How to Optimize Your Site’s Images for Search

Amanda Haskew

It’s no surprise that well-optimized content is essential to winning in the online game, especially when it comes to beating the competition in search engines like Google and Bing. True, content is the words on your website, but it’s so much more.

If you’ve invested in improving your site’s organic visibility through search engine optimization (SEO), you’ve probably done a lot of content work. Have you stopped to think about the images on your site, though?

Making sure your site’s images are search engine friendly greatly increases the chances that they’ll appear in the results for image searches. And with the popularity of Google Images, that’s something you’ll want to capitalize on. Not only can you potentially increase your traffic, but you’ll also make your site more user friendly – it’s a win-win.

So, how do you do it? Follow these tips and tricks.

Choose a Friendly File Format and File Name

When you upload files to your site, it’s best to make sure they’re in a commonly used format, such as JPEG, GIF, or PNG. Doing so ensures that they will display properly on the frontend of your site. These formats are also widely accepted by social media platforms, meaning that your images will display correctly when shared on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

For SEO purposes, it’s important that your image file names be descriptive – no mumble jumble of letters and numbers allowed here. Include a few words that indicate what the image is to help the search engines better parse the content of your photo. For example, use basket-of-puppies.jpg, not IMG04876.jpg.

Pay Attention to Size and Speed

Speed is the name of the game for SEO today. Sites need to load lightning fast, and nothing will slow them down like large, oversized images. When adding images, always make sure they are sized to the specifications provided by your web company. Ideally, your vendor (or content management system) has a list of dimensions to help you ensure that images load quickly and display correctly.

One crucial aspect of getting images to load quickly is compression. Essentially, you want to make the image size as small as possible while maintaining the quality of the image itself. There are a few programs you can use for easy image compression, including JPEGminiAdobe Photoshop, and tinyPNG. You’ll need to use your judgement when compressing – take a look and make sure the image stays clear, crisp, and sharp.

Think About Context

This should go without saying, but it’s important that the images you use complement the text on the page. Keep in mind that the search engines will use the rest of the content on the page to understand the content of your images, so it’s important that they match. You can provide useful context for your images through captions and titles, as well as by choosing images that enhance your existing text.

Add Your Alt Text

Here’s a biggie, folks. If you’re working on optimizing images for search, you can’t forget to add your alt text. This is a small snippet of text that you add in the backend of your site. Most content management systems will allow you the ability to add alt text when you upload photos.

Alt text is a little like closed captioning. Because search engine bots don’t see images like humans do, they rely on alt text to determine what an image actually is. Most importantly, this text tells the engines which queries the images on your site should rank for.

Use the alt text field in your site to add a few words that tell the search engines what the image is. Taking our basket of puppies example again, I might add alt text that says “four-yorkshire-terrier-puppies-in-a-basket.” Simple, but important!

Adding alt text also increases the usability of your site. If users have images disabled or extremely slow Internet connections, they will see the alt text instead of your intended image. Also, visually impaired visitors who use screen readers depend on alt text to understand visual content on your site.

Create an Image Sitemap

A sitemap is essentially a roadmap to the different URLs on your site. If your website is registered in Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools), you have the ability to easily upload and submit a sitemap. It will even test your sitemap for you and help you debug any issues.

Sitemaps help search engines more intelligently and efficiently crawl the content on websites. In addition to traditional sitemaps, you can create image sitemaps to guide the search engine crawlers to important visual content on your site. By including an image sitemap, you can tell Google which images you want to be sure they crawl and index. This can come in particularly handy for large sites that use a large number of photos, such as ecommerce sites.

You may need the help of a developer to create a sitemap, but once you have one, submitting it in Search Console is pretty foolproof. Just navigate to the Sitemap field, add the URL for your sitemap in the box, and click submit!

Keep Learning!

Image optimization is an important but often overlooked area of search engine optimization. With a few extra steps and a little extra effort, you can make sure your site packs a big SEO punch. What I’ve covered is just the tip of the iceberg, though. If you want to keep learning, check out Google’s image publishing guidelines and image sitemaps guide.


Amanda Haskew is SEO director at Papercut Interactive, a web development and digital marketing company founded in 2001. Papercut services include website audits, custom website development, search engine optimization, and digital marketing. Learn more at www.papercutinteractive.com.

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