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December 6, 2006

Images and Search Engines

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Okay, to officially kick off Day 3 of SES Chicago I have propped myself up (because let’s face it, at this point I need the propping) at the Images & Search Engines session. Myself, Kim Krause-Berg and Matt McGee have joined forces to form ‘blogger central’ (Matt’s term, not mine) in front of the shiny projection screen (late nights = tired eyes). Don’t tell them but I’m telepathically trying to tap into their blog juice. Shh…

Speaking this morning are Shari Thurow (GrantasticDesigns), Liana Evans (Commerce360), Vanessa Fox (Google) and Chris Smith (Idearc).

First off, Danny warns attendees that hotel chocolate does not a breakfast make. Danny has much knowledge. Yum, yum.

Shari Thurow starts off with giving us a search engine optimization review:

• Web pages should contain the words and phrases that your target audience would type into search queries.
• Give search engine spiders easy access to keyword rich content via information architecture, page layout, URL structure.
• Number and quality of objective, 3rd party links pointing to a URL, commonly referred to as link development.

We’ve covered most of this (or actually, Shari did) during the Create a Search Engine Friendly Site panel, so if you need more info on this stuff, check out that post.

Though it should go without saying, Shari reiterates that creating a Web site comprised solely of images is really not advisable. Images do not replace text, they complement it. However, you can maybe get away with using a largely-based image site if your brand is extremely popular or if your keywords are truly unique.

Shari notes that approximately 15 percent to 16 percent of Web searches are users looking for graphic images. The engines have recognized this and designed their interface to have Image Search appear closest to the Web Search function, or have it first among search verticals.

Search engines may recognize the importance of images, but that doesn’t mean they can read them. It’s been said a million times, but it’s still true. Search engines are blind. They can’t compare query terms with the actual content of a graphic image. Instead they must rely on a number of indirect factors to determine what an image is showing. In other words, they’re looking for captions, primary and secondary text, alt text and nearby body text to figure out what the image is really showing users.

To make it easier for the search engines to ‘see’ your graphic content, Shari ran through a number of video optimization tips:

  • First, file names are very important for graphic image optimization. Use keyword-rich text to describe them. For example, logo.gif is bad. Atm-machine.jpg is better.
  • The file should also be named in a way that makes sense to your target audience. Do not let software generate file names (IMG0009).
  • Include descriptive text around the images to help provide context.
  • Make sure your format graphic images correctly.
  • Use captions or labels to provide contextual cues to image search engines.
  • Make sure you don’t robots exclude your graphic images folder (!)
  • If you are unable to create captions, make sure the page is optimized for targeted keyword phrases.
  • Usability counts so minimize download times and always use alt text.

Li Evans looks at the opportunities retailers have in image search, noting that image search is the fastest growing search vertical. Believe it or not, image search has seen a 91 percent increase since this time last year. Image Search is especially important to retailers because it gives them another search marketing avenue where they don’t have to pay for the click.

The four biggest areas of opportunity for image search are in: retail, niche markets, comparison search engines and contextual search engines.

Retail: Though users are searching for images for today’s "hot products", there is an obvious lack of information coming from retailers. Right now the majority of images coming up in queries are being pulled from manufacturer sites – sites where users can’t actually make a purchase. As a retailer, having your image (and therefore your site) appear for popular product searchers puts you at an obvious advantage over your competition and leads targeted customers to your site.

Niche markets: Image Search provides a great opportunity for small retailers. It provides them with another way to increase traffic, better conversion rates, and puts them in a category with less competition from major retailers

Shopping Comparison Engines: Ensure images match products and keywords. Give descriptions of pictures in feed.

Contextual Search Engines: Three out of the four major engines incorporate images in with their regular searches (one box, smart answers, etc).

Chris Smith is up next to discuss how image sharing sites can drive traffic to your site. Chris notes that there is a large potential search engine optimization value coming from social image sharing sites because they provide a lot more ‘signals’ to the engines than regular Web pages.

Much of the rest of Chris’ presentation is centered around Flickr.

Flickr is the most popular image sharing site, with a PageRank of 9 and 29.2 million pages indexed. The design of Flickr is advantageous to SEO. Each photo uploaded has its own Web page with customizable elements like title tags, H1 tags, captions, tagging, cross-grouping, comments, sharing, alt text, optimal linking hierarchies and date taken with page views displayed.

To help improve image optimization, sites should start off with having high quality pictures to use. Picture with good contrast tend to work better. Also, be broad in experimenting with subject matter for pictures. You never know which image will drive the most traffic and conversions to your site. For example, restaurants might show picturesque views or special events rooms. It’s a good idea to experiment around to see what kinds of photos would work best for your site or company.

Chris offers up some tips for optimizing through Flickr:

  • Add unique title appropriate to image and use keywords when naming.
  • Always tag your image with keywords. Be as specific and descriptive as possible.
  • Make photos publicly viewable.
  • Consider loose licensing for your pix – people can use the picture if they link back to your site.
  • Geotag locak specific pictures.
  • Create thematic sets.
  • Use Flickr to host pix for your blog articles.
  • Add links to the description field of your Flickr photo page to related pages on your site.
  • Post as many pictures as possible into Flickr – more pictures will result in more traffic, which can result in more conversions.
  • If you are photoblogging, add a Digg link at the end of your text.
  • Post each picture pages over to del.icio.us.

Google’s Amanda Fox did not present (she said she was ordered not to!), but she is on hand for the Q&A period.

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