You’re looking forward to reading a book you’ve heard marvels about.
You get comfy on your couch with the book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.
You open up to the first page…
Only to find out that it’s written in a foreign language!
So what do you do?
You have two options: You can either learn the language, or you can read the book in translation.
While the former is a long and time-consuming process (during which you might lose interest in the book altogether), the latter is a much easier and more practical option.
Just like a non-native who can’t read a language, Google can’t read images perfectly.
And Google isn’t the only one.
Your users with visual impairments and other disabilities can’t see what’s in your pictures either, so their only option to “see” your visual content is to have it “translated” by browser software that reads the image for them.
So, how do you cater to Google and all your users with visuals that are both search engine- and disability-friendly?
That’s where image SEO and UX come to the rescue.
Image SEO: How to Optimize Your Visuals for Google and Users
Image SEO for Google
1. Keyword Research
Don’t underestimate the power of keyword research for images!
Image SEO is not only about optimizing main content keywords that you also use in images to help your content’s overall rankings.
It’s also important (and smart) to optimize an image as a piece of standalone content, with its own keyword(s).
Dan Morgan of WebSpection managed to get one of his photos to rank #1 in Google Images for such a keyword as “best person in Cardiff” in less than four days with a targeted image SEO strategy.
Truly, you can optimize images like you would for a webpage or PDF file.
To get keyword suggestions specific for Google Images, use a tool like Kparser which includes “Google Images” among its suggestion options.
Here’s what I got when I searched for “marketing:”
The search returned a decent 573 keyword suggestions, divided into topical categories to make the decision process easier. Volume and CPC value are hidden in this free version of Kparser, but the results suffice for a first step in your image keyword research.
Like with text-based content, keyword research makes it easier to index and rank images in Google.
In fact, Dan Morgan’s case study also showed how linking to the image using that keyword made it easier to rank it. (So link building for images is a thing! Yay!)
From there, you can use Monitor Backlinks to track how your images are ranking for specific keywords, as well as any backlinks to them.
Just head to the Your Links tab to find all the links pointing to your website, including image backlinks.
Focus your attention on the Anchor & Link To column—this tells you the URLs on your website where each backlink is pointing.
Image URLs will typically end with a “.jpg.”
If you use WordPress, you can also recognize these links by the “/wp-content/” folder name in the URL.
Try Monitor Backlinks for free with our 30-day trial. No credit card or commitment required, and you can start tracking your backlinks, keywords and competitors right away!
2. Alt Tags
To improve indexation of your images, you have to make your alt tags as descriptive as possible.
A good way to do that is to look at the image and think “how would I describe it?,” and then put that down in words.
Or, you can record yourself explaining what’s in the image to a visually-impaired imaginary friend and transcribe this text inside of the alt tag.
Naturally, you also have to do some keyword optimization for the keywords you chose in the first step. This will help that image (and its surrounding content) rank better in search engines by getting properly indexed and searchable for that keyword and topic.
Here’s the alt tag for one of the images in an article on my motherhood blog:
I adopted both a descriptive alt text (for search engines and visually-impaired readers) and a caption for the benefit of all users (this one slightly more descriptive and still readable by screen readers for disabled users).
However, I made a mistake here: I didn’t include the post’s main keywords!
The main key phrase I tried to optimize the post for was “staying sane while pumping.” So, a good alt text for this image could’ve been something like “Image of myself watching a YouTube video to stay sane while pumping; it can get so boring!”
Make sure to include the main keyword(s) of your image and content in the alt tag. The union of a descriptive text and main keywords in the alt tag will do charms for your rankings.
3. Image Filename
A piece of content in the form of an image will have, like every other file on the web, its own URL. And just like your post has its own slug, even your image will have a “slug” in the URL—something.png for example.
Given the importance of keywords for good rankings, adding keywords in the filename (e.g. content-marketing.png) is critical for Google to correctly index your image and make it findable by keyword search.
You want a searcher who’s looking for content containing that keyword (in both Web Search and Image Search) to find your image.
Below is an example from NeilPatel.com:
As you can see, Neil lives up to the popularity of his name. He played it smart with keywords in the filename and he used the same keywords in the alt text.
There are a few areas where this alt text could be improved, however. It’s super-short and contains only the keyword, with no descriptive text that might aid users reading text with the help of assistive technologies.
(We’ll see more about optimizing your alt tag text for visually-impaired users a few sections below.)
4. EXIF Data
EXIF data is all the metadata of the image. That includes the filename, the date the photo was taken or the image created, the timestamp, device, geolocalization, dimensions and file size.
Believe it or not, these data have an important role in image SEO.
In 2014, Matt Cutts said that EXIF data might improve rankings. This isn’t a certainty, but the date and timestamp combined with the geographical location may help Google index the image correctly, insert it into a context, and make it more easily findable by users searching for certain parameters (e.g. local search).
Naturally, if one or more of the EXIF data is confidential or might violate another person’s privacy (or your own), it’ll need to be removed before the image is uploaded online. This will also ensure General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance.
You can use Read EXIF Data (it’s a free online tool) to get an evaluation of your image EXIF data before uploading it.
5. Image Formats
On the web, the smaller and lighter the files you upload, the quicker they’ll load on your page—thus helping you rank faster.
It’s unthinkable to upload photos weighing 3MB each—they’re going to take ages to load! Users may abandon your site earlier than that, negatively impacting your bounce rate and overall conversion goals.
So what optimized formats should you use for your images?
- JP(E)G is the lightest image format and the one that you can compress more easily with tools like Smush Image Compression and Optimization for WordPress. However, it’s also a lossy format.
- GIF is another classic image format for the web that you might use instead of JP(E)G and maintains a good quality while staying low in weight.
- PNG is a good alternative for high-resolution images but it tends to be heavier. Use PNG sparingly on the web, possibly as a download-only version of your image, because it’s hard for image optimization tools to compress.
My advice is to use the PNG format solely when you want to maintain the image resolution, and use the JP(E)G or GIF formats for the majority of your images to make them—and the overall page—load faster for your users.
6. Structured Data
Google states in their Image Publishing Guidelines that structured data can help to index and rank your images better, thanks to rich results and a badge that will provide users with more information about your page and drive more traffic to your site.
You can “label” your images in structured data as a video, a recipe or a product, depending on what’s more relevant to you and your users. We have a great guide to implementing structured data and schema markup here.
Google also recommends that you follow the general guidelines for structured data in order to get your images correctly indexed.
Image SEO for Visually-Impaired Users
1. Alt Tags
Yes, alt tags are getting a second mention, this time for their hand in accessibility and UX.
These tags are critical when dealing with visual disabilities.
Naturally, the tags must make sense within the overall context, because when a user’s assistive device reads the preceding paragraph and then goes on with the remainder of the text, the image alt tag there must work like a “glue” between the two pieces of content.
It must also be clear to the user that when the assistive device reads the image, that it is in fact reading the text describing the image, creating a mental image for it using words.
Take a look at this example from the Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) website.
Particularly given the audience, the webmaster has made sure that pretty much the only image on the site—the logo—has a great example of alt text that works for both disability and SEO.
After what we could consider a keyword, “gaad logo” (also appearing in the filename), the alt tag then goes on to describe exactly what the logo contains, spelling out each letter of the acronym in the logo and the way it’s written, creating a mental image with words.
Another good example comes from my friend’s blog, where she explains in detail what each of her photos contains. I underlined one of the alt texts here:
As you can see, she describes exactly what’s in the photo, using clear mental images and scientific terms when necessary.
So let’s not focus only on SEO and short, three-word keyword descriptions. Instead, go more in detail for the benefit of users who need words to imagine what’s in the image they can’t see.
There’s no issue from an SEO point of view if your alt text is longer, and your users definitely come first (something Google says all the time, too).
2. Image Text to Transcript
There are some types of images that are more complex to describe, such as sequences, comic pages or images that contain a lot of text in addition to the visual elements.
In cases like this, the best thing to do is to first use the alt tag to add a title (with keywords). Then, under the image, add a transcription of what’s in the image as a caption, followed by a description of the visual element of the image.
SlideShare, the popular platform for sharing presentations, automatically adds transcriptions of each uploaded slide under its description and comment sections.
Take a look below at the transcription that shows up for this slide by Piktochart.
The numbers at the beginning of each sentence refer to the page of the slide that the slice of text comes from, and they’re clickable so that you can easily load the single page you want to focus on.
As an alternative option, you can use the longdesc attribute to add a link to your image description, reserving the alt tag for your SEO description containing keywords. This is a good solution for infographics that contain a lot of content.
This way, you’ll be able to meet the needs of users with visual impairments, and at the same time, you’ll improve your content from both an SEO and a user experience viewpoint.
Even users without a disability could find these images easier to consume, as visuals can often appear blurry on certain devices or due to the speed of the internet connection. Transcribing your images ensures they can always be understood by all your users.
3. Assistive Technologies
To make your image SEO even more meaningful for visually-impaired users, you can also implement old and new web technologies to your page design.
These assistive technologies are available to all website owners and organizations, and can be easily learned or passed over to your web designer or webmaster.
Available through MDN Web Docs is Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA), a set of attributes to make websites and web applications more accessible to users with disabilities.
This is how you can use ARIA with your images to make them easily readable by assistive devices:
- With the attribute
role, you can indicate what role the image has in your text.
Example: <img role=”infographics” src=”seo-practices-2018.jpg” alt=”My infographics for SEO best practices to implement in 2018″ />
aria-hiddento tell screen readers not to read the text in your image alt tag. In this case, you’d use the alt tag for SEO only.
Example: <img aria-hidden=”true” src=”company-team-2018.jpg” alt=”Me and my content marketing team at Marketing Event 2018″ />
To further improve the experience of your users with disabilities, you may also implement WCAG techniques (which include the above-mentioned ARIA). These will help you optimize all your content for accessibility, even text and PDF files.
Image SEO is probably one of the most essential and socially-sensitive SEO practices you’ll ever implement on your website.
It can change how Google sees and ranks your images (especially those you want to rank!), and it can change how people use and interact with your site for the better.
Compared to what it was like 10 years ago, there are now plenty of tools and resources available to help you optimize your visual content for both search engines and visually-impaired users.
So, go and change your image SEO and accessibility for the better—starting today!