New Google Image Results

Google has updated the way in which its Image Search Results are displayed, by introducing user-friendly preview boxes on the results page as a replacement for the classic sidebar and iFrame format. It’s sleek, and it works seamlessly – but is it fair?

Google has a perhaps-unfair reputation for being cavalier with the impact of its updates on webmasters. This most recent development looks, at first glance, to be a very minor change in visual style – but there’s a chance it could have a more profound effect on the way image searching is carried out and, potentially, on the traffic many sites see from image results.

What the new look essentially does is to move all of the browsing functionality to the search engine’s pages. Whether this contravenes fair use is a matter for debate: the US legal case Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corporation (2003) established a search engine’s right to make thumbnails, but Google’s latest endeavour may just differ from that example by providing much higher-resolution images than mere thumbnails. Even if fair use applies in the strict sense, though, the truth is that webmasters are going to have to deal with a whole new set of challenges surrounding the new layout.

Google’s official line is that they have tested the design and found it to increase traffic to the domains the images are hosted on. Associate product manager Hongyi Li says that, “This means that there are now four clickable targets to the source page instead of just two.” This is certainly the case, but in the instance of search engines, we know from the value of meta descriptions that the quality and contextualisation of a link can be of huge importance. What this new design does is essentially removes the website from the decision-making process; there may be more buttons to click through, but there’s no way to sell the click-through to a potential reader or user, except for the image.

In this sense, it may be that Google’s new Image Search Results is actually a step backwards, removing the connection between images, the pages on which they reside, and the domains on which they are hosted. Granted, people do use Google Image Search for the pure act of finding a picture – it’s worth noting you can now save a high-res image straight from the search engine – but many more use it less directly, as a tool for finding information and browsing opportunities.

The blogosphere is awash with claims by webmasters that their search traffic has dropped off since the implementation of the new features, in contrast to Google’s much-repeated argument that it has been proven to work. Whatever the final verdict, Google have again proven their capacity to change the worth of whole segments of web content in a fairly innocuous update. A picture’s worth a thousand words – give or take 5%.