How Google’s Image Search Update Killed Image SEO


The Summary

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.

The Background

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:

Image search - a comparison of the old vs the new interface

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:

Image search - detail view of the old interface

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:

Image search - detail view of the new interface

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:

Image search chart - decline after the new interface

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:

Image search traffic - percentage decrease after new interface launched

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.

Further Reading

Tracking Image Search in Google Analytics – Blind Five Year Old (AJ Kohn)

Google Image Search Traffic Drops 80% Since Redesign – Search Engine Roundtable (Barry Schwartz)


About the Author

Shahzad is VP of Digital Media at Define Media Group. Through his expertise in search marketing, social media and web analytics, Shahzad helps Define clients increase traffic, engagement, conversions and revenue.


  1. Misbah Says :
    Posted on June 18, 2015 at 12:46 AM

    Nice article. I had kept Image SEO on priority in my website but looks like I will have to bring it down now 🙁

  2. Lauren Proctor Says :
    Posted on April 28, 2013 at 7:25 PM

    Great article Shahzad. We saw Google start to keep users in their ecosystem when they added movie titles and trailers to their search results page. Then they added wikipedia information to search result sidebars and now image search is gluing people to google as well. I wonder what’s next.

    Also, do you have any idea if Pinterest referrals (or any other image site) are making up for the Google Image search referral deficit?

  3. Robin Jennings Says :
    Posted on April 28, 2013 at 3:56 PM

    I specialise in designing websites for visual artists so many of my clients websites are 95% images with only a splattering of text. Looks like I’m going to need to watermark images.

  4. okajewelry Says :
    Posted on April 27, 2013 at 6:54 AM

    Lost traffic but the visit Quality more than before.

  5. Abe Says :
    Posted on April 26, 2013 at 8:00 AM

    Great research, Shahzad. This is a huge hit but it does indeed improve the user experience which is what Google claims is their goal. Unfortunately they got this one right. Thanks for shedding light on this.

  6. Joe
    Posted on April 25, 2013 at 9:11 AM

    I think this is a good change, and I would refer to Google’s statement as to why: “… improves the accuracy of webmaster metrics such as pageviews.” How many people actually clicked through to the website before the change as opposed to just looking at the picture and then moving on? Even if the person never even glanced at the iframed site in the background, they’d still count as a pageview, which is entirely inaccurate. It’s an imageview, not pageview. How valueable was the image SEO to begin with? Did it lead to sales, or did it just lead to people looking at an image and then leaving? Those are the kind of metrics I’d prefer to see.

  7. Andrea Moro Says :
    Posted on April 25, 2013 at 7:39 AM

    I definitely not agree with your analysis. As stated, before the update Google was loading in iframe the image thus meaning that a load of “ghost impressions” were generated as normally people were consuming the image (e.g. copy and paste) without moving navigating into the site at all.

    Plenty of users on the Google Webmaster forum are complaining about this drop in “traffic” since January, when the new interface has been rolled-out.

    I do personally believe the new format is better as no ghost impressions are now accounted in your Analytics.

    Those who complain have probably not looked at other KPIs. Visits alone do not mean anything, I can buy very cheap visitors but who won’t be qualified at all. If I’m searching images, I’m probably not looking at visiting a website…

    • Margaretta Says :
      Posted on February 9, 2016 at 12:51 AM

      Thanks for contirbuting. It’s helped me understand the issues.

  8. MrsBoisblanc Says :
    Posted on April 25, 2013 at 7:21 AM

    This has to be costing Google money. Less traffic coming to my site means that less Adsense Ads are being clicked.

  9. Neil DuPaul Says :
    Posted on April 25, 2013 at 6:30 AM

    This shouldn’t surprise anyone Google loves scraping content, the entire business is built on scraped content.

  10. Tahir Says :
    Posted on April 25, 2013 at 1:17 AM

    Share images and create albums on Google+ to get benefit from images!

  11. Vladimir Says :
    Posted on April 25, 2013 at 12:30 AM

    Are users looking to see the pictures, or buy staff? – the example in this article is a good one.
    If they just want to see the picture (object, face, a concept) why sending them to a website when they can see it strait away in the search engine?
    If they, and the end might land on a sales website and compulsively buy something then how “Image SEO” is better then pop-under, whole-page multimedia banners and other crap users hate?
    I understand the frustration of SEO folks, but Google did right thing for users.
    People to use Google Image search when they look for accompanying information – and then they will click through.

  12. Iskandar
    Posted on April 24, 2013 at 4:53 PM

    Google will do what it can to legally steal our content and serve it to the billion users while they monetize from it.
    What they are trying to do is force us to signup for their adword service in order to get traffic.

    They don’t care if users steal those images, or if users do not go to our pages. The most important thing is Google’s agenda is served. If you are in the travel sector like I am, you know what I mean. They will try to cut you off as much as possible. They thrash affiliates as middleman, but then they also act as affiliate when they put their own booking form on top of most hotel searches.

    Google is evil.

  13. Andreas Says :
    Posted on April 24, 2013 at 4:49 PM

    I am a photographer and upload mainly pictures to my site. I just recently started tagging and added alt text … so I can’t see if there is any difference in results. Some of my pics rank high for my target keywords. Looks like I need to find a different strategy. I also realized that my images get loaded from my website each time someone looks at them in Google images … so google uses my bandwith … ahhhh 🙂

  14. Daniel Cardoso Says :
    Posted on April 24, 2013 at 4:35 PM

    Thanks for this excellent article Abbas.

    I would like to know how is the impact on revenue/goal from image search. Not only impact on visits.

    Maybe we have 80% decrease from visitors that aren’t the appropriate target audience. what do you think about this?

    Thank you,

  15. Reid Bandremer Says :
    Posted on April 24, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    Shamed to say I had no idea the impact was this dramatic. Thanks for the eye opener, Shahzad.

    I wonder how hot-linking is affected? That is, I wonder if the quantity of backlinks directly to images is up or down?

    I’m taking a gander and thinking that images can still be effective link-bait (perhaps more so now.), because even if traffic to the site via images is down, exposure to the images is not, and it may be eve easier than before to grab an image for one’s own site.

    It may shift the focus on image seo away a bit from traffic and more towards garnering links and brand impressions by focusing on the optimization of a select few high-potential images, and focusing on branding your images. Maybe..?

  16. Belinda Callin
    Posted on April 24, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    Ouch! My heart goes out to any website owner with metrics like those displayed in the graph above.

  17. Anthony.C Says :
    Posted on April 22, 2013 at 10:57 AM

    We lost around 55% visitors in Real Estate Image search traffic. Data is based on the 200 top real estate website we managed. At least, Image search trafic stands for 5-8% of the global search trafic. We do SEO for French Websites related to real estate topics. As you did, we lost much time to keep up to GG Guidelines especially for Images. And now, we must explain to clients that their SEO investment related to Image search Traffic is worth nothing, or at least, that he couldn’t hope a positive ROI.
    Maybe that was what GG was looking for.

    Very interesting article, I just was looking for answers related to this topic.

    • Faweb Says :
      Posted on April 25, 2013 at 1:08 AM

      I think is not problem for your real estate clients. Their objective is have client interested to buy or rent a specific appartment, is not to have visitors to their sites. So, if users are interested for appartment in the image then they’ll click to see the offer.

  18. Lynn
    Posted on April 22, 2013 at 8:35 AM

    My website went from 20% google image referrals to less than 2%. I also find that with the way image link doesn’t take it back to the website and the may be copyright notice in dark gray against the black background, it’s way to easy to for people to think that these images are free to grab. I sell the rights to use my images. I need SEO and it’s very frustrating.

  19. Osama Zia Says :
    Posted on April 21, 2013 at 11:15 AM

    Do you mean Google Image is the only way to search images? Yahoo, bing and other search engines have no role in searching images?

    • Terry Says :
      Posted on April 24, 2013 at 11:10 AM

      The majority of everything searched for is in Google. Traffic from other Search Engines generally tends to be a very small percentage of total search traffic.

    • Sameh Says :
      Posted on April 24, 2013 at 12:18 PM

      Google has “at least” 70% of the Search market share.

    • MrsBoisblanc Says :
      Posted on April 25, 2013 at 7:20 AM

      Yahoo and Bing image search is barely a fraction of Google Image search.

    • Mike Says :
      Posted on April 26, 2013 at 8:55 AM

      Google has a huge share of searches. Even with Bing buying Yahoo they still don’t come close to the number of searches Google has world wide. Google is the one to please. There are other search engines out there but even Bing and Yahoo (no the same results) take a back seat to Google search.

  20. Bill LC
    Posted on April 20, 2013 at 11:13 AM

    I’m finding the “new improve” GoogleImage search a pita, as is so often the case with things deaf-Google “improves” recently.
    I often can’t find the item I want in the page reference it gives.
    Instead, I’m directed to some page of the site – often a search-result page, or maybe some other random page – where the image of product might (or might not!) be found amongst thousands of irrelevant entries. Quite often, it’s not there at all, and I ‘ve wasted a load of time. Had a load of my time wasted.
    I’m sure it was easier to locate specifics before.

  21. Wamiq Ali Says :
    Posted on April 19, 2013 at 4:12 PM

    Whatever google has done has shown a quick decline in search traffic via the image search, Google took the step for their own betterment but at the same time it shows that the percentage of people referred to the site are real, they just clicked the site from which the image has been shared actually but before that I have often experienced that a wrong click at the image side was used to bring you to the site 😛 from where the image was linked, i-e in the old google image search layout.

  22. Moin Ramiz Says :
    Posted on April 19, 2013 at 2:51 PM

    my traffic gone down badly after Image search update by Google 🙁

    • Lina Says :
      Posted on February 9, 2016 at 12:49 AM

      It’s much easier to untsderand when you put it that way!

  23. Animalphotos.me Says :
    Posted on April 19, 2013 at 6:36 AM

    In most cases these are copyright images that Google is stealing. The copyright holder/author has a right to traffic. Google has no authorisation to use/steal most of these images to earn its advertising revenue. Bing is the same.

    • Jordan McClements Says :
      Posted on April 24, 2013 at 11:31 AM

      I agree. I wait with anticipation for a class action lawsuit by copyright holders against Google in the USA.

  24. Daniel Houghton Says :
    Posted on April 18, 2013 at 8:31 AM

    Quick Update on my previous comment. I digged into the E-Commerce Revenues of Google Image Search:
    The blogpost is in German, so here the most important things in English:
    – Checked over 10 B2C Sites (shops) that operate in Switzerland (all areas, a good mix of businesses)
    – Image Traffic only from Google.ch
    – over 100’000 image visits in the period prior to the relaunch of google image search
    – traffic drop: over 68 %
    – e-commerce revenue drop: 61,6 % (last-click)

  25. Jerome Says :
    Posted on April 18, 2013 at 2:56 AM

    I’m don’t agree with what you said at the end. I guess we will have less trafic from Google images but it could be a better quality trafic. We know that “old traffic” from Google Images didn’t transform. If we have a better tool to look for images maybe people will go less on webstites and more on Google Images but when they will do, it will be because they realy found what they were looking for ! No?

    • Richard at BlueSheepdog Says :
      Posted on April 24, 2013 at 12:20 PM

      No. My image searches dropped off the radar completely. With them went quite a bit of my revenue. I run multiple authority sites and I have seen a marked drop in subscribers and in revenue dollars due to lower traffic numbers. Thanks for the stick instead of the carrot Google.

  26. Carlos Says :
    Posted on April 17, 2013 at 6:56 AM

    What Google giveth, Google taketh away.
    I keep saying that the more you diversify your traffic away from Google, the better. This proves my point (again).

  27. Olivier
    Posted on April 17, 2013 at 4:01 AM

    Have you analyzed the conversion rate of that traffic source before and after ? While the traffic decreases one could expect people actually clicking on the hosting website image being more qualified and therefore convert better.

  28. Alan Gray Says :
    Posted on April 16, 2013 at 5:52 PM

    We had a few dips, but image traffic has increased by about 30% for us. I likes the old image search more than the new style, because I usually want to see the picture on the site, in context, and the new format makes that harder to do.

  29. Nathan Grimm Says :
    Posted on April 16, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    Like Michael Martinez, I’d seriously consider blocking image search or watermarking all images so at least you get an impression for your brand name.

    I’ve never seen many conversions from image traffic, though.

  30. Daniel Houghton Says :
    Posted on April 16, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    I completely disagree with people saying that image traffic is not useful and these visitors only want to steal images…
    As an SEO – mainly in the B2C E-Commerce area – I usually see that the E-Commerce Conversion Rates of image traffic are only slightly lower than conversion rates from other “standard organic search”. So Google probably has “killed off” some business via image search.

    PS: Image Traffic is not what I focus on most but I will dig into before-and-after conversion rates. 🙂

  31. Clayburn Says :
    Posted on April 16, 2013 at 7:29 AM

    I’ve seen a bit of a decline too, fortunately I don’t rely too heavily on image traffic. Also, image traffic isn’t usually that useful. They’re typically coming to steal your image anyway.

  32. Scott True
    Posted on April 16, 2013 at 5:52 AM

    Thanks for posting Shahzad. It’s an “eye opener.” We are working on a heavy image based site and we were considering right click protecting the images and then providing an embed code for users that site the source. The idea was that they would not be able to right click in Google image search and they would be forced to click through to the site and get the embed code. But after looking at one site that is doing this, it appears that their right click protected images are right clickable in Google image results. Just wondering if you or anyone else has information on this.

  33. Sreya
    Posted on April 16, 2013 at 5:21 AM

    As being a user instead of a website owner, I like this new search. It saves time and bandwidth which I unnecessarily lost loading the website on back. Users just want to see the picture, it’s not their fault that they’re not interested in the websites. And if they are interested, they’ll simply visit the website through the link. Also, the new design gives space and lets load more images in search pages and clicking the image gives us info within a black box in search page instead of opening the image with website in background which causes bandwidth loss, and then going back to the search results which reloads all images and makes us lose even more bandwidth. The direct link to original image and different sizes of the image in the black box is also very useful. Besides, all this traffic they gained in the previous design also was of no use; the users simply looked at the image and didn’t care for the actual website. I’m happy with this new setting and that Google didn’t change it.

  34. Juan Varela Says :
    Posted on April 16, 2013 at 4:26 AM

    It really destroyed the number of visits in favor of user experience. Do you think that it affects the seo effect while helping your page to get a better SERP position?

  35. Cady Haren Says :
    Posted on April 16, 2013 at 2:29 AM

    I agree 100% with you Shahzad that Google’s new model of image search has been a crushing blow for site owners who used to get good traffic from image search. One of our clients had 15-20% of their traffic through image search but now that has trickled to less than 5%.

    So its been a huge loss. But the fact of the matter is that it is Google, it is a free service, so they are entitled to do what they want.

  36. LD Puri Says :
    Posted on April 15, 2013 at 5:04 PM

    I agree. From a best practices standpoint it’s always advisable to optimize your images. When resources are limited and time are limited however I would advise to focus on things like title tags that can actually yield some noticeable results.

  37. Adriel Michaud Says :
    Posted on April 15, 2013 at 3:43 PM

    It’s too bad, it makes it more difficult to browse products by image and go through a variety of sites. I used to use it a bit for comparison shopping.

  38. Michael Martinez Says :
    Posted on April 15, 2013 at 11:25 AM

    I have blocked Image Search on many of my sites now. It’s no longer worthwhile to allow them to crawl my sites.

    • Peter Says :
      Posted on April 16, 2013 at 7:50 AM

      If enough people block image search, perhaps Google will reconsider… if we’re very lucky!

      • Tom
        Posted on April 16, 2013 at 1:01 PM

        Will never happen.

        There are more than enough images for google to crawl for them not to give a monkeys.

        Even if 100,000 website owners blocked image search, they might not even notice or care.

        Google are a monopoly so not much you can do.

    • Alastair McDermott Says :
      Posted on April 17, 2013 at 5:49 AM

      Definitely the way to go, no point in having high bandwidth costs for zero gain.

      Ultimately, I see structured meta data like schema going the same way.

    • Chad Jones Says :
      Posted on April 25, 2013 at 3:28 AM

      Done the same thing. There was a huge decrease of image search traffic since Google implemented the new images search.

    • Liza Says :
      Posted on February 9, 2016 at 12:51 AM

      When you think about it, that’s got to be the right ansewr.

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