Categories & Keywords: Sometimes It's Best to Think Inside the Box


“What’s in the box?”

This question is asked by Brad Pitt’s character, Detective David Mills, in the 1995 neo-noir crime thriller movie, Se7en. As viewers, we never get to see the answer, what was actually in the box. Although the criminal, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), tells us, it’s Mills’ wife’s head, he could have been lying. There are other clues to help us guess: the movie genre and rating, the pattern of deaths having to do with the seven deadly sins, the blood on the box, Detective Somerset’s (Morgan Freeman) reaction when he sees what is in the box, his omission of disputing the criminal’s claim, and his earnestness as he asks Mills to put his gun down. As viewers, we can see the perfection in this climactic “aha!” moment for the criminal to have killed Mills’ pregnant wife, thereby condemning himself with envy so that Mills would become wrath. And we can guess from the shape of the box that it’s probably not full of assorted chocolates.

When it comes to choosing categories and keywords for stock images, contributors need to ask themselves some variations of the same question as Mills:

- What’s in the box (category)?

- What box(es) do my contributions belong in?

- What is the potential value of this box to me and to others?

- What motivates different people that have to do with this box and what’s in it?

While the answer might be obvious most of the time (as in Se7en), sometimes it’s really unclear and worth giving these questions some serious thought. This is especially the case if you’re completely new to the stock image industry or are trying something new to you or in an emerging category. It’s also important for all contributors to regularly study keywords and categories to make sure they’re not throwing severed heads into rom-coms and chocolates into noir.

But sometimes it’s really hard to think creatively inside the box, especially when you want to still stand out while doing so.

This occurred to me while I was writing my other SEO article, “The Contributor’s Guide to Understanding the SEO of Stock Images.” How can you think inside or outside of the box when it’s so difficult to study the box, or category/keyword, in the first place? I realized that for stock images and footage, applying basic optimization strategies and choosing the right category and keywords can be a lot harder than it seems.

As contributors, you have 3 big disadvantages compared to doing SEO for the web:

1. Lack of Data and SEO Tools

I think it could be a huge opportunity for stock image library sites (with already accurate and powerful search engines) to create premium data dashboards allowing contributors to do insightful keyword research for their shoots and pick more appropriate and/or optimized categories for their contributions. But so far, no dice. Unlike the SEO world, with at least a dozen staple, robust SEO tools and more and more smaller tools, the digital asset library has… basically just sales to go on.

This is really going into something blind.

Measuring things like how many uploads per day with k-keyword, other keywords frequently used in addition to k, final keyword phrases used in a session containing k, k umbrella categories up or niched down categories, keywords similar in definition to k, how many times a day/month/year k is searched, k’s overall monetary downloads and downloads by volume for k, how many lightboxes contain the keyword or images pertaining to the keyword—all of these metrics and more are potentially easy for image library sites to start measuring, or if they already measure them, to start sharing, or even selling the data for. And all of these also make for potentially huge improvements for you, the contributor.

The simplest benefit would be that possessing keyword information on stock image keywords would make possible for savvy contributors to weigh a niche’s value to competitiveness ratio before dipping their toes into an overly saturated or underpaying niche. Would there be less crazy and weird images? Potentially, but I think that contributors who shoot those do so for other creative and portfolio reasons, and will continue to do so. Would there be more of what is useful and popular enough? Yes, and isn’t that the point—to make a sale?

2. Lack of User-Friendly Consolidated or Granular Categories

For the sake of convenience, I’m going to pick on Dreamstime a little here, although they are not the only image library guilty of it. If you’re trying to pick a category or keyword for your contributions, don’t assume you can just go by the category browsing tabs under the top navigation of the site. Just don’t do it. At the time of writing this, Dreamstime currently has 15 “category” tabs that are just plain turrible. They’re curiosity drivers, maybe, but I don’t know how they could possibly benefit any image buyer or seller. They’re not categories, so don’t plan on being found there, ever. They’re all either the wrong kind of consolidation (we already have search filters for Editorial licenses, People, and Illustrations, so why do we need a category?), overlapping too much (e.g. IT & C and Technology), or need at least 20-30 specific subcategories to be usable, like Business.

In short, image databases suffer from a lack of browseable, usable, and standard genres (or tags, for that matter), like you would see across movie stores. Perhaps it is partly due to the fact that while movies have the contextual advantage of being, for lack of a better word, “completed” products, stock images and videos are building blocks, meaning that one image could be useful for many industries and categories.

Which brings me to…

3. The Recipe vs Ingredient Dilemma

This is probably the most fundamental problem to identifying the proper and best (not the same thing) keywords to choose for your stock image. How you sell your stock image—as a building block part of a whole or as a gestalt, completed piece—may determine or undermine the category or keyword. Think for instance of the man with a mop at NASA. Is he a janitor at work, or is he a part of a team that puts people on the moon?

Now apply this concept to your work:

- Is the youth with a hoodie and laptop a university student with the hood down, or a hacker with the hood up?

- Is that a casual business woman working from home, or is she watching Netflix?

- Is that a picture of lettuce, tomato, ketchup, mustard, and a patty on a bun on a plate or is that a picture of a burger? (But wait, where are the soda and fries? Is it a sandwich? Is it a combo meal? Is it a barbeque or barbecue or BBQ?)

Whether you consciously or unconsciously contextualize your work, eventually this factor is going to affect your keyword and category, and you’ll see different results between “a musical work in C minor,” and “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”

Sure, there are some totally pre-done-for-you, plug-and-play graphics, app backgrounds, website templates, posters, or ads that are in stock image libraries. But for the most part, you can’t just search for something like “plumber website” and expect to find everything you need immediately and be done with it—and that’s probably a good thing.

It does help, though, to start keywording your work with best guesses at what the customer/searcher is trying to accomplish. One of the images above does a much better job at anticipating what would be on a plumber website. But the other might rather be best used in a narrative about the need for plumbers to have their own website.


So what’s in the box? Is it a human head or is it Envy and Wrath? This is a tough question, one of many optimization questions that you as the contributor need to decide for your work. You also need to surmount the challenge of being found in a mixture of broad and specific categories, although probably not the pre-made “categories” you see available on DT. And you need to find out the potential value of your categories to cater your work appropriately and maximize your profitability.

In the next part, I’ll follow up this article with solutions that explore how to answer these questions and categorize your contributions with the right keywords. I’ll leave you for now with a clue: it might have something to do with thinking like Kevin Spacey.


In the meantime, comment below and tell me what challenges and questions you have when it comes to using the right categories and keywords for your contributions. Is “what’s in the box” making sense for you like Morgan Freeman, or are you still trying to figure it all out like Brad Pitt?

Continue to Part 2

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Photo credits: Macrovector, Phovoir, Igor Stevanovic.