Sgt_Kickaxe - 3:24 am on Nov 25, 2012 (gmt 0)
I'm not sure that's completely right anymore lucy, in August 2011 Google stated:
We've recently launched an update to the algorithm that looks at the relevance and quality of both the webpage and the image to surface more relevant results in Google Images. Improving the quality of results in Google Images is very important to us, and we're always working hard to improve our algorithms.
Bolding mine. Google claims to be weighing the quality of the rest of the page content in determining image rank. They might be visiting image urls directly but they are at least using the page as reference for quality and context.
I used the "view site as googlebot" feature in GWT and aimed it at an image on my site that has htaccess hotlink protection on and they returned a 200 code which is good but does it return a 200 ok code even on the scrapers site despite being hotlinked since googlebot DOES visit image urls directly?
And if it does return a 200 ok code even if the site in question gets a 403 forbidden code when trying to show the image... what more can I do? I'd love some official clarification, does Googlebot see the 403 forbidden (or nasty switcheroo) at all?
edit: I just Google'd the question and one of the top 10 results is a 100% blackhat site, I'm not feeling optimistic here :)