Google Images' new layout - how this impacts photographers and webmasters

posted on 4th of february, 2013

Let me preface this blog post by saying that Google has been a very important Internet player, and that the Internet wouldn't be the same without their efforts and innovations. With that said, I would like to share information with you regarding a recently released update to Google’s image search functionality that is very troubling in that it materially changes the way Google image searchers respond to images that they locate.
Until a few days ago, a visitor to Google Images would see a thumbnail of the image in search results laid over the site where the original image was displayed. The website could be any site: an agency selling or displaying photographers' images, a personal website or a business that licensed images and paid a fee for them. The old Google search result presentation encouraged the surfer, to a certain degree, to visit the website where the image appeared, as the website was partially visible in the background of the located image. Critics might say that the old Google search methodology was not sufficient to protect the rights holder, as the image was always made available for download (with a “Full-size” link even provided). This criticism is at least partially correct, since our latest findings show only 25% of Google Image searchers actually went to the website that had the subject image (this doesn't mean that the other 75% downloaded the image but many probably did). Of course, a direct link from the thumbnail in the search result to the hosting website under the image appearing in Google’s search results would definitely have been preferable to ensure that people did not download the image directly from Google.

However, Google’s latest changes to their image search engine have made the situation much worse than the previous methodology from an intellectual property protection standpoint. Google’s full announcement of the rollout is available at: Faster Image Search article. As you can see, under the new search result format, Google now presents the user with an “in-place” preview of any selected image on the search results page, displaying only a gray box behind the image, rather than a partial view of the site where the image originally appeared. The larger previews provided when users click on the thumbnails are enhanced and more appealing than the low-res thumbnails that were previously the only thing appearing on Google’s search results. This updated functionality completely removes the source website from the display, encouraging the user to download the image directly from the search results. To add fuel to the fire, a prominent button "Show original image" (read as "Download now") is also being displayed alongside the enhanced preview. The percentage of visits to the website that actually has the rights to display and offer the subject images drops at a staggering rate as people are able to and, in fact, are implicitly encouraged to begin downloading the image directly from Google Images rather than visiting the subject site.

What are the implications?
Of course, photographers won't be paid a royalty for the use of their protected images. Images are now more likely to be taken out of context (they may be on a website that sells furniture, for example, and could be licensed images or photos taken by the site owner). Just because Google has found and republished an image doesn't mean that the image can be used by anyone for any purpose. Moreover, a Google label such as "image may be subject to copyright" is not enough. Google should not be able to offer its users the opportunity to grab content for free to such an extent, and then immunize and justify its actions by relying on the “fine print” legal disclaimers.
This new search result layout not only affects photographers and agencies (licensors), but also websites and webmasters (licensees and/or SEO). This new search result layout has and will continue to drastically diminish traffic to the website who published the image. For example, let's say I use a photo of healthy fruits in my blog article because someone looking for a healthy diet will see the image on Google and reach my blog this way. This is what visual search stands for. With the new Google image search facility, finding my healthy fruit image in response to a search query would not lead a user to my blog article. The website is victimized further because, since the image is hotlinked directly from the original website's servers, the webmaster's bandwidth is used when Google displays the image without displaying his or her website to the user who is searching for the image.
Google’s phrase "Google Images lets you find images posted on the Internet" doesn’t tell the whole story. Before Google’s recent change, Google’s phrase could have more accurately been described as: “Google’s Images lets you find images posted on the Internet so that you can visit the website hosting such images.” After the latest Google change, the phrase could more accurately read: “Google’s Images lets you find images posted on the Internet and to download such images without ever going to the website that offered the image to the Internet community.” Even prior to this latest change in Google’s search results, the download rate directly from Google image search results was mind blowing. It was many times above stock photography industry limits. Stats in 2010 show 1 billion pageviews daily! (Google Image Search) We have found instances of all kinds – from famous companies to simple individuals – involving unlicensed uses of images taken from Google search results, in commercial contexts. When challenged about the copyright infringement, too many times we’ve heard the response that the image was "found on the Internet.” There is no reason for the original image to be made available in this or any search result layout. Aside from encouraging theft, it is hard to imagine what the purpose would be. In many cases, the user download of the offered image will not be a malicious copyright infringement by the user, but giving tools to people who don't know that images are not free to use provides the same end benefit to users (and harm to the rights holders), no matter what the users (or Google for that matter) intended. Once again, Google Images should let you "find" images, not "find and download" them. Downloading will always involve the risk of accidental unlicensed use in the best-case scenario, or willful copyright infringement in the worst.

What can be done?
We're trying to address this with Google and our industry's trade associations. In the meantime, you're invited and encouraged to voice your opinions by commenting on Google’s blog post about the rollout (Link here and here) and informing Google of your opinion. No matter how personal this is to you, please be polite and respectful. You can also tell your friends and colleagues about it and, just as before, do your best to educate people that simply downloading images found on the Internet is not always a safe option.
Remember that change is inevitable, and we all need to embrace change while at the same time seek to influence such change in a positive and fair direction. Let's not forget what happened to the music industry, to the print industry, and to many others who didn't embrace and seek to mold change fast enough. The Internet needs to be a place for thoughtful evolution, so we welcome any ideas and suggestions about how Google’s new image search can work to everyone's advantage. Rather than tell us you hate this change, tell us what you would do to improve the user experience while making sure everyone's rights (photographers or webmasters) are also respected.
Again, this blog is not intended to criticize Google merely for the sake of doing so. Google’s pioneer efforts have helped shaped the way the world communicates and functions. At the risks of appearing unrealistic, we can – and have an obligation to – help shape the ever-involving Internet, but we need to do so with positive and constructive suggestions. As the cliché goes, “if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.”

Comments (63)

Comment by Dprogers on August 14, 2013