The image URL Google ranking factor is a real concern, particularly when it comes to implementing redirects for a site, the search engine confirms…
Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, recently stated that changing image URLs can impact their ranking in image search. He was responding to a question during a recent Google Webmaster Central hangout.
The crux of his statement confirmed that if Google notices changes to the URLs of embedded images it will have to re-crawl the images and then reprocess and index them to prepare them for image search. The images will effectively be regarded as new images, and have to climb up the rankings once more.
However, it was also confirmed that redirects can provide a solution to this problem by letting Google know that the old images are related to the new images. In such cases Google will then be able to forward any ranking signals from the old images to the new images, and their ranking should be relatively unaffected.
Google Confirms Changing Image URLs Impacts SEO Rankings
The statement officially confirms what tests and experiments by SEO experts have indicated in the past — large-scale changes to the structure and design of a website can affect how it ranks. The fact that it is the case for image search, suggests that it might also be true for other similar changes to the website URL structure.
In the full video of the Google Webmaster Central hangout, Mueller also noted that it can take Google some time to reprocess significant changes to the image URL structure on websites. He explained that image search was a bit different from web search in that regard, and that because images don’t change as much they aren’t crawled as frequently.
For websites that receive significant amounts of traffic from image search it will be important to use redirects if the image URL structure is ever changed. However, the use of redirects itself could eventually cause other issues.
Redirects: An Imperfect Solution
The redirects mentioned in Mueller’s answer presumably refer to 301 redirects that indicate a permanent change (as compared to 302 redirects that indicate a temporary one).
In the past, SEO experts generally avoided using redirects at all due to the fact that it seemed to affect the rankings. Although, in mid-2016 Google stated that ‘30x redirects’ no longer affected the PageRank – and coincidentally Mueller confirmed the same not long afterwards.
Page Load-Speed Remains a Strong Factor
Unfortunately, 301 redirects may be an imperfect solution in this case due to its impact on Page Speed. Redirects can significantly increase the page load time, and the more redirects there are on a webpage the slower it will be.
That issue can be compounded if multiple redirects occur one after another in pages where the image URLs have been updated several times. The redirects would have to be mapped and as many as possible need to be eliminated or the effect on the page speed could be significant enough to make it difficult to rank.
The emphasis that Google currently places on page speed is well-known, and the search engine has confirmed many times that it expects webpages to load quickly and provide a better user experience. Any redirects that are used should take that into account, or risk fixing one problem only to cause an even bigger problem instead.
Page Redirects and Image URLs
It should be noted that the same can apply if images are ‘fixed’ in an image editor and renamed in the process. For example if Movavi Photo Editor is used to edit images that have already been published, the same filename (and URL) should be used when it is re-uploaded or it will need a redirect.
Now that Google has confirmed the impact that widespread changes to the image URL structure can have, it would be best to carefully consider whether such changes are truly necessary when updating a website.