An Image is Worth What Again?

Yeah, it’s a week to jump all over Google, but what the hell.  Following up on yesterday’s post about YouTube’s forceful negotiations with independent musicians, I realize that music and motion pictures get a lot of attention while photography too often gets swept aside.  And not just professional photos, any photos.  Still images, wether professional or amateur, are a critical asset for any website that wants to improve SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and attract viewers.  In fact, major sites like those belonging to legacy publications spend a substantial amount of resources not only licensing high-quality images, but also optimizing those images for search using tags and metadata.  This is because one way in which both users and site owners find one another often begins with a basic image search.   “What does former Poet Laureate Billy Collins look like?” you may ask yourself, and Google image search provides pages of thumbnail photo results.   And until January of 2013, the layout of those pages fostered a fairly high rate of clickthrough to the sites on which the photographs appeared.

But early last year, Google introduced a new interface for images that is admittedly user-friendly, but according to sources like Define Media Group, the new search tool has resulted in dramatic decreases, some nearing 80%, in traffic to source websites.  One of the changes blamed for contributing to this decrease is the fact that the new Google interface displays high resolution images in a slideshow format, which obviates the need for a user to click through to the source site in order to see the better quality image.  Additionally, the new interface no longer loads the source website in the background behind an expanded view of the image.

What this means in simplest terms is that Google is no longer playing the role of a search engine, but is instead leveraging investments made by other entities in order to capture and keep users contained within the Google universe rather than navigate to other sites. In principle, this is exactly the opposite of the kind of ecosystem a Do No Evil search and advertising company should be promoting.  The more one image is linked to an image-intensive website ( belonging to professional photographer), the more relevant the decrease in traffic becomes.  Add this to the fact that some estimates claim that over 80% of images on the Web are infringing the owner’s copyrights in the first place, and photographs have really become just datagoop that the world’s most pervasive search engine gets to manipulate as it pleases.  A far cry from the deferential, librarian-like mission to “Take the world’s information and organize it.”

In late 2013, Europe’s CEPIC, the Center of the Picture Industry, filed an antitrust complaint alleging Google uses images without rights holders’ consent and is fostering online piracy of images.  The complaint further states that the 2013 redesign of Image Search has exacerbated the problem.  In May of this year, the European News Agency Alliance (EANA) joined the global coalition supporting this complaint.  The reader will note that this is merely one of the many antitrust complaints presently facing or recently settled by the search giant.  I don’t know, maybe there’s a pattern here.

© 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • I think I’ve mentioned this here before. In used to get about 30% of site hits from GIS after the change the hits coming from GIS dropped to zero. There was no longer a quid pro quo to having images in GIS. So I now robot ban them. Why allow Google to index the images when there is nothing for the originating site:

    which you can compare to the Bing equivalent:

    which I note is moving in the same direction.

    Ultimately search engines rely on the content that we make available. Piss us off and collectively we can turn you black.

  • What does it take for them to get sued so bad they will actually feel it? How blatant do they have to be to get RICO indictments?
    Couldn’t this move on their part open them up to willful infringement charges? They gone from ‘indexing’ to ‘taking’ (and distributing)..

  • Thank you for this article! The Pinterest like model of search engines enables and encourages infringement. I’ve seen many images copied and ‘shared’ from search engines and if credited at all, credited to Google, as if Google paints the paintings and takes the photos. When they adopted this model I and many people noticed the drop in veiws and increase in infringements. Bing is the same and even adds a pinit button, bypassing people’s no pin codes. Some browsers also have a pinit button. I now work to NOT be found so easily by just anyone, and have had to resort to watermarking images before I upload them and other deterrents. I’ve managed to cut the number of infringements but this new infringement enabling and encouraging model has cost me time and money, as well as energy.

    People should by now know that the public domain is not the same as public display, and should know that most things online are someone’s copyrighted material, not free to take. But they are getting more ignorant, probably thanks to these changes in the way search engines, social media, etc, display images and play down or omit copyright notices. The top of the Google search page should be saying in large letters, “This is not the public domain; material is assumed to be copyrighted by its owner’ Making it less obvious, and more work, to go to the owner’s site is not operating as a search engine, it’s more like a scraper site.

  • Thanks for the interesting (if worrisome) article, David. Although I agree completely with the need to respect the copyrighted status of online photographs, I think it’s getting harder to fault individuals for infringing (or for “paying short shrift”) to copyrights when Google sets such a bad example.

    I just read an article by a “copyright expert” (on who sternly lectured his readership that every image online should be considered copyrighted and, no, you should not use any image without the explicit permission of the copyright owner. I immediately wrote back to say: “Hmm. It seems to me that one of the biggest companies in the world (Google) is doing just that.” I went on to insist that I (as an American citizen), should be able to avail myself of the self-same latitude as Google (an American company) in interpreting copyright law requirements.

    As much as I appreciate the need for copyright law, there’s something hypocritical-sounding these days in such warnings on the subject because they routinely ignore the blatant activity of the 500-pound gorilla in the room: namely Google. Thus, whenever I read such copyright lectures online, I always hear a subtext telling me: “Of course these rules only apply to ordinary people like yourself and not to billionaire corporations like Google.”

    And if I feel this way as a supporter of copyright law, it’s a cinch that a less principled user will consider Google’s cavalier behavior in this area to be a green light for universal piracy.

    Personally, I think Google got it right (more or less) the first time, by indexing images as thumbnails while clearly and directly linking those images back to their source pages. The fact that they are now “running interference” between the thumbnail and the source (and thus obfuscating the identity of the image creators) suggests that they have lost track of the most important rationale of their original image results layout — namely, the legal one — and have now decided that “user experience” and aesthetics (not to mention Google’s “bottom line”) should trump what they apparently consider to be legal niceties — but what in reality are basic personal property rights of longstanding over which they are trying (so far successfully) to erect a makeshift technological hurdle.

    • Thank you for your comments, bquass. Certainly a huge part of the problem is that companies like Google have normalized infringement and a general lack of respect for these boundaries. And once these habits become common, they become “right.”

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