Google’s January 23 image search update brought high resolution pictures directly within search results, leaving users with little incentive to clickthrough to the sites hosting and licensing the pictures. We analyzed the image search traffic of 87 domains and found a 63% decrease in image search referrals after Google’s new image search UI was released. Publishers that had previously benefitted the most from their image optimization efforts suffered the greatest losses after the image search update, experiencing declines nearing 80%.
In the eleven weeks after Google’s new image search was released, there has been no recovery – which means for image search, the significantly reduced traffic levels we’re seeing is the new normal. In the aftermath of the new image search experience, image SEO has been severely compromised, and we have no choice but to recommend deprioritizing image SEO when weighed against other search traffic initiatives.
As the screenshot below shows, the new image search UI provides sleek-looking strips of high-quality thumbnails and dispenses with any text associated with the picture:
In the old interface clicking on the thumbnail led to the page where the image was published. The image would be shown front-and-center, while the site would be displayed, greyed-out, in the background:
This served the best of both worlds: allowing the user to see the high res version of the thumbnail, while also allowing the publisher to gain a return on the investment they’d made in the image displayed within search results.
The new interface alters this experience. Per Google:
The source page will no longer load up in an iframe in the background of the image detail view. This speeds up the experience for users, reduces the load on the source website’s servers, and improves the accuracy of webmaster metrics such as pageviews.
Now when you click on the image, a high res version of the image appears right within Google’s search results:
Supplementing this view is information about the picture. Again, per Google:
The domain name is now clickable, and we also added a new button to visit the page the image is hosted on. This means that there are now four clickable targets to the source page instead of just two. In our tests, we’ve seen a net increase in the average click-through rate to the hosting website. (Italics mine)
Google, thou doth protest too much. Although it made an effort to assuage site owners that this change would be better for users and for publishers (promising higher clickthrough rates in the process), the reality is that the new interface makes it a two-click process to reach the website where the image is hosted. And with this higher resolution image displaying directly within Google’s search results, there’s very little need for users to click through, since users are treated to a high res version of the image directly on Google.com.
The Image Search Numbers (NSFW)
Since the new version of Google Images rolled out, the impact to image search traffic has been nothing short of devastating. We examined 87 different sites, both international and US, originating from many networks and belonging to a wide range of verticals. Collectively, image traffic decreased 63% after Google launched its’ image search change:
In the weeks immediately prior to Google’s Image update, the sites in this study had been making strong week-over-week gains, nearing 1.4MM referrals in aggregate. 11 weeks after the update, image traffic has remained steady at the drastically reduced numbers, plateauing around 400K image search referrals per week.
The table below (with anonymized site names) shows that sites in the Fashion & Lifestyle, Entertainment, News and Photo verticals were the ones that experienced the heaviest losses:
Ironically of course, these are the sites that had placed the most effort optimizing their images, by meticulously following image SEO best practices, such as developing image XML sitemaps, defining keyword-rich alt tags, file names and captions, and making sure all images within galleries were fully indexable.
Image SEO as a percentage of overall search traffic varies widely among sites, depending on their content strategy and how well they’ve executed their image optimization efforts. There are some sites where the percentage decrease in image traffic may be high, but because the actual image search traffic is so low, the change has not caused a noticeable decrease in overall site visits or total organic search traffic.
Other sites aren’t as lucky. For sites that have placed images at the heart of their content efforts, including the implementation of the heavy-lift image SEO tactics enumerated above, a significant and as of yet irreplaceable traffic and revenue loss has occurred. For some of these sites, image search had been 20% or more of all organic traffic. With Google’s new image search, image traffic for these sites now ranges in the low teens or high single digits of all organic traffic. For the hardest hit sites, this has resulted in the loss of well over a hundred thousand image search referrals per week.
Ok, So Image Search is (Nearly) Dead. Now What?
It’s difficult not to consider Google’s image UI change a shameless content grab – one which blatantly hijacks material that has been legitimately licensed by publishers so that Google Image users remain on their site, and are de-incentivized from visiting others.
If you’re an SEO, site owner, product manager, photo editor, developer or designer, the yield from image SEO suddenly looks much less attractive. If Google is going to only send a fraction of the image traffic it used to, there’s considerably less incentive to put in the work involved in optimizing images. Don’t get us wrong: we’re not saying that site owners shouldn’t follow image SEO best practices; what we are saying is that when force-ranking SEO priorities, this new data clearly shows that until Google changes its image UI to be fair to publishers, image SEO should be moved further down the list.