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Google Rankings Issue Between Web and Image Results

7:20 am on Jan 28, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Hi everyone,

About a month ago while using Google Webmaster Tools to try and resolve an issue involving Pinterest I stumbled across something that I'd call somewhat of a rankings Quirk. I posted about my issue over in the Pinterest forum but discovered that the quirk was fairly serious with the potential for abuse afterwards so I asked the mods to delete that post. incrediBill got back to me and suggested that I could go ahead and write about it because if I found it it was likely others had too and may be abusing rankings and/or competitor sites with it, it has that potential and I could warn others. If, after reading this, mods find it against TOS feel free to delete the post. I did report the problem to Google but haven't heard back so...

The quirk, short version: many pages don't appear in image search results AND web search results at the same time for a given querie, even if they are ranked for both . I'm not the first to notice that happening, example:
(Mod's note... paste ^^^^ Google link into address bar. It breaks in our forum's redirect script).

Long version(incl why it's a problem with potential for abuse): Visit your Google Webmaster Tools account and select the "Search Traffic > Search Analytics" section of your dashboard. On that page go over to the "search type" area and select "comparison" as your search type and set it to "web vs image". Next toggle the column header and find a page receiving both image and web impressions.

Head over to Google and look for that querie in a web search and it shouldn't take you too long to find a querie in which GWT says your site is ranked in web results but you cannot find it there, but you do find it in image results. This does not affect all urls, especially high authority pages or pages that appear grandfathered into the top spots, but it does affect a surprising number of pages on low to mid level sites. I even found pages with no image impressions appearing in image results and not web results(and vice versa) but it's easier to find them if they get both. The problem: These pages are not appearing in one type of search if they are appearing in the other, and they fluctuate back and forth. More specifically, they are indeed blocked from one set of results if appearing in the other.

Surprisingly this seems to happen more often to pages that have a top ranked image for any given querie and so they appear in the "related images" section of a web(text) search which blocks them from getting a textual link in that web search. Again, this is not 100% of the time but i'm finding it on a surprising number of queries.

How I found that a blocking effect was happening: Someone pinned an image on a page that I used to get good web traffic to and, instantly, I began getting very little traffic to the page. After investigating I found my image on Pinterest, as well as now being top ranked for that image in Google image search, so getting almost no traffic didn't make sense. I was quite surprised to find that the page was suddenly NOT ranked in web results anymore, only in image results. I resolved the image issue by replacing the image with a different one and after some time the traffic returned from web search(much better CTR in web searches for this page) and the original image now ranked for Pinterest in the same spot it had been ranking for me.

I went through hundreds of queries in my GWT dashboard and sure enough, where I found a highly ranked image I did not find a web result at that time. This didn't affect all of my pages/queries but a surprisingly large number of them showed this problem. Too many in fact to be a "ranking fluctuation" issue, the site is over a decade old. More frustratingly is that the problem itself fluctuates. A search 4 hours later might find the page is ranked for web results again but the image is nowhere to be found in image results. More commonly the fluctuating happened more slowly, 7-10 days or more between switches. There seemed to be a very real blocking effect going on.

I confirmed the blocking by removing images and waiting, sure enough the pages eventually became web ranked again, with traffic.

Potential for abuse: I hesitate to write this part but you might do well to see if it's being used against you. Theoretically: a page you own ranks #5 in web search results and the page in spot #4 has an image. You submit the image to somewhere google trusts, like Pinterest, and it's likely that either that image receives a better ranking OR the pinterest version replaces the 4th place image and credits the pinterest version for it. Either way since a credit link appears on pinterest and, I'm assuming, some small amount of a ranking signal is created, the page in #4 suddenly has a better ranking image that Google may choose to display in image results and.... *poof*, the #4 web(text) result is gone, you are now #4(at least for some of the time, it fluctuates back and forth). I'm not even sure how a competitor could detect that actually, image search is updated much more slowly.

Go ahead and search your own GWT account if you have images on a lot of pages, wherever you have an image appearing in image search check web search to see if your page appears there too. I know mine isn't the only site with web search results that don't match what's reported in GWT but I'm curious as to how many other sites rank for a web querie but can't be found when you search for it. I hope I explained this sufficiently for you to do some research on your own site(s).

[edited by: Robert_Charlton at 8:55 am (utc) on Jan 28, 2016]
[edit reason] Delinked Google link so it could be pasted into address bar. [/edit]

7:11 am on Jan 31, 2016 (gmt 0)

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*update* - able to gain web search visibility by jettisoning images to sacrifice image search visibility, Google we have a problem. Being ranked in image search shouldn't block web search and vice versa.
12:29 pm on Jan 31, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Cool, trying not to take advantage or even see if I can. But going to check my traffic and image searches, as was only thinking earlier that a certain image is first but the url for the article is actually much further down. Perhaps this is a consequence of the change to ALL search instead of WEB and someone didn't do their job properly with integration as there is none.

*Though just to add, it's not replicated across the board. I have an image displayed in the gallery in 2nd position and 2nd in the gallery and the post is in 4th (8th including the gallery). If I check the first listing, none of their images are seo'd for the page title / keyword but they have images in first and 3rd of the gallery. I'm ok with being in gallery and 4th for search though. But wondering what traffic first gets and if this anomaly has put me 4th instead of 1st. And if it's the keywords in image url.
10:08 pm on Feb 1, 2016 (gmt 0)

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I can easily imagine Google thinking this could be a good way to ensure diverse results and avoid a spammer stuffing the serps without realizing the full ramifications.
9:34 pm on Feb 7, 2016 (gmt 0)

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It takes time for Google to update rankings but I just revisited additional pages after removing images from them and a good number of them have been updated.

Page #1 BEFORE:
- Image in 3rd slot of the "related images" section of a WEB search
- GWT reporting #4 WEB position
- No text link in WEB results(ie: no title or description), checked the first 500 results only
- #3 ranked image in IMAGE search

Page #1 AFTER removing image(after 10 days)
- NO image in "related images" section of a WEB search (as you would expect)
- GWT report unchanged(not enough time to recalculate yet?)
- #2 position in WEB results INCLUDING title and description (and traffic!)
- Not ranked in image search

I was going to post several examples but they are all similar. Takeaway - removal of an image suddenly giving the page a #2 web ranking while losing image ranking is problematic because a)it can be abused, b)it's not ideal for visitors who may appreciate an image and, the biggest problem, c)traffic from image search and traffic from web search are NOT equivalent, on this page traffic is up 95% as of today but that's been increasing over 3 days and may increase further.

I say c is the biggest problem because of Google's belief that webmasters should embrace images and text as being equal. It's a message they repeat everywhere, including within adsense, but since they made their major overhaul of how they copy and display images in image search the traffic levels are nowhere near equal anymore, at least not from google searches. "We gave you #3 image rank, which is the same as a #2 text rank".... ummm, no.

NOT universal - as I said in the first post SOME pages are appearing in both and, as of today, not all of the pages I removed images from have improved in web search, most likely because it is too soon or because of some other factor I don't know about. The fact, however, that I can give myself a #2 web or #3 image result based on image inclusing/exclusion however... yeah, that needs to be looked into, soon.

Ideally Google treats both engines entirely differently but, thanks to the advanced GWT reports, you can clearly see that's not the case on a surprisingly large number of pages. (I've found a good 300 now that fit this mold). I'll update further if anything changes but, for now, my images are costing me real traffic on a significant number of pages(25%?) and so they've got to go. Being #3 image search means nothing to me if people aren't actually getting to my site to see the content. Some sites may do well with image search results, mine however does not(not even close).
12:45 pm on Feb 8, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Another good reason to have "watermarks" on your images. Not only does this effectively lower their ranking in image SERPS (G doesn't like it being made blindingly obvious that they have pinched your image for their SERPS) but it also prevents them being stolen / makes "take down" threats more easily implemented.
1:45 pm on Feb 8, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Here is some code that you can add to your .htaccess file, which tells google not to index your images, thereby keeping them out of the image search results.
<Files ~ "\.(gif|jp[eg]|png)$"> 
Header append x-robots-tag "noindex"

I started using this method on my sites several years ago for the following reasons:
1. It greatly reduces hot-linking of your images.

2. On most types of sites, the traffic from image search is basically worthless, since most people just come to look at the image and not the rest of the content.

3. Some years ago google changed its image search results procedure so that people don't need to click through to your site in order to see your image in full resolution. This drastically reduced image traffic for most types of sites.

So using the above code might solve the problem in a way that doesn't require you to remove images from your site.
1:04 pm on Feb 9, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Another reason to keep your images out of google's image search is to cut down on theft. The more people who see your images, the more people who will steal them.

Before I started excluding my images from google's image search, I used to see stolen copies in their results instead of my originals. No doubt there are still stolen copies in their results, but it doesn't matter to me now because I told google to noindex all my images, using the code I posted above.
7:09 pm on Feb 10, 2016 (gmt 0)

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Very useful code indeed aristotle. Wouldn't it be better to append the noimageindex X-Robots-Tag to each page instead? Hmmm, I guess that wouldn't stop it from being indexed on someone else's site. Perhaps use both?

Just another update - more pages are falling from image search and magically ending up well ranked in WEB results where, I assume, they should have been all along. This hasn't been quietly fixed, yet. I'm rather enjoying the 220% traffic increase on the affected pages that I, apparently, should have been getting all along.

Image searches really don't compare to web searches in terms of traffic, at least not for me.