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How To Optimize Images For SEO: 6 Ways To Drive Traffic To Your Website With Image Search

By March 11, 2013June 28th, 2015Search Marketing
How To Optimize Images For SEO: 6 Ways To Drive Traffic To Your Website With Image Search

With the internet becoming more and more visual, photos and images are becoming more and more important when it comes to getting the attention of your potential customers and even bringing them back to your website.

More importantly image search (via Google and other search engines… but let’s be real… Google) is the new brass ring of SEO.

You can pin photos on Pinterest, add photos to your Facebook albums and Instagam every one of those client-meeting dinners, but the truth is that the discoverability of those photos is relatively limited. You can find Facebook photos on Facebook and Pinterest photos on Pinterest, but do a Google search and you’re going to find website images that have the potential to bring interested prospects back to your website.

Check your Google analytics and Webmaster tools and I bet you’ll find that at least some – and for a lot of businesses much – of your web traffic comes from image search.

So how can you capitalize on this growing trend toward the visual in order to get your images found and to drive traffic to your website?

Here are a few ways you should be thinking about images so you can start putting them to work for your business.

Reduce The File Size

One of the most common mistakes I see when it comes to images, especially for those with a WordPress or self-managed site, is grabbing a photo, dropping it into the page and then resizing it to fit your space.

But there is a tremendous difference between the dimensions (size) of the photo and the file size. In fact, it can be all the difference when it comes to SEO. When you resize a photo manually in WordPress (for example) you simply change the dimensions.

But what you aren’t doing is reducing the file size. So you may only be showing a tiny 100 x 100 pixel thumbnail on your site, but the file size of that photo may still be 1, 2, 8 or more megabytes – and when it comes to SEO that’s very, very bad!

Large file sizes slow your site down, and when it comes to SEO, if there’s one thing Google is very explicit about, it’s that site speed matters.

When you place a photo on your site, it should first be “saved for web” – that means you reduce the file size to the smallest possible size without compromising the quality of the photo. It’s also good practice to resize the file to the proper dimensions. You may have a 1000 pixel photo but if the largest dimension you’ll ever need on your site is 500 pixels, resize it, then output for web.

Images with small file sizes will improve the speed of your site and increase the likelihood of getting both your site and that image indexed and ranking in search engines.

Name Your File Wisely

Photos that come off your digital camera named “DSC_09263451.jpg” are meaningless to search engines. They’re not all the helpful to you, either.

The file name is an opportunity to use keywords to help get your web page and the image ranked for that keyword. If you sell blue baby booties and you have a fantastic photo but it’s named “photo01.jpg” you’ve lost an opportunity for that photo to be found in search. But change the name to “blue-baby-booties.jpg” and you’re onto something!

Keywords should be separated by hyphens – not underscores – and certainly not moshed into a single word.

Choose Appropriate ALT Tags

The ALT tag is another opportunity for using keywords to boost your image’s search rank. In fact, in order for your website code to be valid according to W3C standards, images must include an alt attribute, even if it’s blank.

But why leave it blank when you could be using it for keywords? Unlike the file name, you can write this sentence-style, with spaces between words. But try not to clutter it, or dilute your keywords by using too many words at once. A two-to four-letter phrase is your safest bet.

Remember, people may be visual but search engines are not. They cannot “see” photos. It’s only your keywords that let a search engine know what your image is about.

Be careful not to keyword stuff – repeating the exact same phrase in your file name, alt tag, page title, headings, anchor text, etc, etc, etc is setting yourself up for a Google smackdown.

There’s no hard and fast rule about how many keywords is the right amount of keywords, so be judicious, test and err on the side of caution. It’s a lot easier to boost your ranking than it is to get it back altogether when Google demotes you to page eleventeen billion for appearing to spam.

Pay Attention To Your Content

SEO is ultimately a content game, whether that’s in the form of photos, videos or text. And the quality and context of your content is important.

You may be optimizing for image search, but your photos don’t exist independently of the rest of your site. It’s all part of the big picture.

That means your photos, text and other media should all complement and reinforce each other. The keywords that you use on your web page should work together with the keywords you use within your images.

Let’s say I want a page to rank for “productivity tips” and I use a photo of a cat sleeping on a keyboard. If I include a file name and alt tag that says “cute cat sleeping”, that’s completely irrelevant to my content. In that case, it’s unlikely that my photo will rank for either productivity or cute cats – because the message to search engines is “this is a page about something but I’m not sure what”.

It’s tricky, because the idea behind an alt tag is to describe the photo to someone who cannot see the photo.  But in this case we’re best off not doing that literally, but more abstractly using keywords related to the idea of the image rather than its literal contents.

Consider A Watermark

Have you read about (or perhaps even seen) the recent changes to Google’s image search? It’s been a point of consternation among website owners who aren’t particularly pleased by Google’s stated intent to “improve the user search experience” when it comes at the expense of their web traffic.

Now when you do an image search, you can click to see a pretty nice-sized image (the “small” sizes I’ve seen come in at about 500 pixels wide, anywhere up to nearly 700) without ever needing to visit the site from whence it came.

In fact, there is also a link to “view original image” that takes you… not to the page with the image in context, but just to the image itself, which leaves people with no intuitive way to any other page on your site.

Yes, there is small consolation in the “visit page” link that does take searchers to your web page, but the net effect of this change can be heard in forums all around: site traffic via image search has dropped.

The problem is that image search is a little like a visual buffet. Plunk a person down in front of a smorgasbord like that and they’re likely to stuff their face – or in this case their eyes – and just keep moving along down the line. In the past, people would have to visit the site to see a full size image. Once there, they may have been inclined to browse and feast on your site. Now they just gorge on image results.

There’s not much you can do about that, but you can brand yourself in this new paradigm. It only takes a moment to add your URL and company name to a corner of your photos so that wherever they go – whether that’s Facebook, Pinterest or lost in a search buffet, your brand will come up over and over. And with luck (and enough repetition) it might just stick.

Include Images In Your XML Sitemap

An XML sitemap is not the same as the sitemap you often associate with websites. A common sitemap on a website includes a list of all pages, usually to help people find their way around. But an XML sitemap is not designed for navigation or humans. It’s a specific file format that search engines can read to find out which pages – and images – you want them to find and index.

Search engines can find your pages on their own, but an XML sitemap turbo charges the process by standing up and shouting, “Hey search engines! I’m here!”

Google explicitly states that including images in your XML sitemap will help it discover and index images that you feel are important. To that end, you may not want to include every single image in your sitemap, but focus on the most representative and important.

Images can drive traffic to your website just the way any content can. But before that can happen, search engines need to know that your images exist, and what they represent. If you spend a few minutes optimizing each of yours, you’ll be poised to take advantage of all those visual browsers and shoppers.

Are you optimizing images already? If not, do you think you’ll start now?

Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • Alicia says:

    Very interesting post. I would add that a great tool to complete this process is Adobe Lightroom, that can add tags to the images that are embedded in the jpgs and can be found via Google (Photoshop also has this feature, although for a reason I don’t know it works better with Lightroom).

    • I’ve heard good things about Lightroom though I tend to use Adobe Bridge for tagging. It really comes in handy when you’re trying to organize photos and it can also help you add those important keywords!

  • Great insight… it’s clear that some companies are not keeping up with the timely importance of optimizing images for their site. While I know they MAY NOT need help with image optimization .. check out what Apple names the iPad Mini on the Apple Homepage. Hope it doesn’t hurt their web traffic. LOL.

    But for companies outside the Fortune Global 3… we should all maximize web traffic at every possible level, or the competition will jump us and steal our traffic. Go and explain that mistake to the C-Suite… Yeah, I didn’t think that would go over well.

    • Of course I had to go to the Apple website and look that up. Hilarious. Thanks for pointing that out, I never would have thought to look! Of course I think Apple could name their photos “nothing-to-see-here.jpg” and it would be shared, found and used in a billion places anyway! As for the rest of us… we have to compete! And photos are just one way to take advantage of optimization and traffic so you’re right, it’s important not to overlook it.

  • Hey Carol,

    I reduce my images down to at least 320 pixels wide before I ever upload them to my blog and then I use the SmushIt plug-in to reduce it even more. I also use the proper tags for my photos, I learned that a few years ago.

    You are right though, these other sites are fine for viewing images and everyone loves them but when they show up on Google is when we’ve really “made it”. I know, kind of sad because we hate them having so much control but we all just need to deal with it.

    Now I’ve never heard of including them in the XML Sitemap so this is totally new to me. Might have to check into that more.

    Great post and spot on, once again!


    • Putting images in a sitemap file is ideal for people who are selling products because image search can be really important for getting exposure for their products and getting people back to their site to buy. And if it’s another opportunity, then why not!

  • Well explained, thanks Carol Lynn, especially the Alt Tags, which are quite a confusing concept. And what an excellent tip regarding the URL on the images.

    • I know there is debate over the whole “describe the image” vs “use keywords” thing but honestly, the point is to give context for your page and images so I am in the keyword camp 🙂 And if it helps get better search exposure, even better!

  • People who search Google Images for pictures of Jeff Bridges don’t
    really care what I have to say, about Jeff Bridges or otherwise probably
    – they just want to look at Jeff Bridges, or maybe they want to find a
    picture of him to use on their own site. My blog isn’t about Jeff
    Bridges or movies or acting or celebrities at all.

  • OK, I have a few thousand photos. this means, I need to get the last 750 named. thanks for the info. I did not understand it when son tried to explain it.

    • If you want to use those photos as a source of traffic, I would suggest aiming for improving tags and file names where possible. That sounds like a lot of photos so even if you do a handful at a time and test those – or try just changing alt tags, which is a lot easier that changing file names, and see how that works out before going through a ton of effort.

  • Thanks for sharing…excellent article….