Do the usual SEO best practices that apply to standard searches equally apply to images? We take a look at what to do to help your images rank better in search engine results.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is often seen as a battle against a somewhat-unknowable opponent.
While sticking to a number of longstanding rules has always seemed sensible, between algorithm changes, unknown ranking signals and a collection of small, constant shifts in how results are displayed, it’s clear that getting your content to the top of search results isn’t simply a straightforward case of making sure all the right boxes get ticked.
And when it comes to images, a whole range of other factors apply.
So what can you do to help get your images seen in search engine results? Here are eight key things worth thinking about to help get your images ranking high.
1. Don’t overlook names and alt text
Computer vision and other AI-based tools may be able to analyse an image and recognize the kind of scene and subject featured, but don’t think that this means you can skip the basics when it comes to naming and tagging.
The more information search engines have about your images the better – so if you can make their job easier, you stand a better chance of ranking.
Giving your image a file name that’s relevant to the subject in the image, as well as correct use of alt text to help describe it, will give you an advantage over an image whose subject is more difficult to discern.
It’s also worth remembering that your page title and meta tags are an important part in communicating what a viewer is likely to find when they click on an image. It’s worth optimizing these and checking to see whether search engines are displaying what you expect here, and amending it if not.
2. Craft your page with the user in mind – and this includes images
As people began to understand search engine ranking factors, they started to employ a number of tricks to help get their site noticed.
This included keyword stuffing, buying links, duplicating content from elsewhere, and presenting Google with one page and the user with another.
These and others fall under the term ‘black hat SEO’, and as search engines started to change their algorithms to catch these practices out, they also began to penalize sites that continued to use them.
Given that search engines aim to present users with the best results for their particular query, it’s no surprise that the advice of creating web pages with the user, and not the search engine, in mind has remained throughout years’ worth of ranking-factor changes and algorithm tweaks.
At a basic level, this means creating original, valuable and informative content that answers a particular query. Presenting this in a logical way, and within a logical site structure, is a plus. Responsive design has also gained importance as mobile use has increased over the years.
Images are, of course, also part of the user experience, so they should be factored into the above. Google advises that images should be placed near relevant text where they add value, with the most important image towards the top of the page and original images used where possible.
3. Optimize images for speedy loading
The images that modern cameras and smartphones produce as standard tend to have far more information than is required for online use.
This matters because large files can slow down page-load times, which in turn can affect ranking.
For this reason, you should pay attention to the dimensions of the image itself and whether applying any compression would be appropriate too.
Very small images are unlikely to rank as highly as others, so consider uploading images at a more moderate resolution and protecting them in some way.
Not sure how? Read our complete guide to keeping your photos safe online.
If you are using SmartFrame, you can upload images in the resolution of your choice to the Admin Panel and set the size of the thumbnails that appear in search results. You can even apply watermarks through the Admin Panel, if you like.
If you’re using JPEGs, these will already be compressed to some degree. PNG files are weightier than JPEGs, so try to stick to using them for graphics as this will maintain transparencies and help to avoid compression artefacts common to the JPEG format.
Of course, if you’re a SmartFrame user, the weight of your pages will be lessened as images will be streamed to your site from our servers, rather than permanently embedded. This also means you can use high-resolution images in conjunction with our Hyper Zoom technology to deliver particularly large images to your audience without the usual issues.
4. Stick to standard aspect ratios
Google is known to take aspect ratio into account when determining image rankings – and this makes a lot of sense.
After all, if someone is searching for an image, they are more likely to require it in a common aspect ratio such as 4:3 or 3:2 than in a more unusual aspect ratio.
Naturally, this will vary according to the specific search. A search for ‘panoramic images’, for example, understandably brings up many more panoramic images in a variety of aspect ratios than those in 3:2 or 16:9 formats. But the overwhelming majority of searches will not be for images in any particular aspect ratio, so it pays to remember this if your images are, for any reason, atypically sized.
5. Think about user intent
Google has added badges to certain images for the past few years, and these indicate what the user should expect to find if they follow the image back to its source.
These badges cover things like products, recipes and videos, and for certain search terms, images with these badges will be seen on the most prominent results in Google Images searches.
The reason? Google recognizes that many people use Google Images for the kinds of searches where they may have once used text. As it explains on its own blog:
“People coming to Google Images today are looking to find information, or for help doing something – not just to see an image … Whatever page you visit should help you take the next step in what you’re trying to do.”
These badges, therefore, appear to be an attempt at providing users with the most relevant results possible.
So, if you search for a popular dish, Google will assume that you want to make it yourself, and so is more likely to prioritize images that have the recipe label attached. That way, once you find an image that fits what you are looking for, you can be taken straight to the recipe that will allow you to make it.
Similarly, if you are searching for something that is commonly bought online, Google will assume that you yourself may want to buy it. You are, therefore, more likely to see images from product pages on retailers’ websites surface to the top, whether it’s a popular electronic item, a pair of shoes, or even a roll of wallpaper.
It may even be a case that search results are mixed across various categories. For example, ‘ice cream cake’ is something that not only can be easily made at home, but that doesn’t travel particularly well – so the abundance of recipes in the most prominent search results makes a lot of sense.
Searching for something more generic such as ‘chocolate’, however, gives Google less of an idea of what you actually want. Here, the results are considerably more varied across recipes, product pages, and general images from popular and authoritative web pages relating to chocolate.
The way Google knows whether to add these badges is through the image owner applying structured data. This gives Google a better idea of what is on the particular page where the image is found, but even then this is merely a signal to Google that the image is eligible for it, rather than a sure-fire way of Google including it or ranking your images anywhere in particular. You can read more about structured data on Google’s Developers site.
So why does this matter for your own images? Because if you know what kinds of images Google is likely to prioritize, then you know where best to focus your efforts. There’s no point going after a search term that overwhelmingly brings up images with a product badge, for example, if you yourself do not sell that product and have no plans to use markup to indicate that you do to Google.
6. Use sitemaps
Sitemaps are exactly that: a way for you to explain to search engines what’s on your website and where it can be found.
These can be useful for communicating information about images on your website to search engines, particularly as you can add captions, location information and other details. For one reason or another, search engines may not always index your images as you expect, so using sitemaps will give them a better chance at making sure that they do.
More information on sitemaps can be found on Google’s support page.
7. Know your competition
Whether or not your images rank for a specific search term isn’t just down to how well you’ve managed to optimize them for image SEO.
It also depends on who else is aiming to get their images seen and their own efforts here.
Let’s say you’ve taken an image of an Apple iPad, and you want it to rank in image searches. Not only are you up against the multitude of retailers that sell iPads, but you’re also up against well-established tech portals with strong domain rankings that review these kinds of products. And, of course, Apple itself.
Between them, they will have the clean product shots that may draw people to purchase an iPad, as well as real-world images that show that a review site or someone else has had a chance to test it, which itself is a draw as people will often read such reviews before they buy a product. So it’s worth being realistic and not gunning for images that stand little chance of ranking.
But even if you didn’t have these factors to contend with, your image would still be one of many vying for the top spots. So it’s worth considering things from the searcher’s point of view and asking: why should anyone click on my image?
8. Remember that your image is only part of the whole picture
Google has underlined that it’s not just the image that matters when it comes to ranking in search, but the site on which it sits too.
This means that you should work at improving your site in general, and help it to develop greater authority so that Google sees it as a valuable place to send search traffic.
Google has also stated that it takes the freshness of the content into account too, so don’t assume that just because you’re ranking well now this will always be the case. Monitor how your content is doing for popular search terms so you can adjust this if you feel it necessary.