How to Optimize Images for SEO – The Ultimate Image SEO Guide (2022 Updated)

image SEO

What it takes to make your images rank

If you're invested in leveraging the internet to grow your brand's reach, you've probably heard many, many people sing the praises of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). 

SEO — the art of optimizing your web content for search engines — is the difference between near-zero traffic and a thriving website full of prospective customers. But does SEO only apply to the written word? 

Nope. Of course not. Visual content can be optimized too. And if you're not optimizing it, you're only putting 75% into your SEO strategy (and getting 75% of the result!). 

But how do you even do image SEO? That's what this article is all about. We'll cover the benefits of image SEO and how to optimize images for SEO. 

Without further ado, let's jump into it. 

What is image SEO?

Before diving into some image optimization tips, let's define “image SEO” quickly.

To understand image SEO, you need to understand regular SEO. Anything you do to help your website rank higher in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) fits under the “SEO” umbrella. That includes optimizing articles for keywords, altering your site structure, and how you format your URLs (this one is uber important but often overlooked). 

So, “image SEO” is anything you do to push your images to the top of search results. Image SEO is not limited to just Google Image Search. Google now shows images on regular web search results pages, so image SEO can also push your article to the top here. 

It's also not limited to just photos. You can (and should!) optimize:

  • Illustrations
  • Charts
  • Diagrams
  • Animations
  • Gifs
  • Header images 
  • Comics 
  • Photos 

… and anything else “visual.”

Now, “image SEO” is not a “set it and forget it” activity. If you want to continue to rank well, you'll need to regularly revisit your images and boost their rankability. 

The benefits of doing image SEO for your website

You know image SEO helps you rank better in SERPs (duh). But that's not its only benefit. When done well, image SEO can:

Bring traffic to your site

The higher your content ranks on search engines, the more people see it and click on it. 

A study that looked at 80 million keywords and billions of search results by Sistrix found that 28.5% of Google users click result #1. Fewer and fewer people click the subsequent results, with just 2.5% of users clicking result #10. 

Google CTR per ranking

Source: Sistrix

If you can help it (and you absolutely can), you want to rank above #4. That's where the serious traffic is. 

Happily, images also help you keep traffic. Our eyes are naturally drawn to colors and shapes, so adding images to your website will keep visitors on your page longer. 

Help your content go viral

If your image content is highly rankable, it's also highly visible. The more visible your content, the better its chances of going viral (spreading quickly through shares). 

Sending your content viral can give your website serious traffic and rankings boost. 

Take the case of #DressGate in 2015. Overnight, this image of a dress that looks yellow and gold and black and blue went viral. At the height of #DressGate, the hashtag was receiving 10,000 tweets per minute. 

#Dressgate

Source: SMPTE

The dress was made by Roman Originals — a UK brand that had set the sales target for the dress at 300 per week. After the dress went viral, they sold 3,000 in only ten days. 

“The dress” now has its own Wikipedia page. Just imagine if that was your product. 

"The dress" has its own Wikipedia page

Note: To learn more about viral content, check out “Viral Content: How To Get Shared Like Crazy on Social Media.”

Drive sales

Viral success and strong traffic figures aren't just great for your brand's reputation. More traffic means more leads for your ecommerce business. More leads mean more sales. 

Thus, SEO-optimized images can provide a strong Return-On-Investment (ROI). 

Make your site load faster 

Finally, one specific activity that falls under the “image SEO” umbrella — compressing your images — will make your website load faster. Faster websites perform better than slower websites because people tend to click the “back” button if you make them wait more than a few seconds. 

How does Google Image Search work?

Before covering our image search SEO strategies, we need to quickly cover how Google Image Search works. 

Google Image Search uses algorithms to locate images that meet the searcher's intent. There are two primary search mechanisms. 

1. By Content 

Google uses this first mechanism when your query is text-based. Here's how it works. 

Google's algorithm takes your request and tries to work out a few key things:

  • What is your intention? 
  • What is your goal? 
  • What do you NOT want to see? 

For example, if you searched for “vegetarian Pad Thai,” Google might determine that:

  • You intend to view images of a Pad Thai dish
  • Your goal is to find a Pad Thai that doesn't contain meat
  • You don't want to see images of a Pad Thai with meat 

Google then searches its content stores for images marked with words similar to the terms you searched for. For example, images labeled “pad-thai-vegetarian” or images that come from a page titled something like “Authentic, Tasty Pad Thai (Vegetarian).” 

Though Google's retrieval process is complicated, it happens in seconds. Here's the result of the search for “vegetarian Pad Thai”: 

Vegetarian pad Thai SEO images on Google

2. By Image

Google uses this second mechanism when you search for images using an image. You might know this one as “reverse image search.” 

Here's how it works. 

You press “search by image,” and Google offers you two choices:

  1. You can paste the URL of an image
  2. You can upload an image 

If you select option #1, Google will search for the image's URL and show it (plus similar images or other versions of the same image). 

If you select option #2, Google will identify distinct points, colors, textures, lines, and shades. It will then find the closest possible matches for your image and return them in search results. 

You can see that if we search for this image:

Vegetarian pad thai searched by image search by pasting the URL of an image

Source: PinchofYum

We get these search results:

Vegetarian pad thai searched by image search by uploading an image

Best practices to rank well on Google Image Search 2022 

Okay. So, we're finally here. For the remainder of this article, we'll focus on REAL, actionable strategies you can use to get your images to rank well (even if you're not a marketing genius). 

We've already waited enough. So without any further lead-in, let's jump into it!

Prioritize original images — no stock photos

It's easy to simply fall back on using stock photos to make your website look visually interesting. We get it. Stock images are cheap, high-quality, and designed to draw the eye in. They can instantly elevate the look of a page and make your website look super professional. 

However, your chances of ranking well in image searches are near zero if you don't publish any fresh images. Image search favors value-adding results. 

Producing new images from scratch isn't as really hard as it sounds. 

If you're looking for stock-style images, try creating your own! Ask your team members to pose for some photos or pull photos from past company events. Your images will be more “yours.” 

Note: You don't need a professional camera for high-quality images. Many modern smartphones take excellent photos. 

Or, maybe you're looking for supplemental materials like charts, graphs, diagrams, and tables. If you don't wear the “data analyst” hat often, try a graph maker like Visme, Google Charts, SmartDraw, or LucidChart. Canva is also a reliable option. 

Or, if you're looking for more artistic content like illustrations or comics, consider commissioning some. If an image will elevate the look of your website and draw in traffic, it's worth investing in. 

Add context-relevant images

Unfortunately, you can't just slap an image into a random spot on your website and call it a day. Google's algorithm considers the context of an image carefully. So, if your image is out-of-place, Google won't know what to make of it, and it won't rank well in search results. 

To find ideal spots for images, comb your website and look for large chunks of text or wordy explanations of difficult topics. These are prime spots to lose visitors, so they benefit from images the most. 

Then, think about what type of image would work best. Here are some options:

  • Comics = perfect for places that need a touch of lighthearted humor 
  • Photos = best for showing things that are difficult to explain 
  • Graphs and charts = ideal for sharing data points 
  • Gifs = excellent for showing something complicated with multiple steps
  • Illustrations = perfect for adding personality to a page

Finally, consider the content of the image and make sure it matches the content of the surrounding text. The thought “this is random” should never cross readers' minds. 

Use the right image format

The file format of your image isn't something most people pay much attention to, but Google certainly does. You'll need to select the right format to rank well. 

Here's a brief overview of the most popular formats and when to use them. 

  • PNG. If you are sharing a photograph or image with lots of detail or color, PNG is the “go-to” file format. Just be aware that PNG images tend to be larger, so don't add too many to the same webpage. 
  • JPEG or JPG. If you share something you want to look good printed, JPEG is for you. Remember that if you compress a JPEG image, its quality will drop. 
  • WebP. If you are sharing content that is only meant for the web, WebP is your best choice. WebP images are 26% smaller than PNG images, and they are made to be compressed without sacrificing quality. 
  • SVG. Sharing a logo? Great! You should use this format. 
  • TIFF. These images load very slowly. Avoid them if you can. 

Compress your images

According to httparchive's data, web pages need to load a median of 961.2kb worth of images on desktop devices and 893.5kb worth of images on mobile devices.

If you know anything about SEO, you know that faster-loading web pages rank better. The same is true for images, which is why you need to compress them. 

Compressing images, that is, reducing the size of the image in bytes, helps them load quickly. 

You can compress your images using a tool like TinyPNG. TinyPNG can reduce the size of WebP, JPEG, and PNG documents by up to 80% without affecting the image's quality. 

If you don't like TinyPNG, other options include Imaginify, Kraken.io, OpenCV, Cloudinary, and ImageMagick. 

How much should you compress images by? Ideally, your images should be 70kb or less. However, this won't be possible for some images, so try for under 150kb. 

Avoid copyright conflict

If you've ever had your work stolen and republished online, you'll know how much it sucks. But copyright conflicts aren't just a moral issue. Uploading stolen content to your website will damage your chances of ranking well (as you aren't delivering original content). 

You can also get a takedown notice. If the image's owner finds your website, they can issue you with a notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). You must comply with a takedown notice. 

Now, all this doesn't mean you can't use images you find online — of course, you can! You just need to adhere to copyright laws, provide a link to the original image, and give the author credit. 

Customize image file names

Search engines don't have eyes, so they rely on other cues to understand an image's content and where it fits into the world of the web. One such cue is the image's file name. Which image do you think would rank better? One titled “IMG_3124” or one titled “vegetarian-pad-thai?” 

There is an art to coming up with the ideal file name. You want your name to be short but descriptive. Think “vegetarian-pad-thai,” not “pad-thai-with-no-meat.” 

You also want your name to use more nouns, adjectives, and verbs than prepositions (like “at,” to,” and “a”). Think “rare-frog” rather than “a-rare-frog.” 

If you have multiple similar images, choose distinct names for each rather than using numbers to separate them. If you give every image a similar name, they'll compete with each other (in regular SEO, we would call this “keyword cannibalization”).

Finally, you need to separate words with the “-” symbol. Otherwise, Google might accidentally misinterpret the image. For example, “theater-stage-after-performance” could be interpreted as “the-ater-stage-after-performance.” 

The right time to rename your file is before uploading it to your website. Simply select it and press “rename.” 

Optimize alt text to be SEO-friendly 

Alt tags appear when a webpage can't load an image. They typically describe the image's contents, so you still get what it's trying to convey. If you're interested in web accessibility, you've probably heard about them. 

Like your image title, you can optimize your alt tags for search engines. Here's how. 

You want to start by grabbing the image title, as you'll build your tag around it. Let's work with the example “spicy-mee-goreng” and imagine we are using this photo:

a photo of spicy mee goreng

Source: HookedOnHeat

To turn this into an alt tag, you need to add the type of image. In this case, our image is a photograph. So, we would add “a-photo-of” to “spicy-mee-goreng,” leaving us with “a-photo-of-spicy-mee-goreng.” 

Unlike titles, you don't need to add the “-” symbol. You can use spaces or the “_” symbol instead, depending on your website's style. 

The best time to change your alt tag is when you upload your image. However, you can still alter it after you've published your post. 

Write descriptive image captions 

Now, Google doesn't just pay attention to the image itself. It also looks at the content surrounding the image, including captions. 

The best captions add context and value to the image. For example, this caption on an image from the National Geographic article “These Oddball Galaxies Are Missing Their Dark Matter” describes how the image was produced and shows the reader some of the phenomena discussed in the article. 

Image from the National Geographic article "These Oddball Galaxies Are Missing Their Dark Matter"

Source: National Geographic

To produce a similarly strong caption, start by describing the image. For a quiche recipe, you might write something like “A picture of the Weekday Vegetable Quiche with a scallion and pepper salad.” 

Then, add how the image was created. For example, “Photo taken by Audrey Suttcliffe” or “Made with Adobe Illustrator.” 

Then, if you choose, finish your caption with a tag like “#vegetarianquiche.”

All in all, your caption should be 5 – 25 words long. Any longer, and you'll lose people.

Define your image dimensions

This tip specifically applies when you are using Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) or Progressive Web Apps (PWAs). It's fairly straightforward: add the dimensions of your image into your source code. 

Doing so lets your browser allow enough space for the image to load, so the content doesn't shift around. 

Optimize your page title & meta description 

This tip probably falls under the regular SEO umbrella more than the image SEO one, but it's important to keep in mind. Google's algorithm pulls information about the image from the image's page. So, make sure you optimize the page's title and meta description around a keyword that's similar to the one used in your image. 

For example, imagine your page was about the health effects of PFAS, and your image depicted different household items that contain PFAS. 

You might call your image “items-that-contain-pfas” and title your article: “How To Keep Your Family Safe From PFAS.” In the meta description, you could write, “PFAS are manufactured chemicals used in everyday household items. Learn about their health effects here.” 

Don't forget to add your image to your sitemap

Your image sitemap is a blueprint that search engines like Google crawl to index your content. Sitemaps also help search engines sort your most and least important content, so visitors find the best information quickly. 

If you have particular images that are highly important, add them to your sitemap. This increases the chance of crawlers indexing them — ultimately helping them rank better. 

Make use of structured data markup

Creating structured data markup for your images will help search engines interpret (and thus rank) them better. Specifically, it will stop Google from misinterpreting the image by associating it with surrounding elements. Instead, Google will use the structured data you provide. 

To get started with structured data, we recommend you check out Google's Structured Data Markup Helper. It will guide you through the process step-by-step. 

Use a good image URL structure

Google pays attention to many cues when interpreting and ranking an image. URLs are one of these. 

To make your image easy to index, make your URLs logical and keyword-focused. You should also use hyphens, avoid capital letters, and keep the URL short. Consider “myblog.com/how-to-write-a-newsletter/mediaberry-newsletter-example/” vs. “myblog.com/how-to-write-a-newsletter-article24855/ShrychD6365/.” 

Source: SEOMechanic

Don't over-optimize your image SEO

It may seem like you should optimize your images as much as humanly possible, but this approach can backfire if you aren't careful. Over-optimized web content has a distinct robotic look, and Google knows search engine users aren't a fan of it. 

Above all else, make sure your content flows naturally. Don't cram keywords where they don't belong, don't continuously republish content without updating it, and don't throw grammar out the window so you can make a long-tail keyword fit. Google's algorithm is fantastic at detecting prepositions, so you won't be punished in SERPs for adding a “to” or an “a” where needed. 

Bear in mind that Google has constantly evolved to be human-first. So, don’t lose your human touch over SEO but balance both of them well. 

Create informative and high-quality sites

In 2022, you can't cheat your way to the top of SERPs by slapping together low-quality content. Google's ranking system now looks carefully at how people interact with pages. If they don't stay on the page long because the content is bad, Google will take notice. 

Instead of relying on just optimization to get results, invest in building a high-quality website that provides value to readers. Here's are a few things that make a website high-quality:

  • The content is accurate.
  • The website uses statistics, quotes, or examples to explain complicated topics. 
  • The website features relevant images that add to the content. 
  • The website has a clear structure and uses H2s, H3s, and H4s. 
  • The website is easy to navigate. 
  • The content is thorough. 
  • The website has good backlinks and links to good sources (read “Everything You Need To Know To Understand The True Value of Your Backlinks” to learn more about backlinks). 

Create mobile device-friendly sites

As of the final quarter of 2021, 54.4% of global website traffic comes from mobile phones. That's not surprising to most people — we all keep our smartphones close, after all.  

What is surprising is how many websites aren't optimized for mobile devices. Making your website mobile-friendly will improve the experience and subsequently help you rank better. Google prioritizes mobile-friendly pages and images. 

One of the fastest ways to make your website shine on mobile devices is to turn your pages into AMP pages. If you use WordPress, it's as simple as downloading the AMP plugin and following its instructions.

Pay attention to SafeSearch 

Finally, take SafeSearch seriously and mark your content if necessary. SafeSearch is a program Google created to filter out inappropriate images, so children don't stumble upon them. 

It works like this: if you are publishing Not Safe For Work (NSFW) content, you mark your image as adult content. SafeSearch will then keep it away from children. 

Participating in the SafeSearch program will stop your images from being suppressed — as if a user blocks or reports your content, Google will give it a “negative dot.” 

Image SEO: your secret to ranking well

Image SEO includes anything you do to make your website or web pages rank better in SERPs. When done well, image SEO can draw traffic to your website, send your content viral, drive sales, and make your website load faster. 

We've covered how to rank in Google Image Search in this article, and we recommend you adopt all of the 17 strategies we shared. Especially the practice of compressing images, naming images well, and adding meta tags. These give you the best bang for your buck. 

Good image SEO isn't magic. You just need to invest some time into it, be consistent, and follow image SEO best practices to achieve long-term success. 

So. What are you waiting for? Take the image SEO tools we've given you and grab that #1 spot!

If you'd like to know how Mediaberry can make your SEO dreams happen, reach out to us!

Frequently Asked Questions

Beatrice is the Head of Content and Operations at MediaBerry. She helps brands fulfill their vision through words by helping produce sparkling content pieces that convert. When she isn’t busy strategizing, you’ll find her working on her next novel.

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