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The PRO-Files: How To Optimize Your Images For Google

Like most small business owners these days, professional photographers are paying ever-increasing attention to the search engine optimization techniques that help one’s website rank highly in search results. And while there’s a plethora of information available about SEO, there’s one tactic that doesn’t get nearly as much coverage and also happens to be perfectly suited to photographers. If a photographer optimizes images correctly, they can increase their odds of being found by customers via Google Image Search.

According to Rob Greer, a Los Angeles photographer and SEO expert—Google Image Search is often overlooked as a viable path to customers. Greer teaches search engine optimization in workshops across the country, and while image optimization shouldn’t be a photographer’s primary SEO focus, he says, in competitive search categories every advantage adds up.

“There are many other search targets that are arguably more important,” Greer says, “but image search applies to everyone. It’s just one piece of the SEO puzzle, but there’s value to it. Five years ago I received a call from a bride who booked me for her event. She didn’t even meet with other photographers. She chose me because she searched for ceremony images at her family church and one of my photos appeared at the top of Google Images search results—and that photo was better than the other ceremony photos shown. In the end my gross sales were just shy of $9,000 for the wedding and the albums that went along with it. And she booked me because of that one image she found with Google Image Search.”

Most searches are conducted with standard search results, but Google also serves up images when the query contains words such as “photograph” or “picture.” Wedding photographers, in particular, have a clear path to optimization for this, but it’s useful for pros of all specialties. Corporate and event photographers, for instance, may want to capitalize on customers looking for images from popular local venues or firms. This geographic element, and the locations in particular, are key for image search optimization.

“Most people who go to Google Image Search are looking for ideas,” Greer says. “So you need to be providing unique ideas or answering questions that people who are searching for photographs might ask. If you’re a wedding photographer, you would show up for venue searches—like Los Angeles Hilton Weddings. If you’re a corporate photographer, they’re going to search for Los Angeles Convention Center pictures. They’ll want to see examples of other companies who have held events there, and when they see your photographs you’re hoping that they’re going to click through to you and see that you offer those services. If your photographs are good enough and representative enough of that venue, and if they’re more exciting than what you would typically see, you then increase the likelihood of booking that client.”

The Three Most Important Image Optimization Tips

If you do nothing else to increase your ranking in Google Image Search results, take these three steps. Together they go a long way toward informing Google about the useful content of your pictures.

1. Alt Text

Number one is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the alt text. Alt text is the content directly assigned to an image. Originally intended as information about the picture to be read aloud to visually impaired users, search engines coopted alt text for its useful description of an image’s content. Google uses the alt text and weighs it very heavily not only in general SEO but for Google Image Search as well. Alt text is the most important step in optimizing images for search. Photographers should resist the urge, however, to simply repeat the same keywords on every image.

“That doesn't do anything,” Greer explains. “There's no value in repetition, every photograph is supposedly different. So if every photograph is different, then the description for the photographs should also be different.”

Naming the bride and groom, however, has no benefit for SEO. Instead, as long as the image supports it, choose pertinent keywords that also pertain to the image.

“No one's searching for Billy and Susie's wedding,” Greer says, “so you’re not adding value when you do that. But remember, not every image has to be optimized for SEO. Because not every image on a post is going to rank. Just make sure that the photo you’re optimizing for a certain keyword phrase is an excellent photo—one that’s perfectly representative of that keyword phrase. That image should deserve to show up in search results. But understand that not all images deserve to be found in Google image search. Don’t worry about those photos. Not every photo needs optimization.”

2. Text Near the Image

The second most important step is to address the text found near the image. It might be surrounding the image or it might be a caption near the bottom of an image. Any text near the image is a signal that Google correlates.

“Imagine if you throw an image on a page near the headline,” Greer says. “If it’s near the headline and the first couple of sentences, from a code perspective Google is going to make the assumption that because the image is supporting the content, the content should support the image description.”

3. File Name

The image file name should preferably be separated with dashes as spaces in between the keywords—such as “los-angeles-hilton-garden-wedding.jpg”—and those keywords should be targeted accurately based on the content of the image rather than generic keyword spam.

“If your file names are los-angeles-wedding-01, los-angeles-wedding-02, los-angeles-wedding-03,” Greer says, “that’s not the end of the world. That's what people do. But if you're trying to rank for a highly competitive keyword phrase, then you might want to rename each image with unique keyword phrases. Sometimes you won’t have that kind of time. Just remember that the more work you put into the content related to images, the more it will bear fruit.”

Three Additional Image Optimization Tips

These three steps are nice additions to an image optimization strategy, but they are definitely phase two of the process. Make sure to address the first steps above before proceeding with these supplemental techniques.

4. Position on the Page

The higher the image, the more important it is. That’s how Google sees it, anyway. And while image size matters from a page design standpoint, bigger images aren’t necessarily more valuable in Google’s eyes.

“Google will present images that are 225 pixels wide,” Greer explains, “and it will post images that are 1,000 or 1,500 pixels wide. I've never formed a scientifically supportable theory on image size and Google hasn't spoken to it. If it's big enough to appear on your website, it's big enough to be indexed by Google.”

5. Frequency on Other Websites

“Let’s say you have a very popular photograph,” Greer says. “You’re a Sony photographer and you have a photo that appears on your website and on AlphaUniverse and on your WeddingWire listing. Then Google knows that the same image appears in multiple locations, and thus that indicates popularity.”

The trick, Greer says, is to provide the same images to customers and vendors who may share them on their websites, Facebook and Instagram posts and provide that frequency boost. The more important and high profile the site, the more valuable the correlation.

“If your photograph appears on your local florist, your local planner and your local venue page,” he says, “that’s probably not as important as the AlphaUniverse website. If the image appears on popular websites, it’s an indicator that it’s an important photograph. Take one or two images and share them with all of your vendors to make sure it repeats. You don’t want the florist to share one and the planner to share another and you share another, because then you don’t get that repeat. But if you limit what you share, or if one of your photos is particularly amazing, make sure that photo is shared with all of them.”

6. Image Popularity

“When the Google Image Search grid comes up,” Greer explains, “if your image is clicked on a bunch more than the other images around it, then it tends to move up.”

Ultimately what Google hopes to provide in Image Search is the same thing it seeks with standard search: pertinent, unique, high-quality results. It may not be long before Google’s A.I. can identify what it deems to be a good photograph. Until then, the simplest trick to appear highly in Google Image Search results is to make great photographs. Optimize them according to the advice above, but start with images that deserve top-tier status in the first place.

“Do your images deserve to be at the top of Google Image Search?” Greer asks. “In other words, are they great photographs? Because Google is going to reward great photographs. And although Google can't do it today, Google is on its way to identifying a great photograph by its own methods. So for instance, today Google can tell if your image is black and white or color, or what colors are used in your images and even which objects are in your images. Google can tell that without any textual information. So if they're there today, where are they going to be tomorrow? You should be looking to the future of what artificial intelligence is going to want to see. I’m saying within the next decade at the earliest, and certainly within the next 20 years, Google will be interpreting the quality of photography as presented and showing what's best—or at least its interpretation of what's best.”

For now, Greer says, there’s one secret to Google Image Search that few photographers seem to know. It’s that Google favors a diversity of images. That means a picture of the local cathedral or popular hotel venue must not only be good, it must be different. Unique work stands out among the crowd, even in Image Search results.

“Google right now balances what it shows,” Greer explains, “trying to provide a diverse selection of images. It’s not going to show ten images of the same thing. This is the big secret: Google will not show the same images. So if you have the same photograph that every other photographer has of a certain venue and you post that photo, then Google's not going to serve it up because it already has an example of that photo. Your image has to be different than every other photographer's image in that Google image search—or at least somewhat different depending on the popularity of the location or the venue. Do any Google Image Search and you'll see that the images, by and large, are not the same. There are different colors, different color palettes, different skylines, different framing, different objects. Google is highlighting differences.”

Rob Greer offers two-day SEO workshops and often presents platform classes at conferences such as WPPI, PhotoPlus and Imaging USA. To learn more visit robgreer.com.

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.

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