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.

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