The Basics of Image Optimization and SEO for Photographers

I am a photographer by night, while in the day a technical SEO (Search Engine Optimizer) for a digital marketing agency. This gives me a great opportunity to explore the world of image optimization and to test and play with certain elements of SEO on my own websites. This article will look at the key elements of image optimization and ensure that photographers get seen for the work they produce.

SEO for Photographers

The basics

Google, and other search engines, as clever as they are, struggle to understand the content of an image. These engines can understand the very basics including color, general pixel layout and if an image is photograph and not a piece of clipart. However, they can only understand images in a quantitative manner and cannot actually interpret an image without taking in other onsite and offsite factors.

Image file size
It is important to ensure that images are compressed so that they load as fast as possible for both visitors and search engines – search engines know that users don’t want to wait around for elements of a page to load so will favor faster loading images over those that are slower. The kicker here is that the larger dimension’s an image has, the more it will also be favored by search engines, so creates a tricky balance between creating a large image that is small in its file size.

The easiest and often quickest way to reduce file size is by is by compressing the file with a lossy compression tool while also trying to retain maximum image quality. There are many tools for this on the web, however, my favorite is Compressor.io, a tool that can reduce the file size by up to 90% when using lossy compression while also retaining an impressive level of image quality.

Up River, Uncompressed

Photo of Up River uncompressed at 167.13KB

Up River, Compressed

Photo of Up River compressed to just 53.45KB

Image name
The name of an image is one of the most important factors in gaining any sort of relevant search visibility and as such it is important this is correctly optimized. These names should be descriptive and shouldn’t simply be the file output name from a camera. For example, a photo of Coheed & Cambria playing in Brighton should not simply read ‘IMG_1272’ but should instead read ‘coheed-and-cambria-brighton’. It’s also important to use lower case and hyphens for spaces as this image naming will function as the URL for the image.

Coheed & Cambria, Brighton

Coheed & Cambria, Brighton

Alt tags
Most images on a website will be wrapped in an HTML image tag. It is important to include within this tag an alt attribute which, much like an image’s name, will give signals to a search engine of the content of a particular image. The content of this alt tag should be descriptive, consider it a verbal way of explaining the image.

For example the following image tag is suboptimal:

<img src=”bleed-from-within-brighton.jpg” />

While the following image tag is optimal:

<img src=”bleed-from-within-brighton.jpg” alt=”Scott Kennedy from Bleed from Within” />

Most Content Management Systems will have an alt tag field as part of their image upload process and so usually won’t require an understanding HTML, this will often look like this:

Image attribute settings in WordPress

Image attribute settings in WordPress

The not so basics

There are a number of further factors that affect the placement of an image within a search engine, and although these may seem a little more prosaic, they are just as important in ensuring that a search engine can understand the content of any photograph. Adding context around an image is hugely important in aiding search engines in understanding the content of an image and is explored further below.

Page Title
A page title is a snippet of code that populates a browser’s tab title and the piece of information search engines will generally use – although often tweaked – to show in their results pages. The keywords used in a page title are important to optimize as they are one of the key factors search engines use in understanding the content of a page.

In the source code an example page title might look like <title>Brighton Live Music  & Band Promo Photography | Will Barnes</title>. Again, much like alt tags, these are often easily controlled within the Content Management System with a simple field.

SERP for Will Barnes

Search Engine Results Page for ‘Will Barnes’

Page titles are easily controlled within most modern Content Management Systems, although, it should be noted that these titles should be kept below 69 characters.

Headings

There are a number of heading tags that can be used on a webpage, although, the most important is known as the h1, this is the main title of a page, and any given page should only have one h1. Much like a page title, the content of this heading should be optimized with strong relevant keywords about the page’s content. In the source code an example h1 tag might read <h1>Bleed from Within @ The Haunt, Brighton</h1>. If a page has subheadings it is recommended that h2, h3 and h4 are used – these can be used multiple times on a page and give further context to a page. Much like alt tags and page titles, these heading tags are often easily controlled within a Content Management System and so don’t require much, if any, HTML knowledge.

Bleed from Within, Brighton

Bleed from Within, Brighton

Copy
The copy of a page, and the copies close proximity to any given image will signal to search engines the context of that image. Thus it is important that any copy on a page is relevant to the content of any image on that page. This could be a simple image caption underneath a given photograph or a couple of paragraphs about a certain series of images.

Many photographs actually don’t want copy on their pages and want their images to do the talking – this makes complete sense from an artistic point of a view but does make search engines struggle. Thus it is important, if copy is to be kept to a minimum, that all other ranking factors mentioned in this article are used and fully optimized to give search engines as much help in understanding the content of an image as possible.

Backlinks
Backlinks are links that point to a particular website and are one of the strongest factors in ranking a page and its elements in a search engine. Backlinks are the hardest part about SEO for it requires a lot of good communication with other webmasters. However, correctly doing this work will be hugely beneficial for a site’s visibility. For example, say a photographer just shot Metallica and posted the photos to their website, Metallica may link to these photos from their website and in turn creating a strong backlink; a search engine will now know that these photographs are somehow related to Metallica and will rank them higher for Metallica related searches.

Often, acquiring a backlink can be tricky, however, in the photography world if a particular photograph is published on another website, it is often as simple as asking for credit for the works.

As a word of caution, do not buy or manipulate backlinks. There are severe penalties that Google use to stop backlink manipulation and to fall victim to these penalties can be very expensive and time consuming to recover from.

Exif data
There are some SEO theorists who suggest that search engines are using an image’s exif data to help them further understand the content of an image. There is yet no proof of this, however, there is no harm in keeping an image’s exif data in the file – there is a chance that search engines will start to use this data so it is always best to future proof your SEO efforts.

There are many sites out there for finding out the exif data of any image, my favorite being at Regex.info.

Blocking images
It is important to ensure that certain images on a website are not hidden behind JavaScript. Search engines, and all non-humans, find JavaScript almost impossible to properly execute and as such content within JavaScript can easily become blocked. Often image sliders will use JavaScript to give a good user experience but will sometimes also hide the images within itself making them almost impossible for a search engine to find.

There are a number of ways around this but the best option is offer graceful degradation. This simply shows the images without fancy navigation when JavaScript is disabled so that search engines can easily discover these files. JavaScript is a complicated subject and as such it is recommended that an SEO browser site like Browseo.net is used to see what a search engine can actually discover on any given page.

The same rings true for Flash sites which again hide all their content within .SWF files. Flash has in recent years gone out of fashion thanks to it not working on iOS and really is something that most web developers and platforms won’t utilize anymore.

XML Sitemaps
Most websites have an XML sitemap, a page that is designed to aid search engines in finding all the content of a website, most sitemaps are designed to simply show the pages of a website. There are, however, image sitemaps designed specifically in aiding an engine in quickly finding all the images of a website and as such can be very important if images are hidden within JavaScript or Flash.

In WordPress there are simple plugins that will quickly build these, although with certain web platforms these image sitemaps are simply impossible to build due to certain limitations and restrictions of the Content Management System . Once an image sitemap has been put together it is important to notify major search engines in their webmaster accounts of the location of this sitemap and to also include a path to it in the robots.txt file, a file that sits off the root which gives a list of commands to web crawlers. For example, the robots.txt file might include the following snippet which explains to search engines the location of the index sitemap – a file that links all the different XML sitemaps together:

Sitemap: http://example.com/index-sitemap.xml

To find your robots.txt file simply add the snippet /robots.txt to the end of your homepage URL.

Final thoughts

There are many factors search engines use in how they choose how to rank certain images in their results and as such it is important to give the right signals as much as possible. By following the topics covered in this article, a photographer will start to see increases in organic visibility as their images start to surface in search engines at the right place at the right time.




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14 Comments on "The Basics of Image Optimization and SEO for Photographers"

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Jay Long
Guest

Great information; very insightful.

Shanice
Guest

This is great information, thank you. It can be really tricky to get your images higher up on google. I will try and use some of this advice, thanks again.

Ian Bloxham
Guest

Excellent points for anyone who wants their images to be found online, Will. As a marketer (and pseudo SEO person), we depend a fair bit on image search results for many of our product sites. I’ll be using your guide here to do some housekeeping and updating!

ilovephotography
Guest

Very helpful seo informations. I always want to see a website where it only cares about photography works and has a photos search engine in it where people can search easily and rate and comment pictures.

Robert Starks
Guest

Just a little add: image size (not file size) matters as well for Google’s algorithm

Jay Holmes
Guest

Very great points. I find that it’s rare for anyone to mention file-naming as an important SEO element for photographers, so good job. Since photography tends to be local, though not always, people may also want to include keywords in their copy and/or file-name structure that indicate their locality. If you’re including photo titles, include the location if your photo is based on a particular location. If your blog is copy-less, then include it in the file-name structure. Hope it’s helpful.

Joanie B
Guest

Thanks for a great article. I am just about to publish my very first blog and feeling a bit nervous! Your advice was very welcome at this time – thank you again 🙂

Marcell Grozavesti
Guest

usefull!

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Izzy
Guest

I think its very important to optimise images, some great tips here , I really enjoyed this post, and as I am also doing photography as a hobby, I will definitely use your tips in future.

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[…] The Basics of Image Optimisation and SEO for Photographers by Will Barnes (@willdropphoto) […]

Ritesh Gaur
Guest

A well-crafted post! Kudos to that 😀

Mark Adams
Guest

Some great tips here that can have a significant impact on the number of eyes you get on your photography. Side note, I love Coheed and Cambria! Saw them play a show at the Masonic last year.

Mark
Guest

This is very much great and hope fully nice blog. Every body can easily get perfect information from here.

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