How to Improve Google Image Search Ranking
If you can optimize it, you should. And images are no exception.
The images on your website represent another way to drive organic search traffic. Image SEO can be just as important as optimizing your webpage text.
That’s because visual search is booming. Just look at the growth of image-centered platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. Especially on mobile devices, people want to look for information visually.
Search engines recognize this visual-search trend. Latest statistics show that about 28% of regular Google search results contain images, up from 19% only two years ago. And people run transactional and informational types of searches more and more frequently in Google Images search.
It’s no wonder the search engine continues to invest in new features to improve the Google Images user experience.
TL;DR: Google Images represents another path outside of regular web search for your audience to find your site and discover your content. Developments in Google’s image-ranking algorithms put more emphasis on quality and relevance. We provide a list of ways to optimize images for a website and drive traffic from image SEO.
How to SEO Images: Table of Contents
First, we’ll explain the latest news about ranking in Google Images:
- Where Images Can Now Appear in Google
- Updates to the Ranking Algorithm
- Improved Features and Visibility
- AI-Powered Results in Google Images
Then we’ll dive into how to SEO images in 17 steps:
- Track Your Image-based Traffic
- Create High-Quality, Original Content
- Use Relevant Images
- Have a Proper File Format
- Optimize Your Images
- Always Create Alt Text
- Make Use of the Image Title
- Create an Image Caption
- Use a Descriptive File Name
- Implement Structured Data
- Consider Image Placement on the Page
- Analyze the Content Around the Image
- Be Careful with Embedded Text
- Create Page Metadata
- Ensure Fast Load Time
- Make Sure Images Are Accessible
- Create an Image Sitemap
What’s New with Google Images
Where Images Can Now Appear in Google
Once you have images indexed in Google, they might show up in three different search environments:
- Google Images search: People use this vertical engine specifically for visual searching, and it’s our primary focus.
- Google Web search: The traditional SERP includes images whenever they seem relevant to the user’s query (which is often).
- Google Discover: Large images (1200px wide or more) may surface in Discover as a preview of content to explore. This platform is new since I originally wrote this post. (And here’s what an image needs to qualify for this additional visibility.)
By the way, if you have images you do not want to appear in Google search, you can block them in your robots.txt.
Updates to the Ranking Algorithm
Google wants “to rank results that have both great images and great content on the page” (per this post).
We’ve all had the experience of finding an image and clicking through to a not-so-great webpage. To prevent this, the Google Images algorithm now considers not only the image but also the website where it’s embedded.
Images attached to great content can now do better in Google Images. Specifically, the image-ranking algorithm weighs these factors (in addition to the image itself):
- Authority: The authority of the webpage itself is now a signal for ranking an image.
- Context: The ranking algorithm takes into account the context of the search. Google uses the example of an image search for “DIY shelving.” Results should return images within sites related to DIY projects … so the searcher can find other helpful information beyond just a picture.
- Freshness: Google prioritizes fresher content. So ranking images will likely come from a site (a site in general, but we believe the actual webpage in question) that’s been updated recently. This is probably a minor signal.
- Position on page: Top-ranked images will likely be central to the webpage they’re part of. For example, a product page for a particular shoe should rank above a category page for shoes.
Improved Features and Visibility
Google Images results pages also have some new features:
- Captions: Image results now show more context. Captions include the website, title of the page where the picture is published, and even licensing information (more on how to do that in a bit).
- Quick facts: Extra information may appear below an image caption. These quick facts come from Google’s Knowledge Graph and could be a brief excerpt from Wikipedia or another source.
- Related searches: Google provides related search terms within the image search results as you scroll through them. Buttons at the top help users narrow their search, but “Related searches” links can also appear as you scroll down the SERP:
AI-Powered Results in Google Images
One futuristic feature that Google has already rolled out is its AI-powered Google Lens technology. It lets users identify objects of interest within images as they look through image search results. For now, the Lens feature works only from image search in mobile browsers, not in the Google app.
Using AI technology, Lens analyzes a picture and detects what’s in it. If you click an identified object, Lens brings up other relevant image results. Many of these link to product pages so you can continue your search or buy the item you’re interested in. On a mobile device screen, you can also outline any part of an image, even if it’s not preselected by Lens, to trigger related results and dive deeper on what’s in an image.
To show this in action, I searched for [diy fire pit], chose one of the results and pressed the Lens icon (see the first image below). Lens automatically detected furniture items in the picture and offered related results (second screenshot). But I wanted the firepit, so I manually selected it to reveal a new set of image results (third shot):
All of this new AI technology encourages more image-based searches. It also increases the population of search results.
If Google can understand what’s inside even non-optimized images, they might rank. So your images potentially have much more competition.
And … image SEO becomes even more important. It’s time to optimize your images so that they can stand out.
How to Optimize Images for SEO
How do you ensure you can get your share of visibility in Google Images?
First of all, Googlebot needs to be able to crawl, index and understand what your images are about. Only then can they rank.
The latest updates to Google Images tell us that relevance and quality are more important than ever. That means providing the search engine with as much context as possible.
1. Track Your Image-based Traffic
You might be surprised to know how many visitors you already get through Google Images search.
You can track organic search traffic from Google Images using the Search Console Performance report.
How to track your Google Images search traffic:
- Log in to Google Search Console for your website.
- Under Performance, click Search Results.
- Change the search type at the top to Image. This filters the data so you can keep an eye on your traffic from image search.
Alternatively, in Google Analytics you can use the Referral report. Google Images search traffic is broken out from other search traffic. The line with the Source/Medium “google organic / images” is where you’ll find that data.
2. Create High-Quality, Original Content
Search engines want to reward high-quality pages. This applies to the information on the webpage that your image is hosted on, and to the image itself.
In its image best practices help file, Google discourages “pages where neither the images or the text are original content.”
So whenever possible, take your own photos and make your own graphics.
What if you have to use stock photos? There are a lot of ways to modify stock images to make them unique. You can add filters, crop them, overlay text, combine images, and much more.
Also remember that when you do use images from elsewhere, you must honor copyrights, license fees and/or trademark laws.
Google now includes metadata support for crediting images to the proper author and rights holder.
3. Use Relevant Images
Choose or create images that are helpful to the overall theme of the page. That might be an infographic, a diagram, an appropriate photograph or something else.
4. Have a Proper File Format
Basic to image SEO, you need to use a file format that search engines can index. Beyond that, the file format you choose affects the quality and download speed. Both are important when optimizing images.
The three most common image formats used on the web are:
- PNG (Portable Network Graphics) is good for screenshots and images with graphics or text. For complex images, beware that PNGs may create larger files than the other formats. The PNG format uses lossless compression, which means the quality is preserved.
- JPEG, for “Joint Photographic Experts Group,” is good for most photographs. JPEGs create smaller files by using lossy compression, which means there will be a loss of image quality every time you save this file format.
- GIF (Graphical Interchange Format) is used to create animations. GIFs use lossless compression, which means the quality remains the same.
Other image file types that are becoming popular include:
- SVG. This is a scalable vector format. As opposed to the raster types mentioned above, vector graphics can be extremely small files that don’t lose quality no matter how much they’re enlarged. Vector images use specific commands or programs to construct the image from the ground up, so they are easier to scale and faster to load than raster images, which use bitmaps as a method of storing the information.
SVG isn’t right for photos or complex images, but it works well for simple graphics with geometric shapes, such as a logo.
Now, next-generation image formats exist. These formats have better compression, are higher quality, load faster, and take less cellular data:
- JPEG 2000
WebP has been gaining attention lately. It’s possible to convert existing JPEG and PNG files to WebP. There are even WordPress plugins that can do this on the fly, making all your images lighter weight.
From the Google Developers FAQ page on WebP:
WebP is a method of lossy and lossless compression that can be used on a large variety of photographic, translucent and graphical images found on the web. The degree of lossy compression is adjustable so a user can choose the trade-off between file size and image quality. WebP typically achieves an average of 30% more compression than JPEG and JPEG 2000, without loss of image quality …
5. Optimize Your Image File Size
There’s no single best way to optimize images. For each one, you need to find the optimal balance between minimum file size and maximum quality. Here are must-dos:
- Resize and crop images to be no larger (in dimensions) than they’ll be displayed. With raster-style images (the most common type on the web), you might need to save several versions at various resolutions to work for different uses.
- Choose the most efficient file format per image (see my last point). It’s OK to mix different types of images on the same webpage.
- Use compression to reduce file size. When saving a JPEG, for example, slide the quality bar down as far as you can without losing visual quality. With an SVG file, Google suggests you minify it by running it through a tool like svgo.
- Consider replacing a picture with a different technology altogether. CSS effects can produce shadows, gradients, and more. Web fonts let you show text in beautiful typefaces, which actually improves your page’s usability and crawlability compared to an image.
I suggest you bookmark Google’s image optimization guide for more technical how-tos.
6. Always Create Alt Attributes
Accessibility for all users is important. That’s why adding alt attributes to images is part of our always up-to-date SEO checklist.
Alt text describes what the image is about to the visually impaired who use screen readers. It also can give search engines valuable information about the image’s contents.
Only when appropriate, use a relevant keyword you’re targeting to describe the image.
Remember that with linked images, search engines treat the alt attribute text as the link anchor text. For example, if you have a question mark icon linking users to your help system, include alt=”Help” in your image tag.
7. Make Use of the Image Title
There’s an optional title attribute that you can give to each image. Some tests have shown that Google does index image titles.
8. Create an Image Caption
Add a little extra context by describing the image in a caption. You can also give the image source here, if appropriate.
9. Use a Descriptive File Name
How should you name your images? This is an often-overlooked step when optimizing images. But the file name does help search engines understand what’s in an image, so it matters for image SEO.
When you save your image file, accurately describe the photo in a few words or less. For example, ugly-christmas-sweater is a better file name than IMG01534.
In a webinar with Google’s Gary Illyes at Search Engine Journal, he pointed out that it’s just not feasible for large sites to have accurate file names for all their images (Pinterest, for example). Illyes said this was more of a nice to have than a requirement for ranking.
But more recently, John Mueller said the URL and file name do matter:
Use a good URL structure for your image files. Google uses the URL path as well as the file name to help it understand your images.
Also, if you move or rename an image file, set up a 301 redirect from the old URL to the new one.
10. Implement Structured Data
When you add structured data to your webpage’s HTML, your image results can be richer. Extra bits of information can show along with the image. And that can encourage more clicks and visitors to your site.
What about licensable images? Google now supports structured data for an image’s licensing information. Adding this gives credit to the license holder and also makes it easy for users to learn how to license the image.
11. Consider Image Placement on the Page
Google says in its image best practices page (linked to earlier) that “when it makes sense, consider placing the most important image near the top of the page.”
But in the SEJ webinar, Illyes said that you can put an image “pretty much anywhere on the page” and it can be picked up and shown in Google Images if it’s relevant to the query.
12. Analyze the Content around the Image
Consider the body text around the image. Does it give context to what the reader is looking at?
In the SEJ webinar, Illyes called the content around the image (on the page or in a caption) “critical” to understanding the image.
A$: The big one for me is to get the accessibility right with the alt text, then build around that with good captions and other related text near the image, Then add in a good file name and the image title. #SEOChat
— Paul Thompson (@thompsonpaul) October 11, 2018
13. Be Careful with Embedded Text
In that new video on image SEO embedded above, Google’s John Mueller cautions against embedding important text in an image. For example, don’t put a menu item or page heading in an image; put that text on the page instead.
Not all users and search engines can parse text in an image, and translation apps can’t read it. So it’s better that your navigation, headings, and other important words you want indexed be on-page text.
This is not to say you can’t ever overlay text on a photo (memes, anyone?).
Can Google read text in images? In a word, yes. Google uses optical character recognition (OCR) to read text in images, such as in Google Photos and Google Lens. We’ve tested this repeatedly with Google Search and confirmed that words in images do get indexed. However, OCR may not be 100% accurate. For effective image SEO, you still need to include descriptive text in all the places mentioned in this guide.
14. Optimize Page Metadata
Google shows relevant information about the webpage (where the image appears) in Google Images results.
So when you’re optimizing images, don’t skip the page’s metadata, including title and meta description. They give the user and search engine more context — just like in the regular search results.
There’s no guarantee that Google will use your metadata word for word. But they’re definitely part of its information processing. Google’s image best practices says:
Google Images automatically generates a title and snippet to best explain each result and how it relates to the user query. This helps users decide whether or not to click on a result.
We use a few different sources for this information, including descriptive information in the title, and meta tags for each page.
15. Ensure Fast Load Time
Performance is a huge consideration for image SEO, especially with Google’s Page Experience update around the corner.
Large images can drag down page load time. Here are tips to avoid that:
- Keep image files as small as possible (see Optimize Your Image File Size above).
- Make images responsive. Basically, that means they automatically change size to fit the user’s device. You can read more about responsive images here and in the “responsive images” section of the image best practices page.
- Consider lazy loading, which Google recommends as a way to combat slowness.
- Specify how much space the image is going to take up. Knowing this enables a browser to load the surrounding page content while the image file is being requested. There are several ways to do this, including: with a
<div> container; in the CSS code; or with height and width attributes in the <img> tag.*
*TIP: Not specifying height and width attributes for images is problematic for another reason, too. It’s the most common cause of cumulative layout shift (CLS), or the unwanted movement of content parts as a page loads. CLS is one of the core web vitals that can impact your page experience and, potentially, hurt your rankings.
16. Make Sure Images Are Discoverable
Make sure that search engines can access the images on your site. When they can’t, the robots.txt file is often to blame.
Google Search Console’s “Inspect URL” feature can help you test this. You can also use Google’s mobile-friendly test tool to discover how your pages, including images, work for mobile.
17. Create an Image Sitemap
As an optional step, you can create an image sitemap that lists the image files on your website. This can help Google discover them.
You can create a separate XML sitemap for images, or include them in your regular sitemap file. (Learn more about this in our creating a sitemap tutorial.)
In the webinar at SEJ, Gary Illyes said that image sitemaps “help enormously” with the image discovery process.
I recommend including only original images, and not all site images, in your sitemap. Listing images from any external source may be a waste of the search engine’s processing budget. Google will find them on your pages anyhow. Taking crawl time, as if they have changed, is not needed.
If an image is unique to your site and revised or new, then include it in your image sitemap. If it was already crawled and not altered, a recrawl is simply wasting time.
The changes to Google Images are positive for users and for SEOs. Google has once again elevated the standards for websites to create quality content.
Image SEO will evolve — but many of the basics still hold true. The goal is to create the best experience for users visiting your site.
- Present original, useful content with high-quality, relevant images.
- Make a fast website that doesn’t make users wait for pages to load.
- Optimize your images so that search engines can index them properly.
Apply the techniques in this article to optimize images. You may get a leg up on the competition and more eyeballs on your webpages.
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