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

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."

Google search

Photo credits: Viorel Dudau.

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The choice of watermark does matter Achilles and Bigpressphoto is correct as evidenced by the number of times I've seen people use images with the swirl on them because it is not a good choice of watermark. I had a PhD student that did a thesis in image protection and I sat on the Federal Government's Advisory Council on Intellectual Property and have followed the Digital Rights Protection issue very closely but try and have a sensible conversation with anyone in Dreamstime on it and I've found I'm wasting my time as they don't even understand the basics.


@Bigpressphoto, with all due respect you miss the point since this is not about the watermarked images. It is about high-res images that are licensed by customers. If someone can get a 2,000 px high res image without any watermark, why bother downloading a watermark (visible swirl or not)?


Trouble is Bigpressphoto that Dreamstime doesn't leverage the knowledge of its community in so many areas.


if dreamstime does not soon abondon its swirl for something darker or dreamstime written right across the image, then its doomed. This subject has been discussed many times, and those that forecasted this situation were right. theres no future if dreamstime doesnt spend half of its profits enforcing copyright. Declining sales tell me this has already begun. thousands of photographers cant all be wrong! as a minimum change the watermark swirl to something more visible and put dreamstime in there too. fighting google is a joke, you cant!! Its not Googles job to lock the door to your office so you dont get robbed, thats your job Dreamstime!


I'm about to spend $2,000 on DT images having spent days browsing the DT site for the images I wanted and to ensure the copyright "rules" allowed me to use them correctly. To gain support from my "team" at work, I used the Win7 snipping tool to cut and paste the selected images (with the swirl) into a story board. We've now agreed on what we want and I'll buy them soon. But these swirl free legal images will appear on my web site which is accessible to the world, all be it in a very small size. So I assume Google can find and display "my" legally purchased DT images swirl free. Which is where I believe DT can be cut out of the loop. The solution as some-one above said is for Google to apply it's own copyright swirl or similar to every image it displays. I think we all have to work with Google, but Google must also listen to the IT/Image community.
Chhers, Mark.


I'm about to spend $2,000 on DT images having spent days browsing the DT site for the images I wanted and to ensure the copyright "rules" allowed me to use them correctly. To gain support from my "team" at work, I used the Win7 snipping tool to cut and paste the selected images (with the swirl) into a story board. We've now agreed on what we want and I'll buy them soon. But these swirl free legal images will appear on my web site which is accessible to the world, all be it in a very small size. So I assume Google can find and display "my" legally purchased DT images swirl free. Which is where I believe DT can be cut out of the loop. The solution as some-one above said is for Google to apply it's own copyright swirl or similar to every image it displays. I think we all have to work with Google, but Google must also listen to the IT/Image community.
Chhers, Mark.


Any image I put on the Internet is going to be tiny. Nothing more frustrating for the thief than to upsize, only to have an image a pixelated mess.


Thank you for this interesting article, we all must do something and I'm sure that all together we'll be able to make some changes. I will go in Google Forum to write my opinion.


Google image view is like walking past a shop with products outside on the pavement and thinking or even expecting you can just take what you want without paying just because they are not inside the shop.

This concept is preposterous and so obviously illegal.

Youtube, under great pressure from rights holders no longer allows copywritten content to be seen unless authorised why should images be any different.

The solution is simple Google image search overlays a Google watermark which encourages the user to find and locate the copy-written image legitimately and obtain a lawful licence to use that image.

I hear your comments about adapting to change but that does not mean adapt to allow criminal activity to take place. The reality of this level of adaptation is there will be not incentive for people to create the high quality of images that are out there and then that will just lead to us all suffering.


@Alinakurbiel lol, Really?
@Davemillman 4 clickable targets they say. :) But the image is visible in a big format, not a small one like before. So the viewer do not have to click any of this targets to view the image (or to save it).
The only one impact for site owners is significant decrease of page views, because people are staying on a Google site.


@Bobbrooky, yes, we've been promoting free content because there is a tremendous number of people looking for it. Simply ignoring them doesn't mean they will not get their content for free, almost always without a license. What we try to do is to have them engaged with our content for free so they learn what stock photography is. Later on, many of them upgrade to buy a commercial license. One that wouldn't be purchased if they wouldn't have gotten their initial freebies. Our freebie leads them to a license.


My opinion on this subject, as an older contributor to Dreamstime, who did not grow up with the internet, but has had to learn as Ive gone along, is this. Confusion with a capital C! Achilles, there is no doubt in your mind, of where you and DT are going, and would wish to achieve in the future. The rest of us are not mindreaders though. DT gives images away for free, as well as selling them. Then there is Stockfree images, another site that gives away images free, but only ten, I think. Your average "Joe", does not read terms and conditions, nor copyright issues. I know they should, but in 90% of searches they wouldnt give a toss who took it, or where its from as long as it suits their needs. Youve been promoting google+ lately, and here they are stabbing us all in the back. There is nothing for free in this world, and the more you promote free images, the more will be stolen via the back door.


I'm not an artist or photographer, but I miss the old way, too. When I searched for images, I was frequently searching for information on the subject as well. Now I go to a image and often have trouble getting to the original site. Although I make little money and I don't frequently need images, I signed with Dreamstime because I respect the work other people do and it gave me a cost effective way to get creative material and be ethical. I hope Google changes their ways.


This is a well-thought out, well written article. It doesn't affect me much, but I am concerned for other photographers trying to make a living out of their pictures. It would be interesting to see if it affects sales on DT or not. If it doesn't, then that's not so bad. I don't know enough about it to offer solutions, but I hope things will settle down, as it did in the music industry.


The solution is simple: no more high quality images uploads!


Here is another reason why one should not use Google Images to download content and why should always keep in mind that there is an author behind every image you find on the web.


In the Google announcement of the new features, they say,

"The domain name is now clickable, and we also added a new button to visit the page the image is hosted on. This means that there are now four clickable targets to the source page instead of just two. In our tests, we’ve seen a net increase in the average click-through rate to the hosting website."

Does anyone have data confirming or denying this claim? Google is a data-driven company, so it may be easier to engage them in a conversation about the data.


Perhaps Google should allow a website to upload a standard copyright message, a bit like a robots.txt file, and call it copyright.txt
Then when an image is listed on Google image search, the copyright message will appear if available.

Thanks Dreamstime for a well written and balanced article.


I like Google Images' new layout. Why? Because when I take a look at some pictures I don't risk getting viruses from unknown websites.


The people at Google have become too big for their boots over the past couple of years and are now riding roughshod over the rest of us.


I think a good solution is to include them in every picture the words "The image is protected by copyrights, available on Dreamstime" and not forgetting watermarks. If DT could then add to a more correct arrangement, such as a copyright notice with details of the picture, this would be great!


I always think that world goes downhill. Technology brings 1 advantage and 2 disadvantages, in every step it takes. Especially about the privacy and this "share" craziness. It's kinda cool but it brings along a lot of privacy problems. I see many erotic and amateur shots over the internet, stolen directly from the Facebook pages of people. They shared it in a naive way, maybe, but when you put it in another concept, it totally have a different meaning. I think the solution is needed to be found from a much higher level. But on the other hand, I don't think anyone will try to solve these problems, because the "share craziness" itself feeds the internet. People spend more and more time in front of a monitor and most of them are addicted to the internet. I mean, we can't solve the "stolen images" problem without solving the bigger one.


There's a simple solution for this issue: add a watermark to the picture in real time when Google (or any other search engine) display your images. The script and the explanation on how to install it are on the following link: Notice: the example at the bottom of the page didn't work, but I tested on my own website it it worked like a charm.


I found this blog very well written and researched. Well done on handling such a serious matter so well!


Thank you very much Serban for the updates, we all must do something even if we cannot do much against Google. I believe that big agencies all together could do something.


One point for Dreamstime - Google states they are displaying metadata, so DT should be as active as possible in populating copyright metadata and potentially driving traffic back to DT for an image purchase.

I agree with 'freephoton' - Google in most cases clearly knows images are subject to copyright. They should clearly state it. They have an advanced search option that lets you specify allowable use, and not surprisingly it eliminates a whole host of search results. Further, they could certainly make themselves some money by putting in a referral link: "This image is available for purchase on Dreamstime...". Their visual search would allow them to pretty much link any salable image to its source.

I'm not even sure how they are making money doing this - they don't offer ads or promote the websites the image are hosted on any longer...


Thank you very much,but I like the previous methodology than Google’s latest changes to their image search engine.


Google might be innovative but I have hated it eversince it launched GMAIL and all other services later. Till now they have been feeding on consumer privacy and now professionals or artists like us have to suffer for their innovations which only add to the company's profit. I always suggest people against using google products thats the only way to get them down or atleast get better when it comes to such issues.


Slightly off topic, but why is this article not showing up on the blog forum page?


I am not sure this changes things that much. The real danger with Google even indexing images is that once a subscriber has purchased/downloaded an image and subsequently uses it on their website, then google or even other search engines indexes a non-watermarked version of your photo. When people do a google image search, I am not so concerned about someone downloading a watermarked photo, but that unwatermarked one that has been purchased for .35 cents.

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