Study: Google Image Search Referrer Traffic Drops 63% Since Upgrade

google-image-traffic-downDefine Media Group released statistics from 87 different websites on the images the new Google Image Search design features have impacted on publishers websites.

Overall, sites in the study saw an average decline of 63% of their traffic from Google Image Search. Industries hit the hardest, according to the report, were Fashion & Lifestyle, Entertainment, News and Photo verticals seeing about a 78% decline in Google Image Search traffic.

Google will likely say the decline is due to a decline in “phantom visits” where publishers counted impressions in the old design even when the searcher did not click through from Google to the website. When we asked the founder of Define Media Group, Marshall Simmonds, he said “we actually never saw any instance of the ‘phantom visit’ phenomenon and none of the publishers we work with and data we reviewed revealed evidence of it occurring.”

The 78% high and 63% average is not far off from what I’ve heard from other publishers. Shortly after the change, I’ve heard from many publishers about the decline in image search traffic from Google.

Here is a chart from the Define Media Group study:


Here is image search traffic by industry:


Let me be clear, your image SEO had no recourse on the downgrade in traffic. The way the new image search works, where you have to explicitly click “visit website” to see the image has changed from the old design to the new.

Here is the old interface, which loads the website in the background:


Here is the new interface, which does not load the original site in the background:


Have you seen a huge decline in your Google Image Search traffic? If so, let us know by how much in the comments.

Postscript: A Google spokesperson has sent us a statement:

As we’ve noted before, there are no more phantom visits and actual CTR to webmaster pages, i.e. real traffic, is up 25%, so real visits are up. As you know, we doubled the way users can reach the host website.

Related Topics: Channel: Consumer | Google: Images | Top News


About The Author: is Search Engine Land's News Editor and owns RustyBrick, a NY based web consulting firm. He also runs Search Engine Roundtable, a popular search blog on very advanced SEM topics. Barry's personal blog is named Cartoon Barry and he can be followed on Twitter here. For more background information on Barry, see his full bio over here.

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  • gabs

    79% drop for one of my sites… so very inline with the above study,

  • Shannon Sofield

    Seeing a huge drop here. The interesting thing is that the image search displays continue to climb, but the web search displays have leveled off or dropped (photo based site). Effectively, they are saying our image content is good enough to show in larger amounts in our image search, but not where it actually benefits you; in the serp.

  • Frank Zimper

    “we actually never saw any instance of the ‘phantom visit’ phenomenon and none of the publishers we work with and data we reviewed revealed evidence of it occurring.”

    If I go to and use the image search there (they still have the old design, probably because the French care about creators’ rights) to find pics from my websites, I can see that ‘phantom’ visits are tracked in both, Google Analytics as well as Piwik.

    So I am wondering how they gathered that data for the study. I say, the drop in numbers is pretty much exactly these ‘phantom visits’ where searchers saw the picture on the image search result page and then didn’t click through. So the number was bloated before. I’ve written about this on though the article is in German only.

    This is not to say that I like the change, and I prefer the way Google Image search currently still works on which is also unchanged and doesn’t even show the web site in the background. Probably also due to copyright issues.

  • Sean Murray

    Image traffic is negligible for me but if I experienced losses like the sites in the study I’d be signing up to sue Google.

  • Marco Cuyt

    What if you look at the non-bounced visits from image search? If that shows little impact that you should believe the phantom visit story

  • Frank Zimper

    Right. What do you think? Does it show little impact? I doubt.

  • daveintheuk

    I simply don’t understand why people tolerate this kind of infringement of their copyright by Google. This is way beyond fair use.

    “Good for the user”? Maybe. Good for Google – yes. Good for the publisher/content owner – no. Good for the economy – no.

  • Alan

    Wow what a surprise? Google made a change and it benefited Google and harmed the site owners (content owners). Google wouldn’t do that now would they? (yes sarcasm).

    I said this would happen somewhere in the comments of this blog or or at SER and guess what it happened. Google does not give a flying turd about Site owners anymore.

    Google the do no evil company!

  • Cowboydroid

    HA! As if you’re entitled to search engine traffic…

  • Fede Einhorn

    I still allow Google to index my images. Even with the 63% decline in traffic, I rather have 30% than 0…

  • daveintheuk

    It isn’t about being entitled to search traffic, it is about having your images taken and served by somebody else. Google is stealing other people’s content – simple as.

  • Alan Smith

    I am not a regular user of it but sometimes I use it for reference
    images. 63% is very drastic change. New upgrade may be taken sometimes by

  • Paul Caudell

    Hasn’t Google always been geared towards the user not the site owner? I’m sure they weren’t thinking about a sites traffic when they designed this update, instead a fast loading easy to use system.

  • Alan

    There was once an unwritten rule where Google shared some traffic with the sites of the content creators the users where looking. Now Google just steals the content and keeps the traffic.

  • Sneha

    I like the google update

  • Chenzo

    I don’t believe the phantom story at all – but one thing I also am not a fan of – is that the “similar” tab on the images was taken away – which I think is horrible – I loved that feature!

  • Andrea Moro

    Plenty of users on the Google Webmaster forum are complaining about this drop in “traffic” since January, when the new interface has been rolled-out.

    I do personally believe the new format is better as no ghost impressions are now accounted in your Analytics.

    If you are still interested in image traffic and how well your images performed, you can still use the GWT by filtering for Image. That’s it.

  • Guys Gab

    Chenzo, the similar option is still there, it just takes a little more work to find it. When you find an image in Google Images, click the “More info” button, and then click on the “Visually similar images” link on the following page.

  • Henry Dupilo

    Get a free iphone 5 with $1000 Visa Gift Card!on us. read more-here,……CHECK-OUT

  • Gui

    agree. The question is: could you really consider the previous design as a visit ? I don’t think so

  • Gui

    Stealing?! mmm… it still mentions your site and you can ‘visit page’. On the user side, I’m happier with that version as if I’m looking for an image I don’t necessarily want to see the website in background. I’m just browsing pics

  • Gui

    completely agree. Those who complain have probably not looked at other KPIs. Visits alone do not mean anything, I can buy very cheap visitors but who won’t be qualified at all. If I’m searching images, I’m probably not looking at visiting a website… as you say if you want to see more, you can still visite the site

  • Gui

    so disallow your images…

  • daveintheuk

    Not the point.

    If Google is going to start taking content from content creators and serving it on their own domain, the system needs to be opt-in, not opt-out… you know, like it is for everyone else.

  • bdot

    I don’t use Google but it looks like Google has switched to how Yahoo already does their image searches.

  • Jay Peyton

    This is discouraging for anybody that relies on image traffic, but I tend to agree it improves UX. In my experience, image traffic has a pretty high bounce rate anyway, so it makes very little difference to me. (Though admittedly I am talking about personal blogs that I have no financial interest in.)

    I’ve noticed some sites have redirects set up so that when you expand the image in Google’s results, it automatically redirects you to their site. I have no friggin idea how they’re going about that, but for anybody dependent on that traffic, it’s probably worth digging into.

  • Olafur Kr. Olafsson

    I receive ~1000 visits/day to my private Flickr account. I noted (and documented) an instant drop in visits from Google the day they made the changes.

  • Jon

    This. I can’t start copying films but say if you don’t like it block me in your jon.txt file.

  • Albert

    Pinterest is all the way taking the ownership of Images Index on the internet.

  • Wendy Piersall

    My thousands of “phantom” visitors used to click through and view an average of 4.3 more pages on every visit. You may not care about them, but I sure as heck miss them VERY MUCH.

  • Wendy Piersall

    YES, because my “phantom” visitors usually saw the context of the image and stayed around for 2+ minutes and 4 more pages.

  • Wendy Piersall

    My image search traffic down about 70%-90% depending on the site. But what has devastated me even more is that my high res images are protected by a right click prevention *if viewed on my site*. Since my high res images are now easy-for-the-taking straight from Google search results, the theft of my content has SKYROCKETED. And in some cases, the images were so popular, and now everywhere on the internet, that the duplicate content issue has caused me to lose rank to my thieving competitors.

    I’ve started testing the WP-PICShield plugin, which blocks hotlinking and forces visitors to the source page rather than being able to “View Original Image”. I’ve recovered about half of what I should have on the test site, because people can still right-click and save from Google. But I’ve heard of a handful of people who got their images deindexed by using the plugin, so I won’t roll it out to all of my sites until it’s been at least a month of recovery.

    I absolutely believe this goes far beyond fair use, and even verges on being an accomplice to image theft, but I don’t have the means to find a lawyer to take on the case. Nor have I seen any legal expert express any interest in the case. I don’t know if it is because they think it is unwinnable, or if nobody wants to take on Google. Either way, my 7 years of blogging are now pretty much over, and I have had to start a brick and mortar business to find a way to regain my lost income.

    By the way: lost income since January, WELL OVER $10,000 dollars.

  • Cowboydroid

    Then block Google’s crawler! Gawd you people are a bunch of whiny nincompoops. Do you not know how the internet works? You are not entitled to anything! What loss have you experienced? How has Google harmed you?

    Intellectual “property” is a joke.

  • Cowboydroid

    Sorry, that’s not how the internet works. And if it did work that way, no one would use it.

  • daveintheuk

    It is how copyright works. It is how everybody else works in the real world. Inconvenient, not cool – but true.

  • daveintheuk

    No, intellectual property is people’s livelihood.

  • mister_savage

    To what extent have my websites been hit? Whelp, to the point now where new sites I launch or new articles don’t have images. Bad for user? Perhaps. That said I’m not spending a % of my time on images which aren’t providing traffic. On a site or two I would suggest a drop around 40% of traffic. Most webmasters were/are ignorant to the extent that their images used to provide their sites with traffic/revenue.

    So, let’s replace “image” with “article”. Why is that different? Why can’t Google simply do with articles as they’ve done with images? Not far fetched at all. Your copyrighted images being used, why not copyrighted words? I’m sure that’s next. Afterall, look at the mounds of copyrighted material being viewed and uploaded daily to YouTube. Somebody makes money from YouTube ads and I bet it’s not the copyright owners.

    It’s about time people see this for what it is.

  • mister_savage

    Have you noticed there really isn’t such a thing as copyright protection? If you think it exists, then show me the evidence. Right now it’s about pushing it as far as possible. Greed? If you own a TV show and 100,000 people a day upload it to YouTube for example, how many staff do you hire to submit infractions? So when it’s done on a massive scale, you can’t protect anything that is truly yours.

  • mister_savage

    Some ignorance being spoken. If you had a source of income before the change, and you have that same source of income after the change, you suggesting income will remain the same? That’s what people care about.

  • daveintheuk

    Yes, Google knows this too – would you as a small independent publisher have the resources to sue Google? Of course not – even the big guys would struggle to take them on because they would fight it to the last.

  • Cowboydroid

    No, its an unnatural monopoly enforced by the government. It’s like saying a cable company’s local monopoly markets are its livelihood, and should be enforced and free from competition, at all costs.

  • Cowboydroid

    If search engines by default were not allowed to crawl sites, there would be no such thing as a search engine, and you can kiss goodbye all the progress the internet has made in the last decade…including your pathetic little photo-sharing site.

  • Cowboydroid

    That’s because no one truly owns intellect. It simply exists. Property is physical, not abstract. We cannot own abstractions.

  • Cowboydroid

    I’m seeing a lot of entitled, whiny brats in here…as if you “deserve” search engine traffic.

    If people care about your freaking photo, they’ll go to your site. If you care about people not seeing your photo, you’ll block Google’s crawler. Simple as that.

  • Alan

    And the Serial Google fanboy speaks again.

  • Cowboydroid

    Cry about it, Alan. Cry about it to your support group, and share your photos with them, as well. Just don’t invite any media to the event, they might take pictures of your photos and sell them in a news story!

  • Alan

    Yes I am going to take advice from the guy that picked his name based on a Google product? Like I said SERIAL FANBOY!

  • Gui

    some nonsense being spoken. If the source of income is unchanged then what is the problem ??

  • daveintheuk

    I’m not talking about stopping them crawling sites – but stopping them from taking content and serving it from their own site… *that* process need to be opt-in.

    I don’t have a “pathetic photo-sharing site”, nor am I particularly affected by this particular self-interested move from Google – but there are plenty of businesses and individuals who are loosing out here.

  • Frank Zimper

    In which case nobody would call them “phantom” visits.

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