Over the past few months, the okwrite team has been delving into all the ways that our content is being read in terms of search engine optimization (SEO), particularly in regard to Google’s BERT rollout.
As an extension of that, this article will take a closer look at stock photos to see if they affect SEO and, in turn, your page’s overall search engine rankings.
Let’s dive in.
What are we talking about when we say “stock photos” and “SEO”?
With all my articles, I like to present simple definitions of what the article is talking about so that everyone is on the same page. The two core terms for this article are stock photos and SEO.
Typically, stock photography is a supply of images that are licensed under a paid or royalty-free type of license. This means that a company that licenses the photos has paid the photographer and/or agency who produced the photo allowing them to use the image openly, as long as they give credit and use the image within the limitations of the license.
Stock photo agencies have historically operated under the Rights Managed license system, which allows stock image agencies and stock photographers to negotiate rates, the size of the image, and how often the image can be used.
However, more license types have emerged. Royalty-Free is one of the most popular forms. The Royalty-Free license isn’t altogether free. Instead, buyers pay a fee that is predetermined (and one-time) upfront to gain rights for the photo. This saves the buyer from having to pay a royalty fee every time the image is reproduced.
Royalty-Free license still has it’s limitations (upwards of 500,000 reprints). This is where extended licenses come into play. Extended licenses are for major prints of an image, as would be the case with a major magazine or a movie studio. This allows for the image to reprinted for things like memorabilia, and so forth.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process by which an algorithm ranks and categorizes factors on webpages in order to filter and organize them according to search result preferences. SEO looks at factors within a domain, on the page itself, and on the entire website, including relevant backlinks, UI factors, brand signals, and more.
As online marketers (and people), SEO is how we live our lives. Without SEO, searching the web would be dreadful, as we would be spending too much of our time vetting websites for predictability.
So what does this have to do with SEO? The opportunities that the internet has provided for us means that millions of people are publishing some type of content online at any given time. When we try to filter through all the content, we can easily get backlogged trying to find the exact type of content that we want.
With search engines like Google and Bing, we have powerful machines at our fingertips that help to redirect our searches to the websites and companies that make sense for our search. We’ve gone through how SEO works in other blog posts (like here!). Just know that SEO looks at certain levels of quality, and this quality is partially based on what Google whats, but largely based on what the people want.
Whenever we plug a search into Google, we’re essentially asking Google to do all the heavy lifting for us and to go through each of the pre-determined factors that make up a high-quality webpage.
What we know about images and SEO
When we look at SEO factors related to images, it doesn’t appear like Google is able to actually read the image source or label the type of image you have used.
There are other image-related factors that the algorithm looks at, though. For example, images should be image optimized. This means that the images also convey relevancy signals to the search and to the rest of the web page. This includes the name of the image, the alt text provided, the title of the image, its description, and caption.
Webpages with images also appear better in SERPs, omitting images signify a decreased content quality. Additionally, Google also prefers its own brand’s images over others. But so far, nothing has spoken to how SEO reads images.
Other marketing agencies suggest that, well, of course, stock images will affect how a company is perceived and their customer engagement. If this is the case, then there would be less chance for a visitor to click-through with a company that uses stock images, and the webpage would be showing a high bounce rate.
While user engagement is measurable, it is based on inferential data and it does not show a causal link.
How to Image Optimize for User Engagement
While image optimization alone will not boost the image to number one in a Google image search, it will improve your overall page ranking. Optimizing your images for SEO makes your page more readable by Google.
You should be employing these basic image-related SEO tactics:
- Alt tag and title tag
- Keywords in filenames (but don’t duplicate tags or keyword stuff)
- GEO coordinates within image properties
- Linking to external images
- It could help to syndicate your image across your website
Other SEO improvements you can consider:
Images should be in either .JPG, .PNG, or .GIF. In general, a .PNG produces a much higher quality image but it will be larger and is better suited for graphs and line drawings. With a JPEG you will lose some image quality but it is surprisingly better suited for photography.
To not compromise on image quality, you can compress your images. A compressed image will improve a website’s load time. WordPress plugins like TinyPNG or WP Smush plugin can do this for you. Know that uncompressed images are often 21% of a web page’s weight so compressing images (within reason) can drastically reduce that baggage.
Set Appropriate Dimensions
The dimensions of your website refer to the way that the content on our site takes up space. All blogs are capped out to a width of 720px. So this means that images will never be bigger than 720px. If you have an image with more pixels (one that is larger) then your browser will still need to load the entire file size and then resize the image. Setting an appropriate file dimension will drastically decrease this lag time.
Decrease File Size
Google recommends three open-source tools for experimenting with the quality settings for your images: Guetzli, MozJPEG (by Mozilla), and pngquant. They recommend dialing down on quality in order for that image to be less bulky.
Set Aspect Ratios
Setting the image aspect ratio is a fancy way of saying that your image is responsive. So if your 720px image is loaded onto a tiny mobile phone, the image will adapt to the width of the device and look good at around 320px or so. Not setting these aspect ratios wastes a lot of bandwidth and user patience.
The Case for NOT Using Stock Photos: Future-thinking
So you’ve image optimized your entire website, but is it worth it if your images are stock photos?
In an AMA with Gary Illyes about one year ago, SEO Redditors got a glimpse of some of the things that Illyes, Chief of Sunshine and Happiness and trends analyst, has been working on. Illyes specific focus as of late has been images and videos, so we know that we are getting some insider knowledge from him.
While this AMA is about a year old, it’s still telling us a lot about what Google wants to roll out in the future.
Illyes’ AMA suggested and confirmed a few things:
- Image recognition is a Relevancy Signal (we know this)
- Image optimization is not considered a direct ranking factor images and video rankings
- Google knows that video and image search are ignored, and confirm that they have potential in terms of SEO
I also think that Illyes was alluding to this: Google’s Vision AI. According to this, Google’s new AI API is able to detect emotion, understand text, and more based on AutoML Vision models. This exploratory API is trainable – you can train it right now – and it uses common API types (REST and RPC).
When I plugged in a generic picture of a tree into the API (below), it spit out a search result related to trees (below the tree photo). I did not have to tell it that it was a tree, and you can see the file name is generic (photo-1067333).
In other examples, the Visual AI is able to detect what is in the image. I would imagine that this AI API will improve and eventually, the AI will want to determine photo originality, relevance, or application.
On the outset, it seems like there are factors related to an image that SEO considers when optimizing a page. However, at the moment, none of these factors are concerned over stock photos.
This leaves us with an important question: Is there really any push to consider purchasing original photos?
My answer? Yes. Absolutely.
And here’s why:
The thing that keeps cropping up in all this research around machine learning, AI, and even now with this image AI is that Google truly cares about web content quality. Its BERT machine has evolved from simple natural language processing (NLP) to be able to read forwards and backward and to ascertain the relevance of words around words.
And it’s been said before: high-quality content will be rewarded.
This is not to say that stock photos are low-quality, or that having them on your page necessarily means that your other content is low quality, but this does means that the front-facing web page that your business displays is becoming more and more comprehensively important. It’s no longer that your services are what’s is most important, but the algorithm may start to consider the effectiveness of your brand qualities.
An unfortunate reality is that this can weed out those who are good at their job but just can’t sink a lot of money into creating a unique image.
This begs another question: Should SEO look at stock photos?