According to a study conducted by Define Media Group, websites on average have seen a decline in image search referrals of about 63 percent. The change has been devastating for some businesses, and it has hit fashion and lifestyle sites the hardest. Was the change fair, and is there anything you can do about it?
Did Google Overstep its Bounds?
I speak only for myself when I say that I opposed SOPA and PIPA, and continue to stand against what I consider draconian approaches to copyright employed by a certain trade act called the TPP. I'm a firm believer in copyright reform because I don't believe the current laws are built to recognize the difference between informal and formal use of copyrighted material, or the structure of the internet itself.
All of that said, I can't say that Google's approach has been as ethical as it could have been.
The new image search displays large (though not necessarily full size) images directly in the search results with a single click. The site background no longer loads, which is almost certainly an improvement for user experience, but it also robs publishers of context that might encourage visitors to click through.
The new interface does take users directly to the page if they click on the image or click a button that says "Visit page," and the domain name itself is also clickable. The "view original image" button takes visitors to the image page, however, where no context is available, and there's usually nowhere to click.
Google claims that, on average, the new interface actually sends more visitors, and that most of the visits users were seeing before were "phantom visits" caused by the page loading in the background.
A visit to any forum discussion or blog post on the subject makes it clear that this hasn't been true for everybody. These discussions are always skewed toward the negative, of course, so it's difficult to say whether most people have been negatively or positively impacted by the change.
Is the change a violation of copyright? Maybe. I feel there's an argument that it still qualifies as fair use, given that the full size image isn't (always) displayed in the search results. Publishers do have the option of blocking the images, and it may be hard to argue that the change actually hurts revenue, considering that the lost revenue is the result of lost free Google search traffic to begin with.
Either way, this is a clear indication that it's important to diversify your traffic sources as much as possible.
Since legal recourse against an enormous corporation like Google is unlikely, what can we do to recapture some of the traffic?
Watermarks, Redirects, and Testing
While we can't change the Google image search update, we can make some changes to encourage a click-through and to improve branding.
A watermark is an image or text that appears over an image so that it can't be copied or reproduced without making it obvious who the copyright owner is. Watermarks can also be distracting and ruin image quality, so most publishers opt not to put a watermark over their original images. However, it is possible to put a watermark over the search engine copy without putting a watermark over the original image. In some circumstances, this may compel users to click through to the page.
If your site is powered by WordPress, a fairly easy fix is already available called WP-PICShield. The plugin puts a watermark over the search engine version of the image, and by default it redirects the "view original image" button back to the parent page. Keep in mind that if you enable this, users won't be able to click on your images to see a larger view when they are browsing your site. You'll also want to be sure to whitelist your own domains, and most likely Facebook, Pinterest, email sites, and other sources of sharing activity.
I'd advise against installing WP-PICShield and just walking away. I strongly feel you should test its impact, rather than merely assuming that the watermarks and redirects are necessarily a good thing. There's always the possibility that watermarks and redirects will put users off. Keep an eye on not just your traffic but your bounce rates and, if possible, see how it impacts first touch attribution.
You don't want to be seen as the greedy publisher that doesn't share their images. I could see this being especially harmful in the tech sector and anything with strong appeal to communities like Reddit.
Clearly, if you don't have WordPress installed, this kind of response is going to be much more difficult to pull off, and quite possibly not worth the effort.
Responding By Design
Redirects and watermarks aren't the only way out, or necessarily even the best one. Arguably, a better solution is to design images that aren't useful in the Google preview size. The widest the image previews get is 457 pixels, and the tallest they get is 393 pixels. So, if you are designing infographics for example, you'll want to make sure that the image isn't fully legible at these dimensions, encouraging a click-through.
When possible, you'll also want to avoid images that match the ratio of image sizes in the Google preview frame. Widescreen photographs and tall infographics will be less legible in Google's preview format than images that are closer to square in shape.
In short, you can encourage click-throughs by using images that users will want to see in full size.
I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on the image search redesign, and any other workarounds you might be aware of.
Image credit: Antonio Pardo