Optimizing Images for Search Engines

One of the more potentially advantageous yet wholly underused areas for optimization is in image search engines. Yet while site owners and merchants are more often seeing their images show up in the regular search results, few have come to understand the benefits of image search optimization. And for professional optimizers, it requires a much broader understanding and specialization over what traditional search allows.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 6th, Chicago, IL.

Image search, by one definition, is query results, accompanied by thumbnail graphics and supplanted by contextual information, that best match users' search queries. Such information can be generated and submitted by the image creator, by site owner where the image resides, or by 3rd party reviewers.

Places where image search results appear, and are indexable into general search engines' contextual results, include:

  • Major search engines - either within contextual search results or vertical image search

  • Photo sharing sites (Flickr, Webshots, PBase, Fotki)

  • Social image sharing sites (MySpace, Facebook)
The panel, consisting of both image search specialists and search engine product managers, concurred that image search is the fastest growing vertical in the search arena today. Statistics from Hitwise show it to achieve 90% growth year after year, with over 360,000,000 searches per month across the top search engines: Google, Yahoo!, Ask, MSN, and AOL. All in the "Big 5" have a search vertical dedicated specifically to image results, with 3 of them (Google, Yahoo!, MSN) integrating images into some contextual search results.

Within Google, image search is the leading vertical by far.

"Image search results are being pushed up more and more into the contextual (web) search results, and to improve usability," said Chris Smith, Head of Technology and Development of SuperPages.com by Idearc Media.

The image search engine leaders

Of the "Big 5" in the contextual search arena, Google enjoys a wide lead over its competitors. Statistics produced from Hitwise show Google image search to have approximately 72% of all image searches. Google easily holds the largest market share of searches for any search vertical, with its image vertical search even outnumbering the overall total searches for both Ask and AOL combined.

Both Liana Evans, Search Marketing Manager for Commerce360, and Smith attribute Google's dominance to several factors: its already large database and length of time in the marketplace, its dedication to its vertical properties, and its easy access for users to submit images.

Adding to the list of Google advantages in this vertical is its 'Enhanced Image Search' feature, a new feature found in Google's Webmaster Tools section. It allows site owners additional optimization capabilities with images, by allowing other people (volunteers) do the optimization for you. Site owners participate in the program by clicking the "enable enhanced image search" link for one's site. It then submits the photos found on the owner's site into its image program. The next step allows participating users to tag the images for the site owner. Two users will see the same image and attempt to tag the image with keywords; with users receiving points for matching tags.

"It's a free way of getting even more keyword signals for Google," said Smith. "It may be seen as a fairly authoritative way for image reference and may be ranking well in Google's image search results."

"People love participating in the enhanced image search; we've had great success with it so far," said Vanessa Fox, Product Manager for Google. Smith, however opined that its continued participation may depend on Google's ability to provide added incentives for users.

The panelists agreed that image search optimization is a necessity for merchants to incorporate into their marketing plans. "Shoppers are visual. They simply need to see what they're buying," said Evans. She also said she regarded image optimization as "the next frontier of search for merchants."

According to Evans, image search optimization offers the following advantages:
  • Free product promotion. "Its another avenue of search marketing without having to pay for the click.'"

  • More optimization opportunities than regular search alone. Smith added that photo sharing sites Social image sharing sites have more contextual clues that search engines can use for their ranking criteria. "There's a lot more signals involved than regular web pages."

  • Less competition. "Image search right now is a widely underused area for retailers. Some spaces have very few retailers or no major retailers at all."
Evans attests that features natural to image search—easier to optimize, free inclusion, and less competition from major retailers - create special advantages of image search optimization for niche markets and smaller retailers.

"This is one case where smaller retailers without large content management systems can hold an advantage," said Evans. "Smaller retailers have direct control over picture descriptions, picture names and content that is directly around the pictures and on the page. Content Management Systems have a lot more constraints on content and files names and therefore it is a lot more difficult to optimize for image search," she said.

Image Optimization Tips

The panelists offered the following tips for optimizing images for search engines:
  • Image originality. The panelists agree that there is a special advantage to taking original photos, even if you are a retailer who already receives photos elsewhere such as from a manufacturer. "The more control you have over the images on your site the better." says Evans. "You can brand them with your logo, url or trademark. It also allows you as the retailer to present the product in the best possible way that will convert with your own audience, not to mention allowing you to present the features in a different way than other competitors.

  • Image quality. Start off with good quality pictures, and make necessary resolution adjustments between your full size images and your thumbnails. Smith mentions that pictures with good contrast tend to work better. "When they're reduced down to the thumbnail size, stronger contrast is needed to better discern image, which will lead to more people clicking and linking to image." he says.

  • Image formatting. Thurow advises saving photos as JPG files, and other graphic image types as GIFs "Search engines are going to interpret a GIF as a standard graphic image with 256 colors," Thurow said, "and JPGs as photos (because photos have millions of colors." says said Shari Thurow, Webmaster and Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc..

  • Image naming. "Make the image names of your files match what is actually represented in the file," says Thurow. "The image name will appear beneath the graphic image in search results. It helps to communicate to searchers that they are viewing the desired graphic image. "Do NOT expect your photo editing program's default settings to give you optimized file names," she continued. "Default names communicate nothing to the search engines on their own. Make sure to set up your own file naming structure in advance."

  • Tagging - More content is "King" It's a given to make sure that your images match the actual products and keywords you place in there, along with ample descriptions of what you're featuring. But you should also take full advantage of the many special contextual tags for social sites with image search. Not only are image names given more weight than regular search results, but you can also add special tags such as captions, comments, cross-grouping, location, and themes.

  • Expand audience base. Be broad in your subject matter. Image search is not just for retailers directly reaching customers. "There are all sorts of innovative ways you can get people interested in your company and hence build up traffic and conversions. For example, factories might show steps in product manufactures, hotels might show furniture & decorative art in addition to details on their rooms, and restaurants might show picturesque views or special event rooms."

  • Optimize the page with the image. Optimize the page the image appears on can be just as important as optimizing the image itself. "Optimizing the actual page for contextual search improves graphic images search," Thurow added. "Search engines also look at text surrounding a graphic image to determine relevancy." says Thurow. "Text within the anchor tag and next to anchor text is especially going to influence image-search rankings," said Thurow. "If you can reasonably put labels and captions on key graphic images, try and do so."

  • File organization. Both Evans and Thurow mentioned of crucial importance is creating an image folder on your web server space that's accessible to the search engines. "Do not robots exclude your graphic images directory or limit search engine access to graphic-image files." says Thurow. Another big mistake people make is putting their 'click to see larger image' inside of a JavaScript link. When you do that, you are limiting search engines' access to that image file."

  • Usability is "Queen". According to Thurow, usability is very important in image search optimization. "It's one thing for a graphic image to show up at the top of image search results," she said. "It's another thing to get people to click on the link to the image and go to your site. Writing alternative text (which shows up in Google Image search results) that is keyword stuffed is not going to inspire people to click on the link in that image to your site." Smith also added that sometimes adding a not directly onto a region of a photo can invite users to comment and participate."

  • Freshness. Smith recommends that if you're targeting high popularity keywords, try experimenting with re-uploading your pix, since image freshness is a contextual clue for the search engines and might affect relevancy.

Future of image search

Image search optimizers on the panel expressed their desire to see more opportunities for image search optimizers, such as a keyword research tool specific to image search (like the Overture keyword tool) and the ability to submit image/multimedia specific feeds. "That would allow webmasters to have better control over defining what the image was in relation to content," says Evans.

"Right now, 95% of the focus is to what traffic into websites comes from "regular" search, not on images," added Evans. "Once experienced search marketers and/or web analytics analysts start to point out the higher conversion rates and growing traffic from image search, that's when the request for more information will begin to grow."

Grant Crowell is the CEO and Creative Director of Grantastic Designs, Inc., a full-service search engine marketing, web site design, and usability firm.

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