Is Optimizing Photos More Important Than You Think

A few years back I would go to SEO beginner seminars a lot and try to help out with questions that the audience would have. It was less of a seminar, and more of a roundtable, but it was nice to hear from the people that didn’t do SEO for a living. They would dip their toes in it, were generally interested and would ask the absolute best questions to get you thinking. I remember a particular question that really got me thinking about the importance of correctly labeling your photos, and it was simply, “Why, can’t I just use keywords on my image alt tags? Why do I have to actually label it what it is?”

Great question, and there’s a very simple answer.

Think about this, I scan Google images when I am looking for a recipe. I want to find the tastiest looking recipe, and a perfect example is tortilla soup, because everyone’s recipe is different. I like mine thicker than the majority of recipes, and I don’t want to read recipe after recipe to find that soup. I save a lot of time by scanning the images to find the perfect looking recipe. I wouldn’t find that image if it wasn’t labeled properly though.

Another example, my husband was working on our car and couldn’t find the instructions he needed to install a certain part. He was getting frustrated with the search results and I suggested that he switch to Google Images to see if he could find what he needed there. Within seconds he found exactly what he needed.

If this is how my husband and I scan the Internet for results, then there has to be more people out there that find this beneficial as well. And, if you fill the alt tag with nothing but keywords, how are people going to get the images that they really need? Do I want “world’s best tortilla soup recipe ever” or do I want “thick tortilla soup recipe?”

At this point, I knew I was on to something. There will be a change at one point where Google realizes this undiscovered goldmine.

Here comes the slice and dice in your recipe search results. This is exactly what a recipe lover like me has been waiting for. It offers me the pictures I crave, the star ratings that make Allrecipes.com so awesome and the option to filter ingredients. Almost perfect, right? Google forgot about other ways that people may use their images, like my husband searching for auto mechanic pictures. To be honest, I really see this going far past a simple recipe search. How about home remodeling and décor photos? Real estate photos? Restaurant photos?

Maybe, optimizing photos is far more important than we could have ever imagined.

Image Case Study

Well, it’s nice to talk about images being ranked in Google, and we know that Google images has its own bot, but how does it really work? Let’s look at an example. Do a search in Google for “thick tortilla soup recipe” and click over to images.

Out of all the images in the above picture, they all link to a site where I can pull the recipe. However, not all of the images are labeled (using filename and alt tag) with the keywords that I’m using, but yet they’re still at the top. Let’s take a look at three of them.

The first image uses the following information:

<img src=”http://0.tqn.com/d/kidscooking/1/I/B/V/-/-/chicken-tortilla-soup.jpg” alt=”http://0.tqn.com/d/kidscooking/1/I/B/V/-/-/chicken-tortilla-soup.jpg”>

The image filename and alt tag are exactly the same – not exactly the most optimized, but yet it’s still sitting as the number one picture. So, what’s on the page?

  • Title: Chicken Tortilla Soup – Chicken Tortilla Soup Recipe
  • Description: This chicken tortilla soup recipe is made with onions, carrots, garlic, bell peppers, salsa, corn, cooked chicken, corn chips and seasonings. A creamy tomato soup base makes this a satisfying chicken tortilla soup.
  • A recipe with an h1 tag “Chicken Tortilla Soup Recipe” and an h3 tag “Chicken Tortilla Soup Recipe.”
  • Yahoo! Site Explorer shows 46 links (4 inbound links not from the root domain)
  • Open Site Explorer shows 13 links (1 inbound link not from the root domain)
  • Anchor text distribution for both, Yahoo! Site Explorer and Open Site Explorer use the keywords that this recipe is trying to target

The second image uses the following information:

Before beginning, I didn’t choose the second image from the first image in this post, but rather the first image that used an alt tag that didn’t explain the picture.

<img src=”http://food.sndimg.com/img/recipes/23/33/50/thumbs/piceSBNJ1.jpg” alt=”http://food.sndimg.com/img/recipes/23/33/50/thumbs/piceSBNJ1.jpg”>

Much like our image above, the filename and the alt tag is exactly the same (at least it’s not blank). Neither of these images are overly reaching for optimization here, but yet they remain at the top. Again, let’s look at the details on the page.

  • Title: Easy & Tasty Chicken Tortilla Soup Recipe – Food.com – 126624
  • Description: This is a variation of another soup recipe that I tried and loved. I added some things and took out others to make this recipe an instant hit. This also freezes well, so you can save some for a rainy day!
  • Recipe with an h2 tag “Easy & Tasty Chicken Tortilla Soup” and an h3 tag “Chicken Tortilla Soup Recipe.”
  • Yahoo! Site Explorer shows 38 links (one inbound link not from the root domain)
  • Open Site Explorer shows 3 links (no inbound links not from the root domain).
  • Anchor text distribution for both, Yahoo! Site Explorer and Open Site Explorer use the keywords that this recipe is trying to target
  • Tons of outbound links that go to other recipe recommendations for Chicken Tortilla Soup

We can start to see a pattern here, but it doesn’t help if we don’t look at the image that’s all the way at the bottom (off the bottom of this screenshot)…


The last image uses the following information:

<img src=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_NLo6sXVHd3o/TNmx8UXXNAI/AAAAAAAAA5U/aifkJl9ut2Q/s400/tortilla_soup%2B005b.jpg” alt=”http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_NLo6sXVHd3o/TNmx8UXXNAI/AAAAAAAAA5U/aifkJl9ut2Q/s400/tortilla_soup%2B005b.jpg”>

This image does take advantage of keywords in the filename and the alt tag, but it’s hosted on Blogspot.com, not the sites root domain.

  • Title: The Hungry Texan: Tortilla Soup
  • Description: None
  • Recipe with an h3 tag “Tortilla Soup,” the heading tags ahead of this tag don’t take advantage of keywords Yahoo! Site Explorer shows 23 links (three inbound links not from the root domain)
  • Open Site Explorer shows 23 links (four inbound links not from the root domain).
  • Anchor text distribution for both, Yahoo! Site Explorer and Open Site Explorer could be better optimized

This image does have more inbound links than the previous image, but it doesn’t take advantage of SEO basics – hosting your own image, heading tags, a strong title and a description.

The first few images are from major websites that carry a much higher domain authority, but when comparing page authority, the page our last image sits on is neck and neck with the competitors:

Based on these rankings, you’d think that the second image would be #1 in this case study, but it’s not. Let’s compare apples to apples.

Without a doubt, the first image and page is more optimized than the other two images we are comparing here. So let’s skip to the second and last image. The main difference here is that the image is hosted on the root domain of the main site, the title, the description and the total number of links. Our last image is only winning with the total number of inbound links.


So what does this mean for us? The Google image bot definitely seems to be looking at filename and the alt tag, but it also looks at a lot of the same factors that the Google search bot looks at – title tag, meta description, heading tags, links and anchor text. If we are already focused on optimizing our individual pages, maybe it’s time to remember that image optimization is just as important. Oh, and it also seems to be important that you host your own images, but you already knew that, right?

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