Once upon a time, a search engine was just that. It merely enabled Web surfers to locate the content they needed. But over time, Google has pushed the concept of simple Web search steadily into new territory. And last month finally saw the culmination of this slow, steady transition. In January 2013, Google Image Search completed a metamorphosis from content finder to content provider. But the content Google Images is now providing does not belong to Google. It belongs to the sites Google indexes in its capacity as a search engine. Google’s role, it seems, is no longer purely to index all that content and refer surfers to the appropriate site(s). Google is now displaying the image content, in full, and more than ever before, shutting the providing sites out of the picture.
Is this the future for online photos? Huge, built-in adverts and/or product placements which compromise or ruin the image, but provide the only effective means for photographers to monetise their work?
When you use Google Images as a Web surfer, you can load up photos at their full resolution, right-click them, and download them – all without ever seeing a hint of the original Web page from which the images were taken. In short, if you only want the photo, you don’t need to visit the provider’s site, and in many cases you’ll have no reason to do so.
It’s long been possible to use Google Images as a self-contained resource, without any necessity to click through to the image providers’ sites. But until last month, the original Web page would appear as a subtle background to the image display. This allowed webmasters to catch a surfer’s eye with a headline or other thumbnails, and convert the click on Google Images to a site visit. But now Google has ditched the original page load entirely, so the providing site makes no meaningful connection with the Web surfer at all. There isn't even a single line of text to whet a surfer's appetite. The links to the original site are still there, but will Web surfers click them? In many cases, the source site now has virtually no chance.
Furthermore, Google’s initial display ‘thumbnails’ seem to be getting ever larger (to the point where in some cases they’re easily viewable without a single click or even a mouse hover). I actually found some ‘thumbs’ displaying at around 355 pixels across, which is clearly considerably more than a thumbnail. In fact, back in the 1990s when digital cameras were in their infancy, 320 x 240 pixels was actually a standard output size resolution, designed for serious viewing on the monitors of the day. So a lot of Google Images surfers will not need to click anything at all when using the search function. They search, they look at the, ahem… ‘thumbnails’, and they’re done.
You might think all this is great if you like to surf the Web and get the fastest results with the minimum of hassle. But for those who create or commission the photos, it’s a very different story. For every Web surfer who deems an Image Search ‘thumbnail’ big enough for their purposes without any further attention, or who simply downloads the photo straight from Google, the provider’s site loses a visitor. Why should that matter to you, as a surfer? Well, because image providers will not go on indefinitely doing all the work so Google can take the bulk of the traffic. Already, webmasters are starting to rethink their strategies, and serious consideration is being given to the notion of blocking the Google Images crawler from their sites. That would mean you, as a Web surfer, would no longer find those providers’ photos on Google Images.
I doubt, however, that many will do this, because frankly they’d just be cutting off their noses to spite their faces. Their traffic would suffer even more, and Google obviously wouldn’t care because for every one protestor there are thousands of rival sites waiting to step into their place on the search pages. But in time, webmasters will come up with more logical and workable solutions. And those solutions might affect us all – for the worse.
As I see it, one serious possibility is that image providers will start to incorporate a lot more promotional material into their uploads. Photos with built-in adverts could become much more prominent, and the adverts may eventually get pretty intrusive, obscuring a lot of what you want to see in an image. At present, some webmasters add a small branding strip to their photos, which effectively advertises their site. But if people’s images are being viewed a lot more on Google’s site than they are on the provider’s site, then it makes sense for some webmasters to consider monetising (or semi-monetising) the images themselves, rather than monetising their sites and relying on the images to bring in traffic.
This would require a revolution of sorts, which could perhaps entail successful photographers going directly to commercial entities and getting their images ‘sponsored’. Commercial branding, and even product advertising, could then start to appear on or even in the photographs themselves. As a Web surfer, I can’t say I’d welcome the idea of every other photo I view or download having a 2 for 1 beefburger offer stamped onto it, but if I was trying to earn an online revenue from photography the idea would certainly solve a lot of problems. Most importantly, it wouldn’t be a type of monetisation content thieves could easily damage. In fact, the wider the image distribution (authorised or not), the more appeal the idea would have to a sponsor. That reverses the situation image providers currently endure, in which a content leech can and frequently does earn more than the original photographer from a set of online pictures.
Another strong possibility is that images will increasingly be uploaded at much smaller sizes. This will prompt Web surfers to click through from Google Images to the original site. Will surfers then be able to download the larger version? Not easily, no. Because if webmasters put the larger version anywhere on their Web page, Google will simply index it, and incorporate it into Image Search. So one option is that the higher resolution images will be protected by webmasters so you have to register with the sites to get them. But perhaps the more likely scenario is that you simply won't be able to get the higher res images at all.
Remember, all many webmasters want is for you to visit their sites and see their ads. As long as you think you can get a higher res photo by clcicking through from Google, then they've got your visit. It won't matter to some webmasters whether you actually can get what you really came for or not. I believe that smaller uploads will be an almost inevitable consequence of the latest changes to Google Image Search. If this is how Google wants to play it, then in time, you can kiss goodbye to the concept of decent sized, convenient image downloads. Google's quest to make things more convenient (at the providers' expense), could eventually make things more of a pain than you could imagine.
In the wake of these latest changes to Google Images, many of the webmasters who run image-focused sites are reporting a drop in traffic of up to and beyond half their entire Image Search referrals, and unsurprisingly, some are seething with anger. Making webmasters even madder still, Google is not storing the full-sized photos it hands directly to the public in its own cache – it’s hotlinking them from the original server. That uses the provider’s bandwidth – not Google’s. The image provider pays for the bandwidth; Google loads the image, displays the image, and keeps the visitor. Ouch!
But not everyone, it should be said, has been adversely affected by the changes to Google Images. The sites/blogs I run have been split, with a couple seeing no discernible drop in traffic, but one particular photo site being hit with a clear and catastrophic plunge of around 45% of all unique visits. Literally the day Image Search changed, down by around half, and it’s remained similar ever since. This does appear to illustrate the truth in what photo-focused webmasters are saying - that Google IS stealing traffic from some photo sites.
(UPDATE, 17th February 2013: It appears things are getting worse as regards my photo site. The photos are still high up in the Image Search results - sometimes the top pic - but fewer and fewer visitors are clicking through. What began as a loss of about half the traffic has since shrunk to the point where hardly any referrals at all are coming in from Image Search. It seems that as more surfers 'learn' the new Image Search, gradually realising how completely unnecessary it is to click through to the source, the number of users actually leaving Google Images to hit on a site diminishes further. Maybe, in time, some image-focused sites will block the bot and remove themselves from Image Search afterall. If they get no benefit whatsoever from being on Google Images, why let Google have the pics?... But what a concept - photos sites taking themselves out of Image Search. Something has to be seriously, seriously wrong for such a bizarre state of affairs to become rational...).
BUT ISN’T THIS GOOGLE’S TRAFFIC IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Google has something close to a monopoly on Web search, and therefore every webmaster has his or her future in Google’s hands. Without Google, many websites would get virtually no visitors at all. It’s undeniably Google’s reputation which puts virtual footfall onto Google, and the search engine can then technically refer its users anywhere it pleases – or not. So yes, these are Google’s visitors. They haven’t gone to random sites and then somehow been snatched away by Google. They went to Google first. It’s Google’s traffic.
But that doesn’t change copyright law, and Google doesn’t hold the copyright to the images it’s taking from sites, blogs, networking forums, etc, and handing straight to the public. Therefore, however much right Google has to its own traffic, it doesn’t have the right to display other people’s copyright-protected content without express permission. It MUST, by law, refer visitors to the copyright-holders’ sites if it wants to connect Web surfers with copyrighted content. If it doesn’t do that, it IS stealing traffic, it IS stealing content, and it IS breaking the law. It doesn't matter whether Google links to the original sites or not. If it allows users to bypass the original source, it's morally and legally in the wrong.
As so many of us know, Google’s unprecedented power and near monopoly within some facets of Internet usage essentially puts the organisation above the law. It looks to me like what’s increasingly happening now, is that Google is taking this fact on board, realising it can basically do what it likes, sweeping its one-time motto “Don’t be evil” under the carpet, and trampling its huge, stinking rich boots over the small providers who’ve helped build the organisation’s vast empire.
There was a time when I would (with exceptions made for YouTube) have defended Google against cries of “parasite!” or “content leech!”. But not any more. There’s no longer any way I can look at Google Images, and see something other than the biggest scraper site in the world.