How the New Google Images is Changing Traffic to Your Site

How the New Google Images is Changing Traffic to Your Site

By now you’ve probably noticed Google’s new and “faster” image search, launched in late January 2013, which displays larger images in an inline panel that lets users flip through image search results. But many in the webmaster and search engine marketing community are not happy about the impact these updates are having on referral traffic coming from Google Images.

So what’s been the result and how has it affected your website? The change means that the source page (i.e. your website) will no longer load up in an iframe in the background.

Users can click the displayed domain name, “Visit page”, “View original image” or the image itself to navigate to the source page. While the new search seems highly intuitive for someone searching Google Images, analytics suggest that fewer users are clicking to the source page.

Users can click any of the four links boxed in red above to navigate to the image’s original source page.

In the past three months, we’ve seen a 78.69% drop in traffic to PhotoShelter members’ websites from Google Images search results (not Google web search results, but specifically image search results).

Why did Google do this?

One idea about the “why” of this change is that it’s a content grab on Google’s part. Other updates, like including IMDb results on the sidebar when you search a movie or Wikipedia results when searching a notable person, are other recent tactics that Google has employed to keep you in their ecosystem instead of visiting the “destination” site.

Google now displays IMDb and Wikipedia results when search for movies or notable people.

In many ways it provides a better user experience, but it also removes the need to utilize other sites. Some SEO consultants also suggest there’s danger here, because users no longer find the need to navigate to the source page now that they can see (and potentially steal) a high res photo directly on Google.

Is anyone else seeing these results?

PhotoShelter members are far from alone on this point – it’s an issue that the entire SEO community is grappling with. Webmasters were quick to react on dedicated forms like WebmasterWorld and Digital Point. An SEO consultant shared the effects one of his clients saw within a month of the change. The client is an artist and her site is 99% images – the consultant observed an 80+% drop in referral traffic from Google Images.

More recently, SEO consulting firm Define Media Group analyzed 87 domains worldwide from a variety of networks and business verticals, and found an average 63% decrease in referral traffic from Google Images after the January update. Those defined as “photo sites” are down 74%. Fashion, lifestyle, and entertainment sites are down 78%.

What happened?

PhotoShelter members have always seen a steady stream of referral traffic from Google Images (as is the case for most photographers’ websites). In 2012, the average number of visits to PhotoShelter members’ sites (in aggregate) from Google Images actually increased by 35.19% in the second half of the year.

Referral traffic to PhotoShelter members’ sites from Google Images increased by 35.19% in the second half of 2012.

Then on January 27, 2013 – the first full week after Google’s update to its image search – something changed:

In the three months since the January 23rd update to Google Images, referral traffic from Google Images has decreased by 78.69%.

Here’s a closer look at that data from the past 6 months:

Referral traffic from Google Images to PhotoShelter members’ sites in the past 6 months.

A nearly 80% drop in referral traffic from one of the top three referring sites to PhotoShelter members’ sites is nothing to scoff at. But there are some important things to note:

  • Referral traffic from Google web search has remained relatively consistent over the last year and a half.
  • Average site visit duration (how long someone spends on your website during one visit) and number of pages per visit have also stayed nearly the same.
  • Bounce rate and percent of new visitors (people who have never been to your site before) have also stayed about the same.

The community is also talking about the concept of a “truer visit”. Internet marketers at MoreVisilibity explain that with the new image search, Google Analytics code does not have a chance to fire, “removing page view credit and decreasing referral traffic.” Meaning that it’s possible many of the visits you were seeing before were people who saw your image in the iframe that popped open in the background, but these people never actually clicked through to your website at all. So while this change may seem extreme, it might just be a more accurate count of visitors who click through to the original source.

So while the absolute number of visitors to your site may have decreased in the last three months, the true visitors are still behaving the same once they land on your website – which makes sense assuming you haven’t made any major changes in that time.

What can you do about it?

First, you need to truly assess the impact beyond simply reading the analytics. Start by asking if your business has been materially impacted in any way. If not, then the concept of a “truer visit” may actually be relevant to you.

Still, if Google Images is only sending a fraction of the “useful” traffic to your site as it previously did, then you might consider focusing on other traffic sources. For example, the #1 source of referral traffic to PhotoShelter members’ sites in 2012 was Facebook. Google Images and PhotoShelter.com were #2 and #3, followed by Twitter and Pinterest.

It’s also clear at this point that Google is taking social media – specifically Google+ – activity into account when ranking search results.

The photographer community has continued to grow on Google+, but if you’re still averse to getting active on another social media platform, consider this: Google Authorship, which links the content you post on a specific domain (i.e. your photography website) with your Google+ profile, is becoming a huge factor in how Google ranks your website. People who have set this up are often ranked higher for their targeted keywords. (Read more and learn how to set up Google Authorship here.)

Trey Ratcliff, known for his huge presence on Google+, ranks on the first page of search results for the term “hdr photos”. His headshot and name show up in the search results because of his Google Authorship (of course, over 5 million people have Trey in their circles, so keep that in perspective).

Overall, best practices in the wake of Google Image search update will likely be to continue optimizing your website with on-page text that Google can crawl and index in regular search, and build authorship via Google+ to help influence how your content appears in search results. Likewise, we will continue to optimize our own tools to help facilitate this.

How can you see the changes to your website’s traffic?

To see how your traffic has changed, log into your Google Analytics account and navigate to Traffic Sources>Sources>Referrals. Click on the google.com link and look for /imgres. Clicking this will give you a picture of how referral traffic from Google Images has changed over time. Be sure to look at a time period containing the week of January 28th, 2013 (the first full week after the update).

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There are 16 comments for this article
  1. Sue Lowery at 2:17 pm

    Thanks, Lauren for the information in here about Google’s new search. The most disturbing thing to us, is that “right click and copy and paste” now works on the large images pictured in the search. We went to some lengths to disable that on the website. The obvious copyright watermark doesn’t seem to deter theft.

  2. Gary at 12:44 am

    This sucks from an iPad users perspective, as well, because one cannot copy the URL for a single image they have searched for because the URL is for all of the images, instead. Thus, if you post it on, say, Facebook, people may not know which image you intended them to see.

  3. Tommy Schultz at 6:08 am

    Had noticed the change to Google Image search but hadn’t taken the time to check the referral stats since January–definitely seeing a drop consistent with those you mentioned in your article. Bummer!

    One thing that would have been interesting to add to your article is whether you think it’s a good idea to use a watermark on your images since less people will be clicking through to your site with the new Google images system? I remember one of your photo editor surveys mentioning how much they hate watermarks but that’s a lot of visibility to lose from Google images if people aren’t clicking through to your site anymore…

  4. Jameson Bates at 5:38 pm

    It will definitely be interesting to follow this new change Google has made to see how it will affect people in the long-term. For me, being able to search for an image or similar images seems like a great potential avenue for internet browsing. If it helps get “truer” viewers to webpages, it seems like this will be a better benchmark for site traffic. Thanks for the article!

  5. Cramer Imaging at 10:47 pm

    I noticed the change and grumbled about it. Why does Google always have to mess with a good thing? The new interface has had interesting effects for me as a Google user. I tend to forget that this is still the same page that I was on before. I tend to click on the back button on my mouse when I’m leaving an image displayed on Google Images despite the big x in the upper left hand corner. I hardly visit the actual page an image is on unless I want to find out if it’s available in a larger format.

    As far as business effects, I’ve got low resolution versions of my photos available on my website. The higher resolution versions are locked into albums requiring a link to enter. Even these aren’t full resolution. I just play the images on a slideshow. Maybe not the best of ideas, but it does seem to deter a bit of copyright infringement theft. As far as the watermarking, my brother recommended that I integrate my webpage into my watermark as my work can be disseminated all over on the internet, like this on Google Images, and no one can trace it back to me if they want to purchase a copy of the picture or hire me.

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  7. Tash Hughes at 10:22 pm

    Fascinating article, thank you. I had noticed the change to Google Images but hadn’t thought about how it was done or any potential impact on referring traffic.

    I think the truer visit concept is probably right but it’s never good to see stats dive down. Not being heavily visited via images this hasn’t really affected me but I understand the frustration of rules changing without warning all the time.

  8. Jonathan Timar at 2:52 pm

    I think this is totally unacceptable, and huge abuse of power by Google. For the good of everyone, Google needs to be forced to spin off it’s search engine into a separate entity. Google is now stealing the peoples images and displaying them at full resolution is their search results. How is that not theft? It’s astounding the level is greed and disrespect for people who work hard to create content and intellectual property.

    I wrote a guide on how to stop Google image search from stealing your images. I hope some may find it useful, but it’s a shame that it is necessary.

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