NOT cool, Google! Google Stealing Online Photos


Traffic on my photography and birding website has been very consistent over the last several years.  Suddenly, in the last 3 days, traffic has plummeted by 40%.  Looking at incoming traffic to my website, the reason is obvious…traffic from Google’s “Image Search” is dramatically down.  People searching for photographs on Google through Google’s “Image Search” are no longer actually reaching my website.

Google Image Search - Example

This is what happens now when a web searcher uses Google's Image Search. This is MY Gyrfalcon photograph, in full-resolution, displayed in all it's glory, not on MY website, but on Google's Image Search. Google searchers can now actually DOWNLOAD and save photographs and images, WITHOUT ever actually visiting the website where the images are hosted. NOT COOL GOOGLE.

The reason?  This week, Google changed their Image Search pages.  At first, the Image Search looks the same.   You type in a search term and a long gallery of thumbnail images appears. However, now, when you click on a thumbnail image, it no longer takes you to the webpage where that photo is found.  Instead, it now actually BRINGS UP THE FULL-RESOLUTION PHOTO for people to look at.  You can now actually DOWNLOAD an image directly from Google’s Image Search, WITHOUT EVER VISITING THE WEBSITE ITSELF!!!

For example, let’s say someone is looking for a photo of a Gyrfalcon.  They type in Gyrfalcon, and one of my images appears right in the top row of the Google Image Search page, as one of the thumbnail images.  However, now, when a user clicks on the thumbnail of my photo, Google’s Image Search actually brings up the original photograph, WITHOUT taking the user to my website!! There’s a VERY tiny message at the bottom, barely noticeable, that says “the image may be subject to copyright”, but a user can simply right-click and save the Gyrfalcon picture directly to their hard drive, without visiting my website.

Search Traffic

Traffic to my main website from Google searches over the last 2 weeks. Note what's happened since January 25th, the day Google started STEALING PEOPLE'S IMAGES and displaying them on their OWN Google pages. Traffic from Google is now down 75% and just keeps dropping. No reason for people to continue to the actual SOURCE website where a photo comes from, when Google TAKES your image and displays it on their own pages.

You are crossing a line, Google.  You’re providing a search service, pure and simple.  In NO WAY should you be allowed to actually DISTRIBUTE THE CONTENTS OF OTHER PEOPLE’S WEBSITES!!! Webmasters around the world are complaining of dramatic drops in traffic to their websites, especially websites devoted to imagery and photography.  With Google now DIRECTLY displaying and allowing download of full-resolution imagery, web searchers are simply looking at full-resolution images on Google itself, without visiting the source websites.

NOT COOL, GOOGLE. I have no doubt there will be a legal challenge here, as I simply can’t understand the legality of Google itself effectively distributing CONTENT from other people’s websites.

59 Responses to NOT cool, Google! Google Stealing Online Photos

  1. You are not alone, on my art related website i have around 70% less traffic even and worldwide its the same for big and small websites.

    As photographer you know DeviantART i guess, and they have hundredthousands less pageviews as well.

    I recommend you to disallow google to scrape and hotlink your images, the bit traffic coming for its image search now is not worth it. Only together show a sign and change the google search if our content does not appear there anymore in the future.

    You can also see webmasters dicussing this on more or less all webmaster forums. More and more websites are writing about it too
    Maybe also visit the website i created yesterday (its nearly empty) where i will gather infos and hopefully develope ideas and solutions against the biggest art theft ever,
    greets from Germany, Ray

  2. Nice site, I’m glad others are looking at the issue and trying to help put pressure on Google.

    I’ve never used the robots.txt much to limit what Google accesses on my site, but I’m going to now. If nothing changes, then I’m going to stop access to all the higher-res images on my site, and only allow them to crawl the thumbnails.

    • Nice site is humbling heh, it was just made in 30 minutes with wordpress, but i guess it is serving its purpose

      I saw that some peeps were coming from this site today and thought i share this with you

      I am currently spreading the news on deviantART a lot as well, many artists there, especially the more professional ones are..and should be very sensitive to the problematic as well

      I found a solution how to darken images and have a font like “want to see more, click on” on the images of my personal art related website now but the traffic raised only to 10%. The most people either dont care for the images anymore or see them still in fullsize on google i guess. I am damn glad that the website is just a hobby i dedicate a lot time into and not a full job..otherwise i could bury it now. Wish there would be more alternatives to google and we webmasters had a real worldwide lobby.

      Greets from Germany :-)

  3. Great post Terry, as you mentioned on my blog post about this it is very frustrating. I’m going to be disabling hot linking on my site soon. Google has turned into nothing mote than a giant scraper site.

  4. Mia, turns out there are issues with disabling hotlinking, I did it but now google will take a thumbnail of your photo, but upsize it so it displays this ugly looking fuzzy image when people click on a small image in google search.

    When you try to save it, it now only let’s people save the small thumbnail. That part is good.

    The problem is that the upsized thumbnail looks horrible, so someone seeing your photo displayed in google search would think its a horrible photo, and would never follow through and go to your site! On NPN a guy said google did some kind of dirty trick to get around some of the disabling it hotlines.

  5. I’m with you on this — my image search traffic is in the toilet because of the changes. Not cool at all Google.

  6. Not good for someone like me starting up a website. I don’t want some big company like google stealing my pics!

  7. While I’m not a big fan of the new image search, it doesn’t seem that Google is scraping pictures either. I checked with my images, all the images it shows are still hosted on my site and not on google’s.
    Now, if traffic drops, it’s most likely because with the old image search, you kinda needed to go to the site to see the picture with a good resolution (actually I think that the old image search was kinda showing “scraped” low-resolution copies of the original), with the new image, much less, but it’s still your image on your site.

    • If they are distributing your images without your permission than they are breaking your copyright. That goes for ANY of your images, even the thumbnails.

      Unless you FULLY release your images thru Creative Commons License than your images are under copyright. You don’t have to go to the Copyright Office to register your images. Many do to protect commercial and international work to avoid legal issues over who created a song, writing, design and re-printing. If you do have the original master image(s) it fairly easy to defend your images/pictures.

      Make sure to copyright your work and put “All rights reserved” on all pages to let people know not to mess with your content.

      Google is now going way beyond the “fair use” image clause used by news organizations and universities. Factors that determine an image’s “fair use” status include intent of the image user and the EFFECT that use of the image may have on its market value.

      Bing and Google have LONG past the “fair use” with others images. They are now hurting peoples traffic and web viewing which equals loss of income.

    • You don’t know what your talking about.

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  9. It’s your image alright, displayed directly on google search pages. That’s the point here…now a user doesn’t NEED to go to your site at all. They can view and even download YOUR photo without ever even seeing the source webpage.

  10. Sure, but Google doesn’t steal your photo, it’s still your photo from your website.

    Also, what’s your goal when you post photos online? To have people see them? or to have people go to your website?

    • David, the issue is not so much Google stealing images but making it possible for people to view images from your site without even going to you site. That means a reduction in your prospective audience. YES, I WANT people to go to my site – I want them to be directed to my site from image searches because then they will see the REST of my work and perhaps, you know… HIRE ME. Google has made it too easy for people save pictures online or view entire galleries online and never give anyone the impetus to go to the website from which those images came. It’s essentially stealing our audience.

    • Perhaps you use your website to make money through google ads by offering free quality photo content.

      This way people never get to the site, and never click any ads (which will also harm Google, ironically).

  11. The download for the image is the size you’ve listed on your website. It’s no different than someone right clicking on your site photo and downloading it. It would be nice though if Google didn’t encourage downloading of the image with the button. Google is not stealing it, they’ve just prettied up the image search.

    • Nonsense! Google is using copyrighted images in what is effectively their own online gallery. That is a copyright violation.

      • Correct, it is no longer a low res thumbnail which is what they are ONLY allowed to use in the “Fair Use” ….

        Question: Can an operator of a visual search engine use the copyrighted images of another owner as “thumbnails” in its search engine?

        Answer: Probably. The creation and use of “thumbnails” — smaller, lower resolution copies of an image the enlargement of which would lead to a loss of clarity of the image– as part of such a search engine may be a fair use.

        The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held in Kelly v. Arriba Soft that displaying the copyrighted images of another as thumbnails on a search engine was a fair use because the thumbnails served a completely different purpose than the original images. Working through the four factor fair use analysis, the court emphasized that it was essential to determine if defendant’s use was transformative in nature. It is more likely that a court will find fair use if the defendant’s use of the image advances a purpose different than the copyright holder’s, rather than merely superseding the object of the originals. For example, the Ninth Circuit found there to be a fair use since the displayed images were not for illustrative artistic purposes, but were rather used as part of an image search engine as a means to access other images and web sites. Even if defendant’s website is operated for a commercial purpose, it may still be a fair use if the use of the image was “more incidental and less exploitative.” The court in Kelly found that defendant’s search engine did not directly profit from the use of plaintiff’s images, and therefore that their use was not highly exploitative. In Kelly, the court also found that the use of the images would not hurt the plaintiff’s market for the images.

        Kelly v. Arriba Soft Corporation, 336 F.3d 811(9th Cir. Cal. 2003).

        However, if there is an actual market for thumbnails, this may be copyright infringement. The Central District of California recently granted an injunction preventing Google from displaying thumbnail size versions of Perfect 10?s images. Perfect 10 generates revenue from, among other things, licensing reduced-size images for download on cell phones. By displaying thumbnail size photos, Google potentially adversely effected the market for these cell-phone images.

        Perfect 10 v. Google, Inc., 416 F. Supp. 2d 828 (C.D. Cal. 2006).


  12. Terry,
    One puts content on their site so that people will visit their site.
    One does not put content on their site so that Google will have content for their site.

  13. Duh! The obvious goal of anybody with a website is to have people visit their website AND view their content. That goes without saying, and it also goes without saying that what google is doing facilitates theft of images. If they put in place safeguards where an image could not be downloaded without going to the source site, that would be kosher. But this has class-action lawsuit written all over it. What a bunch of chumps over there at Google. “Do no evil”, isn’t that their motto? What a crock of shit.

  14. Yes, Patricia, if someone visits your site they can also right click and save the image. But with google’s image search, people don’t even need to see your site to save the photo.

    The part about being able to right click and save isn’t good, but its the secondary issue to me. The main issue is that google is displaying your full resolution website content and many viewers now bypass your site completely, many without even knowing or caring where the image comes from.

    As for “stealing” content it is no different than if google were to display entire blog posts or other text content in google search and never take the searcher to the source website. Why should it be any different with images?

  15. Wow. Well i definitely want to do something about this. I had someone build my site for me a while back and so i’m clueless on how to disable hotlinking of images. Advice?

  16. There is another way to look at this. The remaining visitors of your site are in a way more valuable.

    Google has filtered those who are just visiting for a quick download. In return for the new image search you should be able to see an increase in time spent on the website and a decrease in the bounce rate.

    To monetize your photography you need visitors who are genuinely interested in your work. Not in grabbing one of your shots to repin on Pinterest or Tumblr. They steal AND clutter your analytics in one go.

    The new website statistics will give you a better insight on how valuable visitors browse through your site. Isn’t that what really counts?

    I understand the frustration but the number of visitors is by far not the most important statistic. Just my thought on the matter.

    • “To monetize your photography you need visitors who are genuinely interested in your work.”

      That is why people name their photos and image meta tags. More hits off high ranking images that show up in their top image$ bar on the first page. Even if your page did not rank well, your images still might. Now they took this alternative way to rank high away. You are now better off not naming the images so google can’t sort and rank them by name tags.

      Maybe people should try this first. Rename the images by numbers or use your catalog system.

  17. You must work for the Google PR department.

    I don’t WANT Google’s “services” in helping to filter who goes to my site. By not even showing the source website in the background any more, Google is taking my full-resolution imagery and presenting it on an alternative website. Even a casual visitor to my site may be intrigued by what they see, and linger.

    And for a site like mine, where I have advertisements, reducing visits to my site, which this move has definitely done, reduces ad impressions.

    It’s MY content. It’s not Google’s. I don’t want them displaying my full-resolution images and even allowing download, any more than I want them displaying my text or other content on Google.

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  19. I cannot believe the audacity of Google! This makes is an absolute synch to life copyrighted photos! I also noticed something that doesn’t make me all that happy. When I searched the term Whale, the first photos that showed up were ones taken by my wife. I don’t like the fact that Google changes the search results based on prior search, Google + friends, etc. I want clean search results! Before someone jumps on it, I want clean results without having to log out of every Google related product.

  20. Perhaps you should add watermark, copyright and webaddress to all of your images? I know it doesn’t look good but it goes part way to protecting them.

  21. I guess Google learned from the Chinese government. Hmmm…taking things without paying for them….I think I may have to drop my gmail account. As of right now, I am stopping using Google and use bing search instead.

  22. Well just checked bing search. They at least provide a link to the website below the photo. You can just take the photo also.

  23. What about sites like shutterfly? I wonder if they are now stealing private photos?

  24. Chris…I do have a copyright and my name on all my photos online. Amazing how often though I come across my photos, where someone has either cropped out the copyright and name, or they’ve cloned it out.

    If you have something online, some people will steal it. I’ve resigned myself to that. I just don’t want Google to facilitate it.

    • Yes,

      I found a ton of my images on other sites. There now will be tons more!

      I guess Google will have to triple their copyright infringement crew size over in India. How much will that cost them? A few hours of ad revenue is a nice trade.

  25. And this is why I compress all my images before uploading them. Full resolution images rarely make it from my computer.

  26. Make a separate set of lower quality images watermarked with your url “to see this photo visit my website”, and make those only visible to googlebot. Then block googlebot from the higher quality images on your own site. Anybody who cares to see the “good” versions will have no choice to visit you.

    Google is doing nothing wrong here. What they are doing is stopping smaller websites from being brought to their knees by GIS, by caching the images themselves as well as metadata.

    If you make your photos available to the public, there’s nothing stopping one person from scraping and sharing them outside of your site. That’s how the web works, and has always worked.

  27. This is so wrong. Never ever post a photo online that your not prepared to lose without a copyright logo – I know they can be removed, re-touched and often are, but usually you can tell.

  28. Spacechief…

    Agreed that at least Google is caching the images, rather than using your bandwidth by hotlinking every time someone wants to bring up a photo in Image Search. I’m not sure if you can say the same for Bing’s image search.

    As for doing “nothing wrong”…would it be “wrong” for Google to display a full blog post? A full web page of text content? How is it any different for images? Why should they or any search engine be allowed to display the original images from websites?

    In regular Google Search, for text, Google displays a snippet of the text for a site. They help people to decide whether to continue to the source website to view the full content. It should be the same with imagery. They should only be allowed to display thumbnails, something to help a user decide what website to continue on to. They shouldn’t take the full-resolution originals from the site, and totally eliminate the need for many users to even ever visit the source website.

  29. Jim, Brandy, and others…I too never have my actual “full-resolution” images online, not in terms of the full-resolution digital originals. When I’ve referred to Google displaying your “full-rseolution” images, I mean the original images from your website, whatever resolution that may be.

    I too have copyright and name information burned into every single photo I have online. But as people have said, don’t put anything online you’re not prepared to “lose”. Amazing how often I see my photos, where someone has taken the time to either crop out the copyright symbol and name, or have cloned it out.

    The image “stealing” issue is secondary for me though, as I’ve said. The main issue is Google displaying your original image content, thus bypassing the need for many users to ever visit your website.

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  31. If you look at the big picture, Google is shooting themselves in the foot. If people do not visit the site where there is a good chance they have some kind of google ads, then … no visits = no ads = no $ for webmaster = no $ for google. Smart, real smart google!

    I think they’re trying to compete with Pinterest where images are displayed in a nice compact format without having to visit any sites.

    • They don’t care.
      Unless you sue them and win, they will keep on doing what EVER they feel like. Even Samsung, Apple, and the Government give Google wide berth and let them do pretty much anything they want.

      Ask yourself what is their biggest source of their income. It is ads. You need lots of focused traffic for ad revenue. They are STEALING our pics to keep people from using Bing’s stolen pics.

      And they have been messing with their valid traffic rankings and now funneling traffic to the largest sites using their crazy Panda and Penguin updates. They CARE little about the quality of the search anymore, just the massive ad revenue to keep the investors happy and their stock going up.

      What is their stock price now compared to last year??? Enough said!

  32. The only way to stop this is a full on class action lawsuit against both Bing and Google.
    Thousands or even millions would join it. Basically, they are stealing peoples photos, traffic and band width for their ad profit.

    If you protect your images you are STILL killing your traffic and income from the lost linking. You could use thumbnails and link to a Zoomify files but that is way to much work!

    As long as you let Bing and Google steal your full size pictures, they will. The U.S. has no laws anymore. It pays to steal. Just look at Juckerberg and the bankers!

  33. Block your full res images showing on search engines script and code.
    Hotlinking Script

    • “Block your full res images”?
      Great, I’ll send Google the bill for the many hours of extra work I now may have to do.
      Or maybe your a good sport and will do it for all of us?

      Do you have ANY idea how many images, image names, and name meta tags would have to be changed, re-sized, separated out, and moved. Easy if you got a tiny site, but most would be nightmare jobs with hours of testing off and on-line.

  34. I have a PhotoShelter website. PhotoShelter displays images in such a way that when you right-click you download just 1 (one) pixel. Google has removed that feature, so it seems clear that they intentionally made images available free. Some people (even companies) that steal images (and there are many!) don´t even bother to remove the copyright watermark placed by PhotoShelter.

  35. Terry, please contact me. There is a class action lawsuit in the making, by the same law firm that filed suit in December against Instagram for that drastic change they made to their Terms of Service. I spoke with the attorney today and I will be doing a blog post about it soon.

  36. Terry many people say Google is hotlinking as while their traffic has dropped to almost zero, their bandwidth being used is the same or in some cases gone up.

    Those who have put a block to people right clicking their images on their website have found that people can download directly from Google’s images regardless….so they have clearly overridden the individuals ability to prevent photos being stolen and used.

    The statement that the image MAY be subject to copyright is ridiculous and plain wrong. All images are copyrighted whether you have a watermark or not. Just wait. Next it will be our content!

    Obviously people use images to get people to their websites to buy and some have spent a lot of time creating images for this purpose.

    I hope there is a lawsuit.Google is out of control.A bizarre rationality because many people won’t even bother creating a website if they can no longer earn an income.

  37. Many of you are missing a very good point here!
    For those of you who have no problem with Google’s HOT-LINKING from your websites, and believe that Google is Not Stealing, look again. Google is STILL STEALING &VALUABLE “BANDWIDTH!”
    You all are paying for a certain amount of bandwidth, usually in Hundreds to thousands of Gigabytes per, say month. When you go over that, you must pay for the extra used. Most do not go over, however, that bandwidth has a $cost. Do the math! Add up Everyone’s bandwidth, if it were possible, and the Tally would be enormous! Thievery is Thievery regardless of how, what or by whom. Google is the biggest International Criminal Thief that I am aware of, and yet Government seems to allow them to break Federal Laws. Perhaps, instead of processing Civil suits for Copyright infringement, CRIMINAL CHARGES, FEDERAL CRIMINAL CHARGES For Grand Theft of Intellectual Property! Google Is NOT a Non-Profit institution. They are in the business of Commercial Profit. My wisdom is they are NOT entitled to the Academic License of copy, share etc. What they are doing is Stealing, period! Stealing, in any form, by any means Is A CRIMINAL OFFENSE, under any Law, Local, State, Federal and International!
    If, and I know it well here regarding our own websites, Google (did I say “IF?) is such a problem and causing such a diminishing number of important visitors to our web domains, then DO ANY OF US REALLY NEED GOOGLE? Perhaps not!
    Here, I think what we are going to do….is shut Google Down, at least within our domains. We can, and I think we will BAN any and all Google IP’s, etc., from entry. If Google is LOCKED OUT, then Google CANNOT STEAL!
    When we do this, of course, we will monitor our visitor stats. I firmly anticipate that we will show an increase in traffic, once again.
    Who Needs Google? I believe that NONE OF US DO. The more that follow this wisdom? The more sites that Google is Locked out of. Someone else will start picking up the slack and take searchers away from Google. If they are smart, they will not repeat Google’s evil Stealing, etc. not if they want to divert Google’s traffic to themselves or their search engine. That’s about the way it works. Called Competition. If another search engine avoids stealing and other underhanded practices, they will start getting all the traffic. NOBODY likes a THIEF. And, I surmise that NO ONE will DO BUSINESS With a THIEF!
    Be well and God Bless,
    ~ Minister ThunderWolfe
    Native American Embassy Security Council.

  38. You may want to take advantage of these new libraries if you are in the Stock business.
    If you are smart, put small transparent watermarks with “license this image” on your photos. This may bring you more business, since more people are now viewing your images in these new search catalogs. People need to take advantage of these new image library hits and possible clients while protecting their images.
    Make sure you name your images for maximum hits in multiple categories.

  39. Same problem on all my sites as well. I just added the Google Image block to the robots.txt on all my sites so no more stealing from Google for me (I frikking hate Google and everything they stand for anyway). And yes, you are correct, they are stealing people’s content simply to keep their nasty search in business. I recommend every website owner block the Google image bot.

  40. I think this is totally unacceptable, and huge abuse of power by Google. For the good of everyone, Google needs to be forced to spin off it’s search engine into a separate entity. Google is now stealing the peoples images and displaying them at full resolution is their search results. How is that not theft? It’s astounding the level is greed and disrespect for people who work hard to create content and intellectual property.

    I wrote a guide on how to stop Google image search from stealing your images. I hope some may find it useful, but it’s a shame that it is necessary.

  41. It has now been 1 year since Greedle started stealing my image site traffic and money. I am struggling. I spend a fortune on traveling and taking photos, they do not help me pay for this. I have had enough of this company called Google. I deleted my G+ account and will not support Greedle in any way shape or form until they fix this injustice. Google I hate you.

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