Google Image Search traffic is ruining my SEO reports

In case you missed it, a few weeks ago Google seems to have made a quiet change to how Google Analytics records visits coming from Image Search results.

Whereas previously Image Search showed up in your Google Analytics as a referral visit – and thus allowed you to easily filter it from your reports – now it seems Image Search visits are part of the organic search traffic in your Google Analytics reports.

See for example these two graphs for one of our client sites:

Google Image Search traffic
Google Image Search traffic
Google organic search traffic
Google organic search traffic

As you can see the drop in referral traffic from Image Search coincides with a rise in Google organic search traffic.

Shouldn’t Google Image Search traffic be part of organic?

Now you may think that Image Search should be part of the organic search traffic measured in Google Analytics. But you’d be wrong. Because Image Search traffic doesn’t behave like regular search traffic. At all.

Image Search traffic has an incredibly high bounce rate. Users search for an image, look at it and perhaps save it to their harddrive, and then click the back button or close the window. Either way it is extremely rare for Image Search traffic to look beyond the page where the image is embedded. In fact most of the time, thanks to how Image Search works, users don’t even properly see the page where the image resides.

This makes Image Search traffic all but useless for the vast majority of websites. So the fact that it wasn’t part of your organic traffic reports in Google Analytics, and the ability to easily filter it from your reports, were very handy and much-used.

But now that Image Search traffic is part of the organic search report in Google Analytics, things have changed drastically. It totally pollutes organic search metrics, skewing the bounce rate, throwing keywords in there that have no real value for your website, and generally messing up your SEO reports.

And the real problem is that you can’t filter these image searches from your reports. Not without some serious Google Analytics wizardry. In fact, if anyone knows how to filter image searches from your organic search reports, please do let us know.

I have no idea why Google has chosen to pollute organic search traffic reports with this useless Image Search traffic, but one thing is sure: it’s having a severe negative impact on our ability to report accurately on our SEO efforts.

Now for every keyword Google Analytics reports organic search traffic for, I find myself wondering if this is actually useful traffic that ends up on a landing page and that we can potentially monetise, or if it’s utterly useless Image Search traffic that is nearly impossible to extract value from.

About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.

26 thoughts on “Google Image Search traffic is ruining my SEO reports

    1. Yes that was what I was thinking as well. If so, this is horrendously bad timing – or a deliberate and cynical move from Google to make GA less useful for SEO reporting, thus making their SEO reports easier to sell. (Yes, I think Google will start charging for these specialised reports.)

  1. I have been scratching my head over this very same issue – how to extract and identify the image traffic from “ordinary” search traffic. My principal adwords site enjoys around 1,500 hits a day and half is through images. For me, image traffic is very valuable because customers are searching for images first in most instances as they try to get an idea for what they want to wear (buying a wedding dress online is not unheard of but rare). The big issue for me is not how to identify and filter it out but how to get more, but I am finding image ranking to be an ephemeral process.

    Glad I’m not the only one going bald over this though 😉

      1. Thanks Barry – I’m optimizing images pretty much along the lines outlined and I’m enjoying the results, however they are just so “ephemeral” – much more than textual organic – yet for many of my clients (and myself) image search is so important. Thanks again for raising this subject matey – much appreciated.

  2. That graph and comparison figures dont make sense.

    Your image referrals were are around 90 per day at the most.
    Yet, when this apparent changed happened, your figures jump to 600 a day, from a previous 300. How do you account for the extra 200?

    This throws doubt onto your theory.

    1. There are probably other factors at work in those graphs as well, such as that particular client’s ramped-up blogging efforts. But there is more than just my data here:

      The facts (not theory) are not in doubt, Google is throwing image search traffic together with organic traffic.

  3. If it is of any use to anyone – in relation to AdSense earnings – I have found in the past (although it’s a while since I checked an by the looks of things I’ll not be bothering:-) that non Image Search traffic is worth 3.4 times more than Image search traffic (at least if you use a javascript frame buster so people actually get to see the ads on your page)..

    So yes, Image search traffic is definitely worth less, but I don’t agree that it is totally useless, especially if you can get a lot of it…

  4. Of course image search is part of SEO – it is SEO. You can optimize the images and our studies show that 40% do search for pictures. I even believe that optimizing your images make you rank better for the KW SEO.
    I’m sure that bounce rate are higher – the user search for a picture and find it. Why should I be here? Call it branding – just like a magazine.
    Pictures can of course convert, just make sure to have the right images for the right wording – let’s call this optimization 😉
    Anyway nonpaid images are free traffic so the only issue I could find should be the tracking part.

  5. Really interesting article, you’re right that a Google Images search does not perform the same function as organic search, and should therefore not be regarded in the same way at all. I still agree with some of the other comments that it is worth optimising the titles of images though.

  6. Good article – thank you. My question – From other SEO sites I have looked at they all say they high bounce rate lowers page rank. ( not sure if that is true) We have an image on our site called tube map ( we are in London all you subway people) and it creates lots of visits and gives our contact us page a high bounce rate 69% . I am wondering if I should rename it to something less popular?

    1. Hi Chris,

      That bounce rate urban myth is exactly that – an urban myth. Google doesn’t look at a page’s bounce rate as a ranking signal.

      This myth likely originates from a misunderstanding of what Google does do, which is analysing click behaviour. If a SERP gets clicked on, then the user comes back to Google and clicks on another SERP, this is an indication that the page first clicked on does not contain what the user is looking for. And if that happens often enough, that may mean Google decides to rank that page lower in its results for the same query at some stage.

      As long as you make sure that your website delivers what users are finding it on, you won’t need to worry about bounce rates on individual pages – not for search engine rankings anyway. From a usability and monetisation point of view, high bounce rates are of course very much worth investigating.

  7. Sure enough, if you set “Google Property” up as a second dimension in the SEO > Queries report you can filter image searches out.

  8. So what is the (easiest) solution to segmenting your search and image search traffic with Google Analytics?

    Can anyone actually answer this?

    Do I *have* to modify the Analytics code on my web site?

      1.  I *think* I implemented it correctly according to that article. I am getting some “Google Images / Organic” traffic showing, but it is definitely being *massively* under-reported. For last 30 days I got 25,000 “(direct) / (none)” visits and only 85 from Google Images (It should be the other way round – God how I would love 25,000 people a month to be going directly to my photo web site)…

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