Google Image Update: It’s Not as Bad as Your Analytics Tells You

On Wednesday 23 January 2013 Google announced a global update to its image search functionality, announcing that the changes were made to make image searching “faster, more beautiful, and more reliable”. No one can deny that Google has met these criteria with flying colours. The real question, though, is whether the changes are better for webmasters or for Google?

Search forums are awash with claims of traffic from image search falling by anything up to 50% following the update, causing webmasters even more sleepless nights after a year of fingernail-biting Penguin and Panda updates.

Affected webmasters are complaining that because high resolution images are displayed directly within image search there is no need for searchers to click through to visit the image in situ on the originating site, thus causing the reported drop in search referrals. Unfortunately for webmasters selling display advertising, the loss in page impressions means a reduction in impression inventory and a direct reduction in advertising revenue.

This anecdotal evidence is in contrast to Google’s own statements as to how the new image search should be helping webmasters. Hongyi Li, Associate Product Manager for Google, details these benefits in a Google Webmaster Central post, but the two elements that stand out as pertinent to the reported traffic drops are:

  • Faster search experience caused by the removal of the site loading up in an iframe in the background, reducing the load of the image source’s servers and increasing the accuracy of webmasters analytics data
  • The introduction of four clickable elements that will lead searchers to the content page housing the image. These are the image title, the displayed domain, the image itself and the ‘visit page’ button, which we have outlined in orange below:

Google Image Search example

If we assume that all reported drops in traffic from image search are true and have been correctly quantified, then what is the cause of the lost traffic? A cleaner, more useful image search should increase daily search queries through an improved user experience. Coupled with more clickable actions webmasters should be seeing more image traffic than before.

The reason for the reported traffic loss is clearly due to pages no longer being loaded in an iframe. With each click to view a larger image, webmasters were most likely registering a page view, even though searchers may not have clicked through to visit that page. So what this update has exposed is a clear misunderstanding by webmasters as to which visits were legitimate.

At Fresh Egg, we’re currently reviewing engagement metrics within analytics data. If the loss of traffic is attributable to background page loading, then we should expect to see an increase in metrics such as average pages per visit, bounce rate and time on site. We advise other webmasters to do the same, and to recognise that perhaps lost visits were perhaps not real visits in the first place. This comes as no consolation to those webmasters with impression-based advertising models, but with impression data now a little more accurate, the argument can definitely be made that the quality of traffic is higher. If that’s the case, then it’s definitely time to review those CPM rates to make up the shortfall.