How to Fight Google Impositions Like Not Provided, Image Hotlinking and Nofollow for Link Building


Sometimes Google seems to be keen on making the life of website owners and content creators miserable.

  1. No keyword data anymore?
  2. Content theft via Google Image “search”?
  3. Add nofollow to everything?

Luckily there are ways to tackle these issues. Some of them are a bit underreported though. Let me explain how you can deal with some of the worst Google impositions webmasters, content creators and publishers face lately.


No keyword data aka not provided due to SSL encryption

This issue is perhaps the most publicized one. Many of the self-proclaimed prophets of the death of SEO use this as their current main reason. I’d like to argue that SEO experts will be probably the only ones being able to overcome this obstacle while the large majority of websites will suffer from this black out due to lack of expertise.

Most SEO practitioners have been proposing three ways to tackle not provided

All of these solutions are valid to some extent but they are only reactive and can’t replace the data lost completely.

Personally I’d need a solution that offers me more than I lost so that I have not only a substitute but better data to analyze and deduct actionable steps from. In a way I prefer a combined approach of all three of the above that results in more than just the sum of its parts.

Essentially Google has wrecked its own products with the not provided apocalypse. Why still use Google Analytics and rely on organic search traffic from Google when you don’t know enough about it anymore?

Most people still cling to Google and Google Analytics but luckily there are alternatives.

Use more than Google Analytics. Other analytics tools allow you to track real people instead of just “traffic”. Also focusing on people in your Internet strategy as a whole will end the dependence on Google data and gatekeeper traffic.

Modern analytics tools like Woopra and Mixpanel allow you to track actions and costumers not just traffic. Both offer free plans for small sites.

Don’t obsess about search traffic. While you spend days to implement new complex workarounds to make some sense of your search traffic you overlook opportunities elsewhere.

Unfettered traffic from other sources can be tracked easily.

You can even see who is responsible for a given traffic spike in some cases (Twitter e.g.)!

  • Direct
  • social media
  • other referral traffic

or rather visitors can be of much higher value than hit and run search traffic.

Focus on people not keywords or pages. Of course Google wants you to buy ads instead of doing SEO but in the long run optimization for people is the solution to not-provided.

In case you’re a small business you can really follow the people who are your most valuable players on the Web.

Larger businesses can at least create personas they want to attract. SMBs can simply take a closer look at the actual visitors they have using the tools I mentioned above.


Content theft via Google Image “search” aka hotlinking

This year Google redesigned Google Image Search. Now it’s not search anymore but rather hosting of stolen images from the Web. Google takes your images and displays them on their site outside of the original context: there are links back to the source site but they get easily overlooked and there is often no need to go there.

People will just get your image directly from Google without visiting your site.

Many people even treat Google as the source, just search Pinterest for as a source. You not only lose the images, the page views including ad clicks but also the link equity. People will to Google and share your images on Google instead of your won site!

For image heavy sites traffic dropped dramatically after the Google Image search redesign, sometimes 70 to 90%. No wonder content creators like photographers, artists or journalists are angry and desperate for solutions. What solutions are there?

Use technical ant-hotlinking protection

So called hotlinking is a no-no on the Web for at least a decade. Why? Taking your image out of context and displaying it on a third party site often means that you have to pay the bandwidth of people seeing your images. That has been a major problem back when bandwidth was still scarce.

Hotlinking is also considered theft by many webmasters, it’s displaying your images without permission.

Now Google does that on a global scale. They don’t ask content creators whether they want their images to be copied to Google and displayed there. There are a lot of scripts that promise hotlinking protection.

Most of the anti-hotlinking hacks are based on image replacement. Via the so called .htaccess file the image “notices” that it’d displayed on the wrong domain and then gets replaced or overlayed with another image either saying “don’t steal images” or “click here to view the original”.

There are even WordPress plugins that help you with hotlinked images by Google and other content thieves.

Of course Google gets even more brazen here. Recently Google started penalizing sites in their search results manually when there is a so called “image mismatch”. So this solution can hurt you. You may consider blocking Google from indexing your images altogether instead.

Take concerted legal action

Do you remember when everybody got sued by the music industry for sharing music? Even children and their grand parents faced huge fines etc. Google can take away your copyright images and not only yours but everybody else’s. Strangely enough this is considered fair use by them even though they make billions of dollars on those images.

The American Society of Media Photographers and the Authors GuildĀ have fought Google’s “fair use” to monetize their works by scanning them and offering them online for years successfully.

Now the fight goes on yet another battlefield. This time artists and photographers got robbed of their online work. Class action lawsuits are on the way as well. You can take part and fight for your rights as a content creator who wants to control the distribution of their work and being able to earn money with it.

Some people prefer to give away their work to Google so they can earn a few billions more but everybody else should act in their best self-interest. After all the general public will get hurt too when nobody besides Google can earn money by creating content anymore.

Block or redirect content theft traffic

You can still block Google image search by using the robots.txt file for example. You have to add this line of code to it:

User-agent: Googlebot-Image
Disallow: /

Give away images as a strategy

You can also embrace the Creative Commons movement of sharing your content for free with everybody (not just Google and their users). This way you at least get the credit and can earn money indirectly by getting work as a photographer or digital artist. The best license is the non-commercial attribution one which btw. should theoretically ban Google from using it and making money off your work. You can get links back to your site whenever an image gets shared correctly.

Use reverse image search to locate your images

When everybody uses your images without visiting your site and many people credit Google as the “source” you have to track down these people and make them either link back to you (Creative Commons) pay for your work or remove your images.

Simply install an add on like RevEye for that and right click your images from time to time to search for illegitimate copies.

That’s of course tedious and won’t help in many cases but it’s at least something hands on you can do. Reverse image search is offered by Google (dubbed “search by image“) too but TinEye was the first to offer it.


nofollow everything alias cripple the incoming links you build

By now Google requires webmasters to add the crippling nofollow attribute to any links they are involved in. That is every “manual” or encouraging link building technique needs to be castrated. Guest articles, widget and infographic links are now equal to text link adverts, comment and press release links: Google wants you to add nofollow to all links you actively build.

Use optional nofollow by asking people who want to include your content on their site: “do you want to hide this link from search engines?”. Most people will of course understand the idiocy of hiding some links from search engines. The link is then voluntary. BTW: Google itself doesn’t even do that. They force you to link back to them without the choice to remove or add nofollow to a link in their Google+ widgets.

Use Creative Commons licenses for infographics. Copyright doesn’t really work on the Web. You can’t track down every single copyright breach unless you want to do it full time. An alternative is a Creative Commons license like mentioned above.

CC allows use of your images but within the limits you set.

My favorite license requires linking back to the image source. Google simply can’t declare this to be an unnatural link. It would defy logic to consider a proper image credit to be a manipulated link. See also above in the Google image theft section.

Use tools like Tynt or Markerly widgets to simplify the process of linking back on copy and paste. Personally I dislike Tynt because it adds something to your copied text you don’t expect or want. Markerly on the other hand offers you the option to share something you roll over or select with your mouse without pushing you.

Piggyback Google’s own link building. Buy links where Google buys links too. I mean of course sponsor events! In 2011 I reported how the biggest German blogging conference was sponsored by Google, Sony etc. without adding nofollow to their sponsored links.

I have asked Matt Cutts, Danny Sullivan etc. what they think about that but they flatly ignored me. The conference organizers argued that they didn’t get paid for the links but for the whole thing (branding etc.)

Paid links are OK for events, especially in case Google sponsors them too.

Indeed I have found several recent examples of this practice by searching on for “sponsored by Google”. Just look at the Strata 2013 conference by O’Reilly. It’s sponsored by Google and also links out to plenty of other big brands and smaller ones too without using nofollow.

Promote your Google+ widgets! They are using hidden links without nofollow back to your Google+ profile. You can’t see them or remove them from the code you insert to get the widget. You may argue that linking to your own Google Profile using your name as an anchor text is welcome but do you really want Google to outrank your site for your own name or brand? So make sure you promote the widgets that rank for other, less important names.


* Creative Commons image by Evil Erin.


2 responses to “How to Fight Google Impositions Like Not Provided, Image Hotlinking and Nofollow for Link Building

  1. Great post and you put the right information at the right time and the right place. Your provided tips and tricks are great to better manage and optimize the images and also for securing it from being theft by others and you get the proper advantage of your hard work rather than sucked your juice by other parties.

  2. Hi,

    You linked to one of my posts about a class action lawsuit against Google, unfortunately the firm that had contacted me decided not to pursue a class action lawsuit against Google for the changes thy made to their image search last January. I really wish that a lawsuit would have happened. 2013 was my worst year ever for image infringement.

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