With all the focus on optimization of textual page content and near-obsessive concentration on text-oriented web search engine results pages (“SERPs”), most webmasters and SEOs neglect an area of their potential repertoire which could provide a lot of benefit to their site and business: image search optimization.
One aspect of effective optimization is to keep your eyes open for all the various avenues for referral traffic which can convert to a sale on your site. Depending upon the products or services you offer, it may be very valuable to consider the possibilities of optimizing for the Image Search utilities offered by the various search engines. Even if your site isn’t a product or services website, if you’re looking to increase organic referral traffic, optimizing for image search could work well for you. Read on and I’ll explain…
Image Search utilities are built to allow users to find images by keyword. It’s maybe not widely known, but Image Search features comprise a significant and growing portion of the traffic of the major search engines. In an article about Google in Newsweek Magazine by Adi Ignatius (“In Search of the Real Google”, February, 2006 issue), it’s mentioned that Sergey Brin and Larry Page were recently considering a proposal from some of their engineers to attach sponsorship ads to Google Image search result pages. The developers proposing this concept provided metrics and projections indicating that the ads would be very profitable â€“ to the tune of $80 million â€“ but Brin and Page apparently declined the proposal out of concerns that the impact to users’ experience would be too negative. Obviously, there’s a lot of user search traffic happening in that section of their search engine. That story highlights the fact that traffic for the Google Image search is significant and could be monetarily beneficial to other websites who key into the possibilities.
In the recent launching of Ask.com’s (formerly, “AskJeeves”) new user-interface which was presented during Barry Diller’s keynote at the SES Conference this spring in NYC, the Ask teams added a toolbar to the right of their search form in an effort to expose and highlight various of their specialized search interfaces, including local search, weather maps, news, and â€“ you guessed it, Image Search. Image Search was displayed at the top of their list, right after web search, in fact, further underscoring the importance that they credit to that feature.
Think about it: each of the top search engines have carefully studied what features are desired by users on their sites, and their most-used and most-useful utilities are presented most prominently in their user interfaces based upon that research. All the top search engines have a tab, link or button to their image searches placed prominently on their sites, in very close proximity to their main search boxes â€“ Google, Yahoo, MSN, Ask, and AOL.
Based on these observations, Image Search may be the second-most valuable source for search referral traffic, after the traditional Web Search so if you ignore it you may be ignoring something that can give you great bang for your buck.
At this point you may be thinking, “okay, great â€“ Image Searches have a lot of traffic because people like looking at pix, but how does that actually help our site?” There is a lot of untapped potential here, because there are various reasons why people may be searching for images. Yes, there is a difference of intention between users of the regular web search and the image search, but depending on your industry, types of products and keywords, there can be great referral potential.
Here’s some possible scenarios:
- You’re an owner of a bed-and-breakfast hotel that’s been built out of the former residence of a famous historical figure or celebrity. Fans, researchers, history buffs, and others perform image searches with the name of the former home owner and they see a great picture of the person, pulled from a page on your site, and click through to see the image full-size, or to see what sort of site is hosting the pic. They’re pleasantly surprised to discover your hotel, and decide to visit there on their next vacation. If the image of the person wasn’t on your site, they might’ve never discovered your business. This example isn’t far-fetched â€“ I recently vacationed in Santa Catalina, and one B&B hotel there was built from the former home of William Wrigley Jr, founder of the Wrigley’s Chewing Gum company, the Inn at Mt. Ada . Do you think there’s any pic of Wrigley on their website? Or even a picture of Wrigley’s chewing gum? No. Lost opportunity. Wrigley may not be a terribly famous celeb, but there are such things as chewing gum collectors  and I bet some of them perform image searches for “wrigley’s spearmint” pictures, and I also bet they might just be the sort of people who’d plan a trip to that inn and Catalina once they figure out how influential Wrigley was to the island. Chewing gum made that island the beautiful destination it is today, strange as it is to say. But I digress.
- You sell DVDs on your site, but your thousands of images of the dvd covers are all stored by their product numbers, and your engineers just ignorantly used the word “image” as the IMG ALT text parameter value on all the dvd cover images when displayed on your site. Without sufficient textual clues as to the subjects of your images, your site won’t be found in the image search results when thousands of fans are searching for pictures of their favorite movie stars or images from the film. Not coming up in the results is lost opportunity for promotion and sales.
- You’re an antique dealer, and you just posted some Royal Doulton china onto your website. Meanwhile, there’s a retiree who collects Royal Doulton china, who just happens to be making searches for images of cups and saucers to use to decorate the China Collectors’ society newsletter which she edits. She sees a rare cup she’s been needing in her collection, and clicks through to discover your site. Bam – you’ve just gotten a sale through your image optimization.
Another reason to take image search seriously is that you may be seeing more and more of it appearing within the traditional web search results, as Google and others have been working to integrate and expose their different types of search results within their main web search results pages. For instance, searching for “Winona Ryder” on Google, you can now see three pictures of Winona at the top of the search results:
Some other search engines have done this cross-pollination of search types as well, like Yahoo and Ask, particularly if you include the words “picture of” with your keyword search. They’re working to expose their other search features within their primary search results pages wherever possible, so look forward to this happening more and more.
So, for some types of keyword searches, the sites which have optimized images may appear first, in the most-desirable location above the traditional results listings. Everyone knows that occupying the real estate at the top of the search results pages is highly advantageous since that’s where users look first (see Stephan’s blog entry about the widely-cited Eye-Tracking Study ). If you optimize your images well, your pictures and links to your site could appear in that desireable hotspot when images are presented there.
Here’s a list of elements which you should consider and use in optimizing the images on your site:
- Make sure the image file name or IMG SRC string contains your prime keyword. If it’s a picture of Abe Lincoln, name the file abe-lincoln.jpg and/or have the SRC url string contain it, like “example.com/abe-lincoln/portrait.jpg”.
- Image ALT text â€“ make use of this parameter! Recent research indicates that this feature is still not used for lots of sites’ images, and that many sites have tried to use it with invalid HTML. Make sure the alt parameter is valid like in this example:
<img alt=”Abe Lincoln” src=”http://example.com/abe-lincoln.jpg”Â >
Use the quotes if you have spaces in the text of the ALT content!
- Use good text in content that’s contextually near the image (use captions beneath your images). Also, the text contextually near the image may appear as text snippets below the image. (See this entry  on how snippets are appearing now in Google Image search results. )
- Avoid querystrings for IMG SRCs or, if you use querystrings, use only up to two or three parameters. (There are quite a few sites out there which talk about mod-rewriting of querystrings in URLs so that they won’t contain “stop characters” which will cause spiders to refuse to crawl the link â€“ look up those if you don’t understand this concept.) Use the same URL optimization for the IMG SRC URLs as what you need to use for optimizing HTML page URLs, in other words.
- Use good quality pictures, which will read well when thumbnailed. Good contrast is typically the key here. Lower contrast images are visually harder to read, and it is common sense that if the image doesn’t look good, it won’t invite a click.
- Do not save images with embedded thumbnails â€“ turn this feature off in Photoshop and other image editing software. Search engines may copy your image, reduce it in size, save it in compressed format, and deliver up a thumbnail of it for their results pages. I’ve seen the embedded thumbnail wreak havoc with some compression software in the past, and it only increases your filesize slightly, so just leave that feature turned off.
- Images seem to be preferred more if they’re on a page that’s all about the keyword/subject, when that HTML page uses the proper keywords in the Page Title and H1 text, and when the main content area of the page contains a single picture about the keyword/subject. Don’t store the image in a sidebar column with your ads or inside the header/footer navigation elements or the engine algorithms will ignore the image as irrelevant just as they ignore page decor and navigation graphics.
- Have proper copyright license! You need to have proper license to display the images found on your site so you don’t get sued. Be careful about trying to use images from WikiCommons  or other public stock photo sites since you can’t be sure that the images really are in the public domain.
- If you are using images which may also be displayed on other websites, store/display them at different sizes from how they were provided to you â€“ and I don’t mean just changing their HTML IMG tag height/width parameters. Reduce the size of the image or increase or decrease its compression and then resave them so that they have different file sizes. Also, try altering the aspect ratio of the images a little bit â€“ that is, make sure that the height-to-width ratio of the image is different from images on other’s sites â€“ you can do this by slicing off a few pixels of the height OR width of the graphic and resaving it. Changing the file sizes and aspect ratios is ONLY needed if you are redisplaying image files which may also be found on others’ websites. (This is particularly the case for licensed content such as movie graphics, news article graphics, affiliate content, or manufacturer product images.) By changing the image files some, it will help insure that the search engines perceive your content to be sufficiently original, instead of it being thrown out of the SERPs after hitting a duplicate content filter.
- You need to insure that your server configuration allows your site’s images to be displayed when called from webpages on other domains. Some sys admins have disabled this in order to keep people from displaying your images on other sites, and this could cause problems if you want your images displayed in search engine images search results pages. Likewise, make sure your image file directories on your server are not excluded within your robots.txt file.
- You might also consider copying some of your product and site images up to some of the more popular photo album hosting sites like Flickr.com , and then associate links with the pictures back to their related pages on your site. More people are browsing around in those sites, so they’re also a great, underutilized source for referral traffic.
- Conduct searches in the image search engines to see how your pictures appear after they’ve had a chance to be indexed. Adjust stuff if you need to.
So, give this potential referral traffic source a try and optimize your images towards being found and preferred by the search engines. This isn’t rocket science â€“ it’s pretty simple! There are three basic steps to get going: (1) Display images on your site related to your subject focus areas; (2) Optimize how you’ve implemented your images to highlight keywords appropriate for them; and (3), Analyze and adjust your optimization of the images after they’ve been spidered to maximize the kind of user traffic that converts for you.
Please post a comment and let me know if you found this posting useful!