For some time now, Google has had a “Search By Image” feature, which shows that the search giant has been able to look at the content of an image and compare it to others online. Combine this with Google’s famously strong stance on duplicate content and many have wondered if Google might be using that image detection tool to look for duplication among images and respond accordingly.
Well, Google through their head of search spam, Matt Cutts, responded to those questions. In a short video, he explained emphatically that using stock photos (or even duplicating photos repeatedly on the same site) does not impact your search engine ranking, negatively or positively.
While this question was put in the context of stock photos, the implications for photographers and artists clearly go beyond that. For example, if an infringer copies and posts a copy of a photo on their site, it doesn’t hurt the ranking of the original photographer and their site.
This is in stark contrast to text works, were Google very heavily seeks out original content and, unfortunately, sometimes mistakes infringers and plagiarists for original sites, demoting the actual authors of the work.
However, this doesn’t mean that the issue is settled either. Cutts mentioned in the video that it was “A great suggestion for the future”, hinting that this might be something Google could weigh in the future.
Right now though, it seems that visual artists are safe from the hazards that writers face to their search engine ranking when they are infringed.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the conversation ends there.
The Flip Side of the Coin
So while the good news is that legitimate sites won’t be penalized when their images are infringed, the flip side is that infringing sites won’t either. All of the sites that lift photos have the exact same chance for ranking well, including in Google Image Search, that your site does.
Though, for writers, Google sometimes gets it wrong and unfairly penalizes original sites, it gets it right most of the time and keeps the plagiarists out of the search results.
According to Cutts, there is no such protection visual artists.
In short, while having your work infringed won’t hurt you, if Cutt’s statement is accurate, the similarity doesn’t impact the other sites either.
The other problem is that, for visual artists, SEO has not been as significant of a concern. The reason is that most artists have focused on licensing and sale of their work as a business model, rather than pure audience.
So while infringing sites may not have a drastic impact on their SEO of an artist’s site, it can have an impact on their ability to license their work and, with the lack of a duplicate content penalty, it may be easier for them to rank competitively.
The one caveat to all of this is that Cutts never expressly said whether or not the rules apply to Google Image Search. However, this seems likely both because Google Image Search usually follows the same rules and also because duplicative images routinely come up in image searches, especially for targeted queries.
Still, it’s worth nothing that it is unclear if that is the case.
Visual artists are already very wary of Google for various reasons and this news probably won’t help that relationship, though it likely wont’ hurt it much either.
The truth is that Google, for the time being, not weighing the originality of images in its rankings is both a blessing and a curse. While it means that infringers won’t be punished by Google for reposting the works of others, it also means that the original artists don’t run the risk of being unfairly penalized just for being infringed.
However, with images playing a more and more important role on the Web, it may only be a atter of time before Google makes good on Cutt’s idea and start looking into it.
In the end, Google has proven that it can detect duplicate images and, as it does with text, start factoring it into its results. It chooses not to at this time for whatever reason.
That decision, which can change at any time, has a serious impact on both infringers and creators alike.