Google to Hotels: We Pick Your Profile Photo

Yesterday (first reported on Twitter by Craig Harkins, an SEO manager at InterContinental Hotels Group) Google switched virtually every hotel profile photo in their Hotel Local Pack results from an exterior to an interior shot.

While Google ostensibly offers businesses the ability to set this profile photo for their own business, that appearance of “freedom” to a large extent is a sham. Business wishes be damned, Google is going to make the choice that optimizes their monetization of local.

After the change, Google almost exclusively shows interior photos.
After the change, Google almost exclusively shows interior photos.
Prior to the change, Google almost always showed exterior photos. This search was from early March this year.
A businesses’  photo that Google shows as their profile photos has always been a business’s most important photo, creating that critical first impression to the searcher. There is no photo seen in more places on Google, in more apps, more screens and on more devices than that photo… from Google Maps to Plus and most importantly search. And a business probably has no image of them seen more widely than this one anywhere.

Google has always offered up the ability to add your own photos and with the Google MyBusiness upgrade in early 2015 appeared to allow business to choose the profile photo. From the Google post at the time: Starting today, you can tell us which image you’d like to appear when customers search for your business on Google. Their recent API upgrade also  touted this as a new feature.

The reality has always been quite different. The image Google showed was actually determined by their algo and by their preference. If your choice was consistent with that preference your choice might have been left to stand. But if you were so presumptuous as to choose an image that was contrary to their preferences say a logo, odds were Google would change the image.

Thus choosing an image that best represented your business was a crap shoot and as a business owner you would never know exactly what would show.

When I inquired about this practice of ignoring business preferences a few years ago I was told that the images were selected to improve the Map experience. IE an exterior photo that would help a person know what they were looking for when traveling was preferable to an image like a logo that offered no real world benefit. That at least was an understandable if arrogant decision.

I know I have said this before but this change, clearly for commercial reasons, should put everyone on notice that their listing at Google is for Google’s well being and any benefits that you may accrue are rented not owned. And unlike a normal business relationship you never know when the lease will expire.

The only option open to the Hotel owner and any business for that matter is to make every photo at Google count and don’t count on that carefully chosen profile photo showing. And pray.


Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
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16 thoughts on “Google to Hotels: We Pick Your Profile Photo”

  1. Hi Mike
    I don’t see what the problem is.
    Google’s customer is the searcher, not the hotel.
    If Google determines (through its algorithm) that searchers are more interested in seeing interior shots rather than exterior shots, Google not only has the right, but the responsibility to show interior shots.
    It’s unfortunate that Google would say otherwise in some earlier correspondence.
    That is a problem, but I have no problem with the practice itself – for organic search.
    The hotel is always free to remove their interior shots, but then I guess Google would be free to not show the hotel’s listings at all.

    1. The problems are several fold:
      -Google stated and states that the business can choose their profile photo so given that the guideline has not changed there is the presumption on the part of business that it is the guideline.
      -They give more than the impression that the current set up for adding photos supports and allows for that. It is not just a previous correspondence.
      -I don’t have a problem with Google having preferences and understanding what works but if that is the case then that should be made clear in both the guidelines and implicit in the interface.
      – Google in their infinite AI Wisdom can pick the wrong photo. Would it not be better to allow businesses their human input?
      -And finally if Google is going to change their preference based on their learning then they should communicate that explicitly and not have businesses learn it accidentally.
      -Finally if Google wants these folks as loyal customers then their communications should be consistent and respectful. I find none of that in these behaviors.

      I have no problem with rules and guidelines but I strongly believe that they should be explicit. And I think that the business should be able to plan around that and then submit their preferred photo that complies with the guidelines.

  2. Interesting development, Mike. I’m not quite following why one shot vs. the other would be more profitable for Google. Can you expand on that?

  3. Very interesting development. While you call it google’s AI, I “assume” that google’s analysis over a long period of time and millions of views finds that bookings occur more often with room shots than with exterior shots.

    It must be AI, because Google can’t know squat about the hotel industry, but they have access to data that nobody else has.

    Google really has NEVER cared what businesses think. Really never. You would need lots of loud voices all the time, complaining and going public, and getting user buy in to get google to change on that.

    But users mostly don’t care….so Google continues to operate in this fashion.

    My “read” is that google’s AI, or long term analyses have discovered that bookings…in their booking machine (which pays google $$$$$$$$$$. Have found that hotel 3 packs with interior pictures convert into bookings more frequently than other kinds of pictures.

    OKAY. If google is going to make that change….its one they should go transparent on. I’m in sync with you there.

    They use smb’s like tools. In fact Google’s treatment of smb websites and data makes me think of Donald Trumps treatment of voter’s intelligence. …or in his case he doesn’t believe in it and will tell anyone anything.


    I wonder if the high volume hotel chains have any of this data on bookings relative to pictures or anything like it. I also wonder if a resort hotel has the same or different characteristics for booking as a roadside hotel has….as it reflects pictures.

    I think that Bob McCarthy’s first point is a good one. An smb is not google’s customer. If the smb or hotel buys advertising on google then it is a customer.

    Our smb’s have had listings for years and we’ve bought adwords for years. Whenever I’ve complained about problems in the GMB listing and poor customer service and tell them I’ve been an adwords customer and have spent aggregate $100’s of thousands of dollars…..Google tells me it doesn’t matter for the GMB listing.

    No other business would respond that way….but that is google’s way. An smb and a business listing are NOT google’s customers. Its ALWAYS been that way.

    In fact an smb’s information….as a business you are really google’s tool. Give google your info…they will repackage it any way they wish. The law protects these actions by google.

  4. Hey Dave,
    That’s pretty much what I figured Mike meant regarding room shots vs. exterior shots = different booking statistics. Interesting if true. Glad to have your take on this. And, could be a good reason for companies in the hospitality industry to make sure their interior shots on their websites (which they CAN control) are of the highest quality.

  5. I suspect that exterior shots of hotels (at least most of them in the greater Cincinnati region), unlike bed and breakfasts (particularly mine which is in a very attractive, green, rural setting) show high traffic, utility wires and buildings jam packed together — totally unappealing. But, Google makes more money off the big guys, so pandering to them and ignoring those of us who have unique, small properties isn’t as profitable….
    Very disgusted that Google posts a video from 2006 on googlemaps, that — rather than showing our house and yard — shows our 150 year-old barn before it was reroofed, resided and painted. The map also pinpoints our address as the pond in our horse pasture, rather than the house….

  6. @Jen
    You can move the marker for your business from within the Google My Business Dashboard and position it correctly

    I would agree that many front shots are not appealing… and the change is for the most part ok… I just wish they would be explicit about the rules and transparent about how to influence the photo. And if the business, like yours, thinks exterior is better then allow that to happen.

    My sense of Google is that they are more of slave to the data from their algo than to any business from the big guys… they figure if the data shows customers are more likely to act then they will make the change.

    Not sure what video you are referrring to.

  7. @Jen: If only I knew which photos converted best. If my site(s) had a huge number of visitors and I could isolate which photos generated a higher number of sales….that would be invaluable data. I don’t have that information.

    I assume Google does. Does anyone else? Do the large hotel chains have that data? I’m out there asking.

    Following Mike’s post I looked at photos in the long list of hotels for Ocean City, MD. Almost all were of rooms, with only a tiny few that weren’t. OC, MD is a long thin strip on the beach with many hotels and rooms. I’d imagine that the vast vast majority of rooms have ocean views. Surprisingly there are many photos connected to the hotels there that don’t show ocean views. Anecdotedly, over the years, during summers when I did stay at a hotel in OC, MD, I always wanted an ocean view. Always. Would never rent one without it. Did google’s AI catch that? Doesn’t look like it to me.

    As to B&B’s. I’ve stayed at them a fair bit. Scrutinized photos. We’d look at the settings. We’d look at the rooms. Which photos pushed us to book a room at that B&B in that region, the settings or the accommodations? Or both? I honestly can’t tell you. But if I had data on 1 million plus photo views and which preceded bookings, or which combo’s of views preceded bookings…that data would indeed be helpful.

    I imagine google has this sort of data. They aren’t sharing it with anyone. They didn’t announce the change beforehand. They haven’t yet described why they made the change…and they probably won’t.

    Google knows more about our businesses in certain regards than we do. Its scary.

  8. I’m not sure Google knows which photos are most likely to convert, relying on that seems scary. Praying, on the other hand, especially praying to Google, which I’ve done, unfortunately, on occasion, doesn’t work either, but at least it gives you a mantra to soothe yourself. “Please let the site go up.” Lol. Perhaps making sure all photos you upload are damn good might be better.

  9. Earlier today on one of our sites our chosen cover photo was replaced. It didn’t come from us. Now the original and chosen photo is back.

    Anyone else experiencing this?

  10. Hi Mike,
    I think this reflects the overall tendency of the travel business today. Most users are looking for travel deals and are using travel site like Expedia. Hotels of course want to display their branding and marketing efforts, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the consumer and serving their preferences.

  11. @Marco

    I agree that its all about the consumer but what I want is for Google to communicate that the hotels so that they can engage the process constructively.

  12. Absolutely, they should at least put up a blog where companies can go see what will be happening and maybe provide feedback. They can’t just play Google god and do as they wish without letting people know. 🙂

  13. Per this thread at The Local Search Community at Google + so far at least two of us have seen where profile photos are being “rotated” or changed.

    I checked in with GMB customer service. The rep used the word “algo” to suggest how photo’s get chosen. She advised me that by going to the GMB profile, and going to the photo’s page then clicking on the 3 dots in the upper right of the page, you get to identify which photo you want. I’d already identified the profile photo. I undid and did it again. She advised me that would have impact…..but if it changed to get back to them.

    Mike: It appears it’s not just hotels….none of us have real control of those photos. How much will google adjust??? We don’t know. I’ve seen 2 additional photos in the KB since the above article. Meanwhile Daryl Quinlan has removed some photos from his Pack b/c he definitely doesn’t want them used in the KB.

    … if I add “crappy photos” to a competitors site….will the algo perchance show it at times????? whadda ya think???? 😀 (spammers want to know!!!!) 😀

  14. Sounds like a pain in the arse. I can understand that Google might want to show a certain image, but it should be up to the hotel what image gets shown as like we all know.. Google doesn’t always get its shit right.

  15. We Loves About Google Photo Suggest on Hotel or any other business and I think google Picking the best performing images to show up as Profile Photo. However setting up profile photo by own is the best option.

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