The Four Keys to Image SEO Success

  |  February 23, 2010   |  Comments

If you want to scoop up image search traffic you need to create detailed, informative file names, image alt tags, and informative anchor text, and a clear context for your image.

I have this nasty habit of making, what I think are, casual remarks that lead to a bit of controversy. In my last column, I wrote: "Putting key phrases in image ALT tags or comment tags does little good."

A couple people thought that wasn't right. For example, IslandsT wrote:

I like the rest of your ideas and they are great except this one:- 'Putting key phrases in image ALT tags does little good'. Only little good? Do you know that this is one of the most important factors in SEO nowadays? Image search is so important and can always helps us to get extra traffic to our online blog. My point of reference is so often connected to the concept that search engine optimization primarily refers to the blue text links in the search engines. That is an outdated perspective.

SEO (define) takes so many shapes these days. That doesn't make this conversation as clear and straightforward as one might like, however.

SEO refers to many things:

  • Video optimization
  • Local optimization
  • Real-time optimization
  • And most definitely, image optimization

This fact came home to me this past week when a new client discussed all the traffic they were getting from image search.

I'm not talking about some hip hop music site. These people fabricate a niche, industrial product. Only people that knew about this industry would do searches for these kinds of products.

Image search is becoming a significant driver of traffic.

This is amusing because, not long ago, clients were asking me how to stop search engines from indexing their images. They didn't want all that pesky server traffic.

If that line of thinking makes sense to you, the easiest way of stopping search engines from indexing your images is adding something like this to your robots.txt file.

User-agent: *
Disallow: /images/

If your images are all located in a single directory such as "images," this little bit of code will pretty much stop all those nosy search spiders from finding all your juicy images.

You can also specifically designate the Google image spider to stop accessing any of your site using this code in your robots.txt file:

User-agent: Googlebot-Image
Disallow: /

Just don't somehow mash those two pieces of code together. I highly discourage something like this:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /

That will save you a ton of server traffic by telling all search spiders to not bother spidering or indexing anything in your site.

All that said, you would have to make a pretty strong case to me as to why in the world you wouldn't want image search traffic. The point of your Web site is to market your business. While image search takes a bit of "out-of-the-box" thinking, it doesn't take a mental giant to arrive at the conclusion: traffic is traffic.

So, how do you go about scooping up all this image search traffic?

Fortunately for us, Google has done a nice job laying out all the general tips and tricks.

Here are the highlights, which culminates as the four keys to image search optimization success:

  • Create detailed, informative file names. If you upload images from your camera, they are often named things like: img00234.JPG. This doesn't tell anything about the image. A better option would be something like: hp-95-ink-cartridge.jpg.

  • Create detailed, informative image alt tags. With our ink cartridge example, you might say something like: <img src="hp-95-ink-cartridge.jpg" alt="Remanufactured, compatible HP 95 Tri-color Ink Cartridge" />.

    But you also don't want to go overboard with something like this: <img src="hp-95-ink-cartridge.jpg" alt="COMPATIBLE HP 95 Tri-color Ink Cartridge. This is a Remanufactured HP 95 (C8766WN) Color Inkjet cartridge. For HP Deskjet, OfficeJet, PSC, Photosmart printers." />

    You run the risk of looking like you're stuffing key words in the alt tag. This could throw up a spam flag.
  • Create detailed, informative anchor text. Anchor text (the text pages use to link to your site) gives the search engines a clear understanding of where they're about to go. So, if our HP Ink Cartridge page had a link to it from another page on your site, you might link to it like this: HP 95 Tri-color Ink Cartridge.

  • Create clear context for your image. Google says it best:


    Wherever possible, it's a good idea to make sure that images are placed near the relevant text. In addition, we recommend providing good, descriptive titles and captions for your images.

    People rarely make use of the title attribute for images. The describes its use like this:

    The alt attribute is meant to be used as an alternative text if the image is not available, not as a mouse-over text. To show a mouse-over text on images or image-maps, use the title attribute, like this: <img src="angry.gif" title="Angry face" alt="Angry face" />.

    Google is clearly stating that the title attribute plays a role in optimization, so I strongly encourage you to consider using it.

    According to, there is no HTML element for a caption. So, you might do something like this:

    <img src="hp-95-ink-cartridge.jpg" title="Remanufactured, compatible HP 95 Tri-color Ink Cartridge" alt="Remanufactured, compatible HP 95 Tri-color Ink Cartridge" />

    COMPATIBLE HP 95 Tri-color Ink Cartridge. This is a Remanufactured HP 95 (C8766WN) Color Inkjet cartridge. For HP Deskjet, OfficeJet, PSC, Photosmart printers.

Taking time to do these things could significantly help you get a bunch more image search traffic.


Sage Lewis

Sage Lewis is the president of SageRock Digital Marketing. SageRock has been a leader in Web marketing since 1999, offering search engine optimization, paid search marketing, social media marketing, and analytics.

Sage speaks nationally with SES and other prominent Web marketing organizations. He is one of the most sought after speakers and coaches in the field of Web marketing. From coast to coast, Sage has trained, coached, and consulted with some of the largest brands and conferences in the country.

Sage is also "The Web Marketing Video Guy" with nearly 500 Web marketing videos published. Sage writes as an expert for ClickZ in the "Search Engine Marketing" section. He lives in Akron, Ohio with his wife, Rocky, and son, Indiana.

His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.

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