Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Redirects to new versions of images -> Images drop out of Google Images

When we redesigned an image-heavy site for one of our large clients a couple of months ago the sizes of the images changed, and as a result the file names of the images changed since we had embedded the file size into the name of the image.

Example of an old file - 7001-0550x0350.jpg:

Old image from netterimages.com

Example of a new file - 7001-0550x0475.jpg:

New image from netterimages.com

As you can see the watermarks and taglines were changed and if you look at the border around the images you can see that the new image is padded with white space left and right.

Being the fussy SEO-aware nerds we are, we put in 301 (permanent) redirects from the old image URLs to the new image URLs thinking redirects of image URLs would work much the same way as redirects of HTML pages with just a small, temporary 'hiccup' as the search engines realized that A1 = A2.

Well, our strategy worked with Yahoo! and MSN/Live - both still have a good number of the images indexed. However, Google is another story completely... We're down to just over 5,000 images in Google Images, which is less than half of what it should be. The images they do have indexed are usually the old versions (which you can tell from the file names they show).

The bottom line effect is that we've seen a dramatic decrease in the number of visitors to the site because Google Images was responsible for a huge portion of the site's traffic. But the site is there to sell images and the people who purchase images almost never come from Google Images. Google Images traffic is primarily students doing homework assignments and 'excitable men' typing in 'anatomical phrases' (if you get my drift). So the net result doesn't hurt sales - just long-range branding (as those students turn into med students and doctors).

Given that the images needed to be resized to work with the new design, I'm not sure the problems with Google could have been avoided. Essentially, Google just doesn't trust 301 redirects on images. With textual documents they can evaluate the two pages to see if they're similar, but with images they just can't be sure.

That said, the take away lesson is to be very careful with your images indexed by Google Images. I don't know whether it was the name change, or the size change, but a 301 redirect will not be good enough to keep your images in Google's index.

In the long run, it will all come back. The site is very well trusted and I'd guess in 6 months we'll be back to where we were (or better).

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