Everyone competent in the world of online business understands the vitality of SEO — search engine optimization — which in practical terms means finding ways to appear more prominently in valuable Google SERPs and make the most of those positions. Note that I say Google SERPs: however you view Google’s stranglehold on web traffic, there’s no practical way to avoid catering to the top ranking algorithm if you want to achieve stable success.
SEO is chiefly applied to text content, unsurprisingly. It’s always composed the bulk of the digital landscape, and it remains the most significant consideration, being by far the easiest type of creative content for a crawler to parse. But SEO can also be applied to other things, and there’s one type of content that both affects rankings and can be ranked independently: imagery.
Rich multimedia content has become standard, calling for high-quality visuals everywhere, so it’s as good a time as any to get to grips with this often-overlooked implementation of SEO. In this piece, we’re going to cover the essentials of SEO for images, so let’s get to them:
Where do you place your images on your web pages? Do you display them boldly in positions of prominence, or do you bury them where only the most eagle-eyed readers will find them? This doesn’t just affect how interesting your content is to consume — it also affects how Google will perceive the significance of those images.
If you’re particularly proud of a given image (perhaps it stemmed from a high-quality photoshoot and you put a lot of thought into the composition), then it’s a mistake to throw it in somewhere seemingly at random. Make it the hero image for an important page. Showcase it in the manner it deserves, and Google’s crawlers will be able to infer its value.
Size and compression
Up to a point (most 10000x10000px images are pointlessly large, for instance), bigger images are more likely to rank well. This is mainly because they’re more useful to searchers: they can easily be made smaller if necessary, and their size will ensure that they look good in the results (it wouldn’t make Google’s search function look good if it returned tiny or blurry images).
At the same time, image compression is essential, because smaller files can be served faster. How do you manage both? Chiefly by stripping away any extraneous elements. Take a page out of the ecommerce product photography playbook and use a blank background to effectively frame the subjects of your photos and keep the file sizes down at the same time.
Page metadata is key for general SEO, particularly with page titles (and occasionally meta descriptions) being used in SERPs, but image metadata also matters. Every image should have a suitable title using relevant keywords (matching the use of keywords in the file name) — this will also determine what comes up when a visitor hovers their cursor over it.
More importantly, though, every image should have clear alt text. In essence, alt text — with alt standing for alternative — sets out text that can be displayed in place of an image in the event that it fails to load. That means it must describe the content (and possibly purpose) of the image. For instance, the alt text for the featured image at the top could be “A magnifying glass points towards a laptop with “SEO” displayed on the screen” or something similar.
Alt text isn’t just useful for explaining the meaning of an image. It’s also important for accessibility purposes, most notably helping those with visual impairments use screen reader applications to maximum effect. This is another reason to reward its use.
Images are often used as hyperlinks, and when this is done, the number of clicks that an image gets can prove quite influential in the rankings. The reasoning is simple: the more appealing, relevant and eye-catching an image is, the more likely it is to attract clicks. And when an image never produces any clicks at all, that’s a strong sign that it isn’t very compelling.
This somewhat ties in with the on-page placement, because where you place an image will influence how people perceive it. Even a relevant and high-quality image can prove unsuccessful if it’s treated as though it’s just like any other image.
There may not be a specific aspect ratio (the golden ratio of 1.618:1, for instance) that Google cares about, particularly as that sounds needlessly specific — what does it matter if an image is 16:9 or 16:8.5? But what is evident is that Google prefers landscape orientations, at least for the moment (they’re better on desktop or laptop screens, but not as good on phone screens).
Try going to Google image search and seeing what comes up. Now, take this all with a heap of salt, because the presence of countless landscape images doesn’t automatically mean they’re prioritized (it may largely be that they’re more common, with the popular landscape format — even counting the old 4:3 of TV screens — better reflecting human vision), but it’s still a useful indicator of what’s currently working.
It isn’t just where an image is positioned on a page that affects how Google perceives it: it’s also the context in which it’s placed. While indexing and assessing pages, the text surrounding an image will be considered alongside it. How do the two fit together? What can one say about the other? If there appears to be a disconnect, it will undermine the perceived value of the image.
Suppose that you wrote an article about off-road biking, opened with a paragraph about different types of bike, included a photo of a mountain, moved on to a paragraph about optimal hydration, then —- at the very end — brought up biking locations including mountains. That would be odd placement, because the image would better fit the content at the end. Fit your images to your text and it will make far more sense to crawlers.
It’s difficult to argue that SEO for images is absolutely essential, but for many types of business — particularly those that can see value from having their images ranked well, such as eCommerce sellers — it’s absolutely worth thinking about. Consider the essentials we’ve looked at here, and determine if it’s something you want to pursue.
Great article! When working with SEO projects I see how often people forget about optimizing photo content, so such articles are much needed out there 🙂
You’re completely right! Thanks for your kind words.