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Image Search in the SEO Picture

enge-eric
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One of the major trends that emerged from SES San Jose is the increasingly important role of image search. This article will talk a bit about how and why it's growing, and strategies for optimizing your web site to receive this type of traffic.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose, Calif., August 20-23, 2007.

First let's start with a few data points that illustrate why image search is increasing in importance:

  1. In his keynote interview with Chris Sherman on Tuesday morning, Jim Lanzone, CEO of Ask.com, said that 50 percent of the results they provide on Ask3D do not come from traditional web results. Note that my own examination of this shows that there are still 10 blue links, but there are also image results, news results, and other relevant data provided in addition.
  2. In the Image Search session, Shari Thurow stated that 15 percent to 16 percent of web searches are for images. This is just a stunning number!
  3. Shari Thurow also offered up the data point that usability testing shows that users are more likely to click on an image link than a text link. As experienced SEOs know that means you lost the anchor text opportunity with that link, but you can easily address that by putting the pretty image links up top, and having a general purpose menu in the footer of your page using text links.
  4. From an examination of sites I monitor, Google Image Search has become a steadily more important referrer, and often is one of the top 5 referrers. This is true even on sites that are not really that image-centric.

One of the major things that is driving this is the advent of universal/federated/blended search results. The integration of images into the web search results in a more integral way is providing greatly increased access to the available image data. In addition, more and more people are becoming aware of just how rich image search has become. People are getting high quality results, so conducting an image search becomes a natural reaction of more searchers when the need arises.

Image Search Optimization

So now that we know that image search represents a significant opportunity, I will now draw on the rest of my SES San Jose 2007 notes related to image search and lay out the basics of image search optimization.

As an obvious first step, figure out how images can and should fit into the user experience on your site. This is a non-trivial step. Then, determine how and where you can obtain original images for your site. Image search engines don't like duplicate content any more than web search engines, so you need to obtain your own original images. Once you have this in place, here are the major steps you can take to optimize for image search engines:

  1. Use keywords in the alt tag attribute. This is a critical step, as it is the one best opportunities you have to unambiguously label the image. Bear in mind that there is a huge amount of search volume that includes words like: photo, picture, image, pics, pix, or locations. Regarding the locations, if your image is a picture of a physical location, include some location information in the alt tag attribute.
  2. Note that the title tag attribute is usually ignored. Don't waste your time on it.
  3. Pick a logical file name, that reinforces the keywords. Using hyphens in the file name to isolate the words in the keyword is an OK to thing, just try not to exceed two hyphens. Do not use underscores as a word separator.
  4. Use a descriptive file name, in a similar fashion to the alt tag attribute.
  5. Pay attention to the file extension too. For example, if the image search engine sees a ".jpg" (JPEG) file extension, it's going to assume that the file is a photo.
  6. Basic web page optimization applies too. For example:
    • The title tag of the web page
    • The text nearby the image
    • The overall theme of the content of the page
    • The overall theme of the site (or section of the site)
  7. Also important is to get links to the page with the image on it. This could become an entire link building discussion in itself, but one simple way to do this it to post the pages with images on them to del.icio.us.
  8. Avoid duplicate content on your site. If for example, you have a thumbnail, a medium size image, and a full size image, you don't want these to all be indexed. The best way to handle this is to use robots.txt to prevent the crawler from looking at the versions you don't want indexed (most likely this would be the thumbnail or the full size image).

A couple of other interesting points emerges from the discussion. One of these was brought up by Liana Evans, which was that reputation management issues apply to image search as much as it does to web search. You should be aware of what pictures are out there of you, your brand, or your company, and you should actively work on making sure that the most common results that come up are pictures that fit the image you are trying to create.

In addition, image theft is a real issue, and is hard to stop. One thing you can do is to place some text in the image, such as "photo by ..." of "image by ...". While this does not stop photo theft altogether, it does require the person taking the image to do some editing to the image before they can use it.

In summary, image search can bring great results for your business. Of course, you want to make sure that the traffic you get is relevant to your site, and that those visitors might ultimately do what you want them to do on your site. With that in mind, step back and take a look at how optimizing for image search might fit into your overall web strategy.

Eric Enge is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric is also co-founder of Moving Traffic Inc., the publisher of City Town Info and Custom Search Guide.

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