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Google, Please Return My Image Search Traffic

In January of 2013 Google made a major change in the formatting of their image search results which gorged the traffic of sites that publish large amounts of photos.

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There was once a day — no, not a day, years — when my main blog, www.VagabondJourney.com, would pull in 4 to 5,000 unique visitors per day. Life was good, this site was perpetually on the rise, I was making pretty good money.

The chink in the armor of this blog, as it turned out, was that 50% of this traffic derived via Google Image Search.

Vagabond Journey is a travel blog, and a travel blog should have a lot of photos. I’ve published over 10,000 photos on this site, many of things that are not often photographed and put on the internet. Like so, the images on Vagabond Journey are not some estranged, “extra” part of the blog, but a major part of its content.

The shear amount of image search traffic that I would bring in is testament to the fact that I was providing the online community with a service that was wanted. In point, I was giving users of Google’s image search what they were looking for.

When someone takes the time and effort and releases 10,000 images from 51 countries to the internet for free which are viewed by thousands of people daily it is my feeling that they probably deserve to be compensated for it in some way. For years I was compensated with organic image search traffic — lots of it.

Now much of this traffic was not the best quality — visitors would just look at/ steal the image they found in search — but many would actually stay on the site, go to other pages, look at more photos, and sometimes make me money. I grew comfortable making $5 – $10+ per day from my photo gallery alone, which isn’t much, but when this amount was combined with the earnings from the rest of the blog I was able to make enough money to keep traveling, taking photos, and publishing them to the internet.

Then in January, 2013 something happened: Google image search stopped sending visitors to the publisher’s webpage with the first click on a photo in the SERP. Now visitors would see large versions of my images opened up on Google rather than being referred directly to the pages these photos were published on.

Overnight, my image search traffic dropped to almost nothing, the earnings from my photo gallery dropped to less than $5 per week.

Now Google Image Search users can find the photos they’re looking for and download them without ever leaving Google. While visitors can still click over to my pages from the image search SERPs via a second click, a very small percentage actually do.

Google disagrees, they say that the new image search format is better for webmasters.

But my traffic stats clearly don’t back up this claim. I lost well over 70% of my image search traffic since the change over.

I’m not alone:

From Search Engine Roundtable:

It has been a month and some folks are posting how the new image search design impacted their traffic from Google Image Search.

Gregory Karpinsky posted an image of the traffic to his 99% image based site in a Google+ Community thread showing an 80% plus decrease in traffic but his other engagement metrics are all up.

From Define Media Group:

We analyzed the image search traffic of 87 domains and found a 63% decrease in image search referrals after Google’s new image search UI was released. Publishers that had previously benefitted the most from their image optimization efforts suffered the greatest losses after the image search update, experiencing declines nearing 80%.

From Photoshelter:

In 2012, the average number of visits to PhotoShelter members’ sites (in aggregate) from Google Images actually increased by 35.19% in the second half of the year.

Then on January 27, 2013 – the first full week after Google’s update to its image search – something changed:

A nearly 80% drop in referral traffic from one of the top three referring sites to PhotoShelter members’ sites is nothing to scoff at.

Example of how image search traffic declined sharply after January update. From Define Media Group

In their defense, Google stated that this apparent drop in traffic was because “phantom visits” are no longer being calculated. What Google is calling phantom visits is image search traffic under the previous format that did not go beyond the screen where the image is superimposed over the page that it was published on. Apparently, they are saying that when someone views your image content alone it shouldn’t count as a real visit.

Say that to a photographer.

Or a travel blogger who once put massive amounts of time into publishing photos.

No, when someone views my content that I worked to produce within the frame of the webpage that it was published on it is a real visit. Regardless if they just look at a photo or the entire page they are still visiting content that I published.

I’m sure that Google does not count all of the traffic on their image search result pages as “phantom visits.”

Though I don’t believe the data set is available to show this — as the differentiation between “phantom” and “real” image search traffic isn’t accessible — I would almost unequivocally state that there is a higher tendency for visitors to X-out a pop-up image that’s superimposed over a page and look at the website that has already loaded behind it than there is for them to click on a link and go to a completely different website. My evidence of this is shown by the fact that earnings from my photo pages plummeted after the image search change over. If the same number of “real visitors” remained constant then there more than likely wouldn’t have been such a drastic drop.

Google once appeared to be the webmaster’s friend: if you obeyed their simple guidelines and published good content you would be rewarded with traffic. Google Search was once a very slippery site that served the sole function of referring visitors to the websites they were looking for. I built my business on the premise that if I did the legwork and publish my stories, images, and videos freely to the internet that I would be rewarded with traffic and, by extension, income.

Google is now in an advanced state of transforming from a search engine that solely refers users to other websites into a content aggregator that offers the information that people are searching for upfront — ever reducing the need for users to click through and visit the sites that actually produce this content.

Traffic is money. It is money for Google, it is money for all webmasters. The longer Google keeps visitors on their site the higher the likelihood that they will click on their ads and they will make money.

So Google is now keeping massive amounts of traffic that they once sent to me. They call it a “better user experience.”

While it may be true that it’s far easier to use just one site on the internet (Google) than the millions and millions of others that are out there, but if webmasters are not rewarded for their work with traffic and income the incentive to publish proportionally diminishes. While in the short term it may be financially viable for Google to keep as much traffic on their pages as they can, in the long run they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

In point, Google is not a content producer, they are a content referrer or, as of recently, a content provider. They are biting the hand that feeds when they strip traffic from the webmasters their lifeblood depends on. Without millions and millions of webmasters, bloggers, and photographers freely uploading billions of pieces of content to the internet Google search is nothing.

Cut down on the earning potential from publishing online and we’re looking at drastically less diverse and less multitudinous and less relevant results in Google search. If the internet becomes unprofitable for the independent webmaster, the independent webmaster will go find another living, engage in other methods of publication, or lock their content behind paywalls. In all scenarios Google, the end user, and the webmaster alike lose.

A profitable internet is a vibrant internet.

I’ve taken a hiatus from publishing Vagabond Journey’s photo gallery. This isn’t because I don’t want to keep building it, but because I need to prioritize my publishing and focus first on what brings in the traffic and earns me a living.

Google, is this your definition of a better user experience?

Filed under: Blogging, Digital Nomad, SEO, Traveling Webmaster

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

3 comments… add one

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  • Jack Woods August 21, 2013, 12:56 pm

    They are just making it harder for the small guy to male money online….and destroying livelihoods. The thing is that only a fool would block the Googlebot from slurping up images but if webmasters did it en masse then Google would change. I guess this part of why I gave up on earning a living online….

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    • VagabondJourney August 21, 2013, 12:59 pm

      That’s true. They are dividing the ranks and it is becoming vastly harder to make a living publishing websites. Right on, if webmasters were organized we could stand up to the Big G, but at the end of the day we’re competitors: if 90% blocked the image search bot the remaining 10% would cash in. The problem is that 90% of us would try to be the 10% haha.

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  • Umair December 8, 2015, 4:18 pm

    Hi Wade, I second you whatever you said about Google and really feel sorry for you. Since from 3 hours, I’m struggling real hard to come up with some script or a way to get back the image traffic which got hijacked by google since long. I will surely let you know about it if I get success in it. These white collar billionaires actually has become more powerful than govt. and developed a feeling of others money as theirs. Shame on them!

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