It’s alive! Image SEO is back from the dead

Image optimization used to be a vital part of both content and on-site optimization efforts, allowing brands and marketers to use image search as a means of driving traffic to their websites. However, the successful practice of using image optimization for traffic generation was coming to an end. In 2013, Google updated its image search UI and added the now infamous “view image” button, a move that resulted in substantial declines in image search traffic across a number of different verticals.

Large brands and enterprise-level companies suffered the most damage, as they had already spent considerable amounts of effort and resources to optimize their Content Management Systems, image catalogs, captions and XML sitemaps for search engines. Image optimization was ultimately rendered useless by nothing more than a simple button and as such, fell out of use with marketers and SEO specialists.

But what no one saw coming was the complaint filed with the European Commission claiming the tech giant was knowingly using their image search UI update to divert image searchers from websites that were hosting those images in the first place. Fortunately, this story got its happy ending in February of 2018, when Google finally agreed to remove the button and bring image SEO back from the dead.

How does a simple button fit into all of this?
The issue image hosting companies had with Google’s “view image” solution is that it opens the image directly, allowing for it to be easily downloaded, instead of redirecting users to the page that hosts and licenses the actual image. Getty Images, one of the largest stock-image repositories in the world is the one who filed the complaint with the EU, claiming that Google was scraping images for the sake of, well, Google, while at the same time failing to provide credit for the original owners of said images.

Given that Google had already been fined more than €2.42bn by the EU authorities, removing the “view image” button and avoiding a costly and oftentimes lengthy trial becomes less a matter of choice and more a matter of practicality. In the end, the two digital giants managed to reach an understanding and make a mutually beneficial partnership deal, prompting Getty Images to withdraw their charges soon thereafter.

With the “view image” button finally gone, image hosting and licensing websites are starting to experience an increase in image search-related traffic. Data collected from 58 different websites shows a solid 37% increase in image search-related clicks, which is great news, once you consider that those same websites lost around 70% or all their image search traffic just a couple of years ago when the button was first implemented.

Why is image SEO so important?
Image SEO serves two main purposes:

  1. Optimizing the data normally embedded inside the image and
    Search engine crawlers rely on this embedded data to not only index different web pages, but also different on-page elements. Embedded image data includes the file name, title tag, alternative tag, meta tag and in some situations the caption and anchor text.
  2. Reducing the file size while preserving image quality.
    Image size and page load times are closely connected. The bigger the file size, the more time it will take for all of them to load. The more time it takes to load, the more likely is the visitor to abandon your website. Attributes including file size, page-load times, bounce back rates, etc are just some of the many factors considered by search engines when determining your page rank.

How do I optimize my images?
Never use images that you personally do not own or without the necessary permissions. Stock photos are the easiest solution, as long as they are used with taste, they convey your message and don’t feel out of place or out of touch. Besides stock images, you can also use graphics, illustrations or even animated gifs. Always use high-quality, reduced-file size images for your pages. If your images are still too large, you can always reduce their size by wiping the EXIF data. WordPress users are encouraged to use responsive images that have a special srcset attribute that allows them to serve different images for different screen widths and provide a custom mobile experience.

What shall we call you?
The best file name is an informative file name. It should offer clues and provide a useful description regarding the subject matter portrayed in the image. If you have an image of a black cat with a red bow, black-cat-red-bow would probably be your best option. Title tags provide the image title, while alt-tags act as an alternative text used to convey the same information and functionality as if the image were there.

Make sure your alt text contains the SEO keyword corresponding to that page, when appropriate and necessary. If you lack the necessary experience and knowledge about SEO it should be easy enough to find the top digital advertising agencies currently operating in the industry and follow their example.

What lies ahead
As bright as the future seems for image optimization practices, Google is, at the moment, the only search engine to completely remove the “view image” button from its UI. On the other hand, Bing and DuckDuckGo have kept this functionality, signalling that image SEO is nowhere near the level it once was, or potentially could be. In fact, the majority of SEO clients were quite reluctant to spend their valuable resources post-2013. The overall lack of attention and available resources might further slow down the rebound of image SEO, however, it’s safe to say that the practice isn’t going away anytime soon.