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.