautiful world that we call the web. BUT, I’m using these sites as an example, since they are likely to be among the most brutally effected sites around with their entire monetisation strategies being so dependant upon the one thing which has recently been turned completely upside down.

It’s probably worth pointing out at this stage, that when we are talking about an image search change/update from here on in, we are not talking about an algorithm change or a data refresh or anything along those lines. There hasn’t been any noticeable or sizable update to the image algo since their much publicised December update. What we mean here, is the layout of the image search results pages, and the way that these images – our images – are being displayed to the users.

For any of you who have spent the last couple of weeks in a coma or off sunning yourself on a desert island far away from the world of tweets and internetage, the SERPs pages on the image side of things were recently redesigned and completely revamped by big G. I’m not going to ramble on into too much detail about what those changes were. Instead, if you want to know more, just head over to Google images and do a search for yourself. Then click on one of the results, and it should be immediately obvious what we’re talking about here.

So now that you’re back with us after your brief jaunt off to the mystical free-time blackhole that is Google images, let’s get back to the issue at hand.

What you’re not going to find in this post, is yet another boring and repetitive rant about how wrong it is that Google is no longer sending us all those lovely visitors. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry, but it’s just tough luck. Google doesn’t owe you a living. Their website and their users are theirs to do with as they wish. If that means no longer sending as many of those visitors over to you, or changing the ordering of their results then that’s their prerogative. Having said that, you certainly won’t find me in agreement with them on this one!!

The way I see it, there are 2 main issues at play here, and these are more than enough to convince me that the backlash against this update has only just begun. Larry Page and the team certainly haven’t heard the last of this one, and I’d be willing to put an outside bet on a court case or class action rearing its head in the not too distant future.

The problems essentially originate around the idea of Google thinking that it’s OK for them to serve up content that they do not own, or even host, to their visitors without offering anything in return for the webmasters who own the original copyrights to those images.

Us webmasters have, up until now, tolerated Google displaying thumbnails of our images in their search results. This was a mutually beneficial relationship where everyone wins. Users got to see roughly what each image was without clicking through to the site which allowed them to find the image they needed much more quickly, and website owners achieved a moderate click through rate from people who were interested or intrigued enough by the thumbnail to want to take a peek at the full sized image. Now, however, that has all changed, with the focus being well and truly placed on Google retention of traffic and their attempt to “provide a better search experience“.

By moving to display the full sized images within their SERPs, many online marketers and webmasters believe that Google have overstepped a couple of marks, both morally and, potentially, legally.

Think about it this way – if any other website copied an image from your site which you own the copyrights to, you’d be firing off a DMCA takedown request quicker than you could say ‘infringement’. And what Google is now doing is no different to that. Except for in one major aspect.

You see, whereas any other website would copy the image, upload it to their site and try to pass it off as their own, Google seem to have decided that it would be a lot easier and cheaper for them if you could host their copied images for them. So they now display your images (which are being hosted on your server let’s not forget) directly to their users, cutting you out of the process altogether. Your only function in the 3 way love triangle of Google-Users-Webmaster is now to act as Google’s wingman. You’ll be there providing the resources and the bandwidth to make Google look good, and they’ll be mopping up all of the thanks from the users, leaving you stood out in the snow puffing on a cigarette and talking to the minger. Woop.

And this isn’t even considering those people who have paid royalty fees for an image, only to then have the mighty hand of G swoop down and copy it from them for free.

What Google have essentially created here, is the world’s largest image gallery. And you’re hosting it for them free of charge. Congrats guys!

You can’t help but wonder how long it will be before a few adwords ads start popping up in the grey space around the images in another bid to rinse ad impressions and milk those revenues even higher. Ohh the shareholders will be so pleased!

So what can be done?

Don’t worry guys, it’s not all doom and gloom here. There are things that all of us can do to prevent this from happening.

We all have the option to “opt out” of google if we would prefer not to be listed there. But don’t allow your site to be listed and then complain at them for doing it. That’s not how this works. Google is their site and it’s up to them to serve up info to their visitors how they see fit.

The truth is this folks…

You’re all quite right; we shouldn’t have to put up with this blatant copyright infringement and shameless bandwidth theft. And we don’t. For as long as the humble robots.txt file exists, we can have our say. If you don’t like what Google are doing, and like many you consider this a step too far, then stop complaining and start blocking. But if you want to enjoy the benefits of being listed in Googles index then, unfortunately, you have to play their game. If you allow them in then you therefore extend to them the permission to do what they will with your data. And without the emergence of any particularly brave lawyers who are willing to take on one of the biggest companies in the world, that seems likely to remain the case.

I’m not a Google bumming, evangelist, white hat SEO by any stretch – as regular readers of the Matts Backpack blog will surely know – but when every time a big update like this is released, the forums seem to become overrun with bitter and angry webmasters and SEOs. Don’t be that person people; we’re better than that! Stop complaining, and start taking action! Our industry is constantly changing. Which is one of the things that makes being an SEO so much fun. And as frustrating as it might well be for one oversized corporation to come along and swipe out all of your hard work overnight, we must remember that this is just a part of the job. It’s something that we should all expect, and something that we should be expecting to see an awful lot more of in the coming months/years. So buckle up peeps…’coz it’s gna get hairy!

If you want to know more about what you can do to fight back against the image search update, then head over to the Matts Backpack forums and join in the debate.

Matt Burns can usually be found up to his nuts in SEO experiments and A/B tests, or getting all gooey eyed over an Analytics account or two. He has the technical and analytical mind of a shrew, and the dancing coordination of a disabled, panic stricken Emu. His aptly named Matts Backpack blog is rapidly becoming a powerhouse of practical and actionable SEO advice.

33 thoughts on “The Fallout From The Google Image Search Revamp”

  1. JJ Wong says:

    Oh Man!! That could be the main reason my website’s traffic drop so much recently, after checking back, it seems that the drastic drop really starts around 24th Jan 2013!

    Damn, my website’s traffic drop from 1000-1500 daily, to 500-600 daily average!

    And yeah, my website mainly on images, thus this could be the major reason behind the decrease of my website’s traffic. 🙁

    1. I’m very sorry to hear about decrease in traffic of your site, but I think I’m having the same problem with my image website.

      I was actually wondering why my traffic went down. I get most of my traffic from Google image. I had some good rankings with images of my site. But that’s the sudden surprise.

    2. Auch! Yeah it seems like your site may have been one of the many casualties of the image revamp. I’ve seen a lot of webmasters reporting similar drops (not that that’s much of a consolation, I know). I think there’s a much deeper discussion needed within the SEO community with regards to what we can all do to counteract the negative fallout of the update. There’s some good suggestions starting to emerge about things that we can do, but it seems like it’s still kinda early days at the mo. If anyone’s got any suggestions you can jump over to the Matts Backpack Forums and join the debate

  2. sapna says:

    HI John

    Can I prevent the images from being indexed by google by putting their paths in the robot.txt file?



    1. Hey Sapna

      You can indeed. Something like this should do the trick:
      User-Agent: Googlebot
      Disallow: /images/

      This will block google from your entire images directory, which saves you putting each individual image url in the txt file 🙂

      Just remember to put the / on the end of it to block the full directory.

      Good luck!

  3. Bryan says:

    What’s funny is that seems to be at odds with Google’s quest to speed up the web. By using our bandwidth, Google’s effectively slowing down our sites. I guess revenue, comes before speed.

    1. Bryan says:

      And now that I think of it, will Google penalize us if we use any of the strategies I’ve been finding that thwart Google Images?

      1. I think, unfortunately, when it comes to a company as big as Google, revenue comes before just about everything. Most of the solutions I’ve come across so far seem reasonably robust and shouldn’t (in theory at least) do you any harm. I’d be interested to know which particular strategies you’re trying and what kind of results your seeing on your click through rates? Keep me posted on how you get on Bryan!

        1. Bryan says:

          The update hasn’t affected me at all. My traffic has been slowly increasing for a year, and there’s no statistically significant deviation from that trend since Google Images changed. Nor was there any change in bandwidth on my images folder. However, I’m a small-time blogger, and most of my images are screenshots for my tutorials, so I don’t think I get much traffic from my images.

        2. Bryan says:

          I stand corrected. From Sep. 1, 2012 until Jan. 24, 2013, my blog never went more than 7 days between a referral from Google Images, and that drought only happened once. After Jan. 24, 20 days go by before I get a single referral from Images on Feb 14.

          From Sep. 1, 2012 until Jan. 24, 2013, Google Images accounted for 10.5% of my referrals. So I guess I will try to do something about it.

  4. Christy D says:

    This is one of the most enlightening posts I have read on your site John. I was just talking to my husband the other day how I loved the way Google was displaying images now, but after reading this I am really upset with them.

    You have definitely given me something to think about. I am off to read more on this subject. Thanks!!!

    1. Cheers Christy, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Completely agree with you on that. There’s no doubting that the new search does look great. But, as seems to be rapidly becoming the norm with Google, it’s the website owners who suffer. If you jump over to the French Google Images (a country where Google Images has historically experienced a much tougher standing on copyright law) you’ll notice they’re still using the old image search display. Kind of interesting don’t ya think?

  5. Elena says:

    I always felt that clicking on image should take searchers to original site – no overlays or whatever. I understand user experience thing, but we also don’t exist here just to satisfy their whims for free. We deserve to have our names/brands mentioned along the image. This is a minimum requirement.

    This is very disturbing to say the least. Very disappointed and disgusted for the first time. My sites never received much traffic from image search, so there is no impact for me, but I do care. Bad!

  6. James Dailey says:

    I’m so sick of Google and their nonsense! It’s getting old now. Someone’s gonna come out the woodworks and knock them off their high pedestal in a few…

  7. Google in any case is the boss even though Bing is catching up slowly but surely. We still have to follow Google.

    1. Stella Lupa says:

      Bing is even worse than Google, it makes an API available that enables scrapers to mirror Bing Images, or show selected subsets of the thumbnails.

  8. I think we should spread the word as much as possible around the web using blogs, forums, and social networking sites. Is there a way just stop my images folder from being indexed by google ? There must be a code to disallow a particular folder. I will check and get back.

    1. Elena says:

      You can use robots.txt Here are Google’s own directions on how to do that

      I already did this yesterday.

  9. Pictures are good, it draws new customers and put your logo on each photo so no one will copy them.

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  11. Abhishek says:

    Some time when I am searching some image trying to open that in a new window then I am getting black page, again after refresh that image is showing up.

  12. faisal says:

    No wonder traffic has dropped for most image heavy sites, without the bandwidth dropping ofcourse.

  13. Jah w says:

    Wrong. Just because you leave the door open doesn’t mean you invite thieves in. You shouldn’t need to go the length of walking the thief out once they entered your establishment and then locking the door so they won’t be able to come in again (like block them on Robots.txt).

    That being said, I’m fine with Goog’s actions and not bothered by it one bit.

  14. Babouche says:

    Our website dropped down from 500 visits a day to 150 visits a day. The visits were mainly comming from google image…That’s a pitty, and I don’t know what to do about it…

  15. I lost 1000+ visitors and my affiliate sales effected badly. I have regained the 70% traffic but still sales are not increasing :/

  16. Bing may the tortoise that wins the race 🙂

  17. I. C. Daniel says:

    Wow what a post. Thanks and good luck to all of you guys!

  18. babouche says:

    Bing, ok but in fact, when I see my visitors stats, 95% of the trafic comes from google or direct access, and only 5% from other SE including bing…even if we are very well ranked by Bing
    So Bing, I like, but I guess it is not for tomorrow…
    And the other point that makes me crazy, the website #1 in google, has no backlinks, and even no URL rewriting, while we have 7K good backlinks and SEO friendly URLs…where is the logic with google!!!!!

  19. Whitney says:

    Google really needs to stop making so many changes..just when everything’s right they have to go and mess it up.

  20. Kapil says:

    Lots of changes.Recent features are cool.But I love the previous one.I think they should thinking about adding new features rather then changing them.

  21. Stella Lupa says:

    Traffic from Google Images dropped sharply for me a couple of years ago when they instituted that dumb image hover. With this new change, I decided to sacrifice the leftover trickle of traffic from Google Images and deny all bots access to my image folders.

    Paradoxically, after 3 weeks of this, my regular search traffic has skyrocketed.

  22. Morshed says:

    Thanks for your important sharing.No doubt some website faces huge traffic drops & sales decrease problem after the update.They should keep focus on these point after next update.

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