Categories & Keywords: Sometimes It's Best to Think Inside the Box P2


Child's Crayon Drawing

“I’m going to give you less than 30 seconds to draw a picture of a tree. Go.”

Running a sketch meetup group, I prompted a café full of extremely creative artists with this, and do you know what happened? I got the same stuff back from each person: a lollipop broccoli tree. That was when I informed them how they could have drawn an evergreen tree, a bonsai, a branch, leaf, fruit, or seed, the roots at the bottom, a squirrel or owl in a hole in the bark, or a weird-looking baobao. But nobody did. They could have also drawn a data tree or family tree. I never specified. They all just assumed I wanted a pre-schooler tree icon.

This little experiment shows how critical categories and keywords are when it comes to:

- Providing enough information to get the job done

- Contextualizing with our assumptions

- Specifying enough so we know when a tree is a tree and when it’s recycled paper or a wooden horse, or when it’s something else entirely

- Speed

Sound familiar? It should. These factors are similar to the categorization and keywording disadvantages I talked about in the previous part, The Problem with SEO for Images. Lacking information like keyword data, it’s difficult for you to categorize your work, either in a way appropriate for the elements of the image or in a way most likely to reap more downloads. Assuming that designers use browse tab categories like “Abstract” would be a mistake. Figuring out if you’re selling your image as a seed, root, branch, leaf, or whole tree is a big factor, too.

And all of these equate to the speed of finding and purchasing your image.

What If I Don’t Know A Good Category/Keyword For Me?

If you’re just starting out as a stock photographer, illustrator, or videographer, then figuring out what you want to shoot, draw, or film in terms of category is important. In fact it’s important to figure out if you’re already 10,000 uploads into it.

As a niche marketer who deals in many categories, I also understand the dilemma of how choosing the right category, either in name or in actuality, can pose a catch 22. It makes sense to test before you invest, but you may not really know enough about a stock image category off-hand without investing at least a little time or a few contributions to see what works and what doesn’t.

Meanwhile, it’s good to remember that too much data can lead to analysis paralysis. Imagine if I prompted you with 100 criteria factors for that tree and still asked you to draw it in 30 seconds—it’d either still default to being a lollipop broccoli tree or worse, a blank page. At a certain point you’ll need to decide what amount of information is enough for figuring out what stock image category or keyword to contribute for, and just get started.

After all, the bottom line is the bottom line: getting a sale. And along that line of thinking, I can provide a lens that will focus all other criteria and data points about your category, and that is something I hinted at in my last article:

Think Like Kevin Spacey

Kevin Spacey had to think like John Doe, his villainous character in the movie, Se7en. John Doe thought like Detective Mills would, put himself in his shoes, and anticipated correctly that he would kill John, even in front of Mills’ other police colleagues, if he assumed that John killed Mills’ pregnant wife. This was his goal, to escape a condemned life and accomplish his seven deadly sins whilst getting revenge (or even some twisted sense of redemption or justice) in pushing a police officer to condemn himself. And although Detective Somerset warned him that killing John Doe was exactly what he wanted, that he’d win, Detective Mills didn’t think like Doe, he was too full of emotions, so he just acted and killed him.

The Seven Deadly Steps to Stock Image Optimization (SIO)

As a contributor, you want the same thing except with less severed heads in boxes. Here are the 7 steps:

1. You want to think like the stock image buyer (a designer like me).

2. You want to try to figure out what they might be trying to do (like build a website)

3. You want to also think like who they are buying for (for a client in a respective niche) who is trying to

4. accomplish a theme or purpose, like the pattern of the seven deadly serial kills, or building a brand in a category. (This is how we know the ending is suitable, that Envy and Wrath complete the movie.) John Doe discovered the irony in that Mills’ purpose of upholding the law without taking it into his own hands would be contrary to the situation he would catch him in.

5. You also want to think about the associated end-user customers (guesstimate who the Tracys might be).

6. You want to build a pattern of clues (keywords) leading the buyer to find your contribution.

7. Then you want your contribution to turn on the emotions so the buyer acts, almost without thinking, and pulls the trigger to download.

You basically want your work to be the buyer’s spouse’s head in a box. Not literally, but yeah.

How Does One Think Like A Serial Downloader?

How do you apply the right keywords and categories to your work so that you’re in the head of the right power downloader? Before you assume that the quality of your work merits downloading without regard to how easily it’s found even in the middle of the stock image desert, leverage the data that is available to you. We’re surrounded by categories and keywords. Pick the ones that are most relevant to your work, and test.

Hint: If you’re truly thinking like the buyers/designers, then you’ll be thinking about what the demand and mediums are for stock images, and how your work can fit into the picture. So think backwards from the Tracys out there. What is the world “pregnant” with, in the Shakespearean sense? What are the hot trends, topics, and products right now? What kinds of startups are taking off, what types of shows and movies are coming out, what media is going viral? And what imagery do all these soon to be popular culture things need to be advertised, promoted, and sold?


Shopping people

My favorite mega-category and keyword resource? You might think Google Images. Nope.


They have good boxes, and I don’t just mean for their deliveries—their categories have successfully led to millions and millions of sales.

You can discover items to shoot, props to have in the environment or to have models use, editorial product items, and concepts to test out or to guide your whole portfolio.

Amazon has a great search engine, with tons of products and product filtering criteria that could be key to the success of your work. It shows the number of search results, the price range, and the popularity and number of reviews. From this you can get an idea of how popular and profitable a certain category is, and how much they may be investing in promoting their products.

You can also check out book titles regarding a certain category. While actually reading the most popular expert books on a category could really lend you the upper hand in demonstrating category-appropriate imagery, scanning the tables of contents for free is a quicker way of giving you a basic picture of what is important to a certain category.

Most helpful is that Amazon sports an amazing feature that not too many search engines have: a similar item, “people who bought this also liked” engine. This will tell you potentially related keywords connected not only via language but with actual hard sales.

Bonus SIO Strategy

Amazon also makes it easy to apply a tactical SIO strategy. If a keyword for your contribution is potentially too broad, you can niche down 1 or 2 levels to come up with a strong, more specific long tail. Find out the more granular levels by studying the way products are subcategorized in Amazon. Start dominating and ranking for these more specific keywords with your stock image optimization and you might have better luck eventually ranking for the 1 level up umbrella search term. Gradually, as you accumulate downloads, you might work your way back up to the broader, more saturated search terms, as long as these are in place somewhere for your upload.

Other Consumer Categories

Amazon is both a large store and a huge affiliate program. But it doesn’t have everything. If you pay attention the next time you’re in a department store or if you sign up for free for an affiliate program or network, you can also study their categories in play.


Online news vector illustration concept computer tablet newspaper

While news and media varies widely for different categories—from healthcare or insurance news in text-heavy industry magazines to puppies with reporters on TV news channels—observing how different pertinent channels divvy up their content tells you not only some keywords that may be already ingrained in the end-user, but also the supply of content and the demand of what people want to see imagery for. More specific news or media channels already in somewhat of a category will give you clearer subcategories and keywords than something as broad as CNN or BBC news. This can be a tactic for either consumer-oriented categories or business-oriented ones.

As far as media goes, Facebook, Netflix, and Google all have a Trends section to show what stories or search terms are popular recently or in a certain area. While we’re on the subject of Google, I’ll put it out there that you might get keyword ideas from its free Google Keyword Builder tool, which works with an AdWords account (also free to set up). This tool is used for website searches, though, not stock image searches. If you’re looking for something to shoot that you haven’t yet, you’ll have better luck taking a cue from Google Trends. If you’re looking for synonym or related search terms, this is an advanced tool that could give you some ideas, but so could


Flat 3d isometric business office floors interior rooms concept vector

In Part 1 I mentioned how “Business” is not a real category. The reason is that there are so many different types of business, business products, services and activities, places of business, or types of business people doing different things, that the broad term is mostly irrelevant.

So how do you choose keywords to be found specifically, stand out, and remain associated with this broad of a category? It seems to me that most of my business-related searches have longer search strings and still turn up plenty of unrelated or unwanted results. We designers are used to drilling down heavily for images in this broad category. But eventually it will get unwieldy and the lesser informed of us will find ourselves at a dearth of drill-down long tail terms. In other words, eventually we might not even know which keywords to plug in to find your business image.

So to help narrow down the navigation of this huge category-that’s-not-a-category, I’ve applied the same idea I had of observing how a popular consumer resource categorizes, like Amazon. Who is the Amazon for business? The answer is not as obvious, and as is the case for News & Media, the more niche the business resource, the more accurate the keywords. A quick Google search gave me articles from Harvard Business Review and Entrepreneur Magazine to consider.

Business Image Categories Based On Place of Work

The HBR article allows me to comment on how I think one strategy of subcategorizing the Business category could work for stock images: by basing the subcategories on the place of business. The article describes 4 main subcategories:

1. Sole Proprietorships

2. Main Street

3. Suppliers

4. High-Growth (startups)

This gets us started, but we can take it further by asking what is common, what is an exception, and what is a fallacy for each of these subcategories.

Sole Proprietors

Contrary to popular stock image belief, sole proprietors are not in a field or on a beach in the sand somewhere with their laptops. You’ll get sand in your damn laptop that way, and who wants to be in the middle of a hayfever attack waiting to happen—in a suit, no less? If they’re at a beach, they’re probably eating fish tacos and sipping fruity drinks while using a beach bar’s WiFi. Or at a pool, awaaaay from the water. No cannonballs, please. Similarly, I don’t know too many entrepreneurs who really get work done at the couch with just a clean laptop around them. They’re usually holed up in a real home office, with notes and papers and shelves of resources. If you’re on the couch “getting work done” you’re really just watching Netflix or stalking your friends on Facebook. Explore this fallacy, because there is opportunity to merge the relaxed, feel free to interrupt or get sand in my computer look with the reality.

We still need to drill down with our keywords to pick a relevant and intuitive sole proprietor niche, because “working from home” and “entrepreneur” is eventually not going to be enough to go on. Probably the best way to do this is through using activity-driven keywords other than just using a laptop or having a meeting or phone call. Skype video calls, dictation software, wearing a Bluetooth headset while driving, checking out inventory, whiteboarding by one’s own desk, throwing pencils up at the ceiling or trashballs in the waste basket while meditating—all of these are lesser tapped and intuitive keywords.

Main Street

The more specific search terms for this subcategory of business are probably the most obvious. Main Street can be subdivided into your typical local hubs like bars, restaurants, churches, brownstones through strip malls and malls and other retail stores; and then also local service providers like plumbers and renovators who you can find on HomeAdvisor.

I don’t really need to get too creative with the keywords and subcategories here. But I can ask the fallacy question to clarify if stock images are depicting these places of business accurately so I can identify if there is potential for low hanging fruit to shoot or keyword terms to use. How about vans and street carts? Are there many stock images of those main street businesses? That could work for service providers too. What kind of equipment does an HVAC technician’s truck have on it? Also, a store is not just its front, or its cash register. If you’re talking to small business store owners, you’re going to go to the tiny office in the back, and they’re not going to have their arms crossed and or on their hips. They’re going to be listening, leaning, or gesturing from behind a desk, with the rest of the store visible through the window. So go there and shoot that. And then make sure you plug in those keywords.


Factories, warehouses, drop-shippers, agricultural providers—all these are suppliers, and are probably largely underrepresented in the stock image sphere. If you put in the extra legwork that your competition won’t, maybe the payoff will be there for you. I’m not sure how far the nearest factory is from your neighborhood, or what kind of clearance or permission you’ll need to get, but it could be worth it.

High-Growth (mostly Tech & Startups)

Do all startups immediately look like large corporations like Google on the inside? No. Are they all hipsters or Steve Jobs looking? No. Do they have scooters and cafeterias? Maybe a bunch of college-aged guys with rolled up sleeves from their other jobs getting together in a garage eating Ramen Noodles is the true answer to this fallacy. Or a bunch of semi-retired Baby Boomers are playing with the auto-return golf thing or Nerf guns and have computers set up on the pool table in somebody’s basement office. Startups come in all shapes and sizes, and thinking of the fallacies will give you easier keywords to use with this still broad term.

Whether thinking about sole proprietors in small urban or home offices, or considering the wide varieties of startups and the broad term “professional services” and how it pertains to different types of offices, we need to remember that the details of these places of business are important and will become more and more important to being found as the “office” itself changes. When we think of larger corporations, we default to using larger groups, cubicles, and open air; smaller businesses yield smaller groups and smaller rooms; accountants and lawyers get wood paneling and mahogany desks with leather tops. Challenge this, while paying attention to the details. What does a virtual business office look like? Is a “modern office” really trending “retro”?

Business Categories Based on Money Involved

Another way to pick a category to create stock imagery for is to weigh in on how much money is involved. You can’t always tell how much they’re willing to pay for stock images or how much they need imagery based on this factor, though. A lot of science or bio-tech firms have a lot of money but have very text-bulky websites. In any case, Entrepreneur also has this article, The 15 Most Profitable Small-Business Industries, in case you’re interested. I hate slideshows, so the list is below, with the categories bolded that I think are potentially underrepresented for stock images.

1. Accounting, Tax Preparation, Bookkeeping and Payroll Services

2. Management of Companies and Enterprises

3. Offices of Real Estate Agents and Brokers

4. Automotive Equipment Rental and Leasing

5. Legal Services

6. Offices of Dentists

7. Electric Power Generation, Transmission and Distribution

8. Lessors of Real Estate

9. Offices of Other Health Practitioners

10. Offices of Physicians

11. Commercial and Industrial Machinery and Equipment Rental and Leasing

12. Religious Organizations

13. Management, Scientific and Technical Consulting Services

14. Specialized Design Services

15. Office Administrative Services

Business Categories & Stock Video

Finally, stock videographers, I didn’t forget you! While all sorts of businesses need intro videos for their websites, I thought about what kinds of stock footage might be in demand for sole proprietors. This led me to contemplate the successes of the YouTube characters out there and to study what categories they deal in. The article ranks them by popularity (number of subscribers), not income, but you can get an idea for what stock footage might play nicely with their otherwise personal talking head video shoots. Most of the YouTube stars have something to do with video games, comedy, music, pop culture, makeup/hair/beauty, movie/video reviews, or sports feats/obstacles. Incorporating similarly dressed models and background props in images or video could be useful stock for building websites about YouTube stars and entrepreneurs. Or think of what stock footage could be useful to them: stock images or video for splicing into their scenes that has to do with video games, comedic memes, makeup, sports, pop culture, etc. Admittedly, YouTube stars might not be the best example, since YouTube already has a built-in feature for stock footage, but you can still apply this mode of thinking to explore other subcategories.


To sum it all up, as a stock image or footage contributor, you need to start decoding the gestalt, the categories (bigger and smaller) of which your work is a part. That elephant in the room may seem unmentionable only because you might not know the language for describing the category. Start by learning the jargon, the tables of contents, the keywords used by the end-user who buys from the client of the designer who actually purchases the images. Then you can anticipate the recipes, what goes with what, which combinations of keywords are more likely. This can help you work your way up or down the chain of search terms, categories and subcategories that a designer could use to find you. It can also give you better ideas for what is really logically next for your portfolio. Remember the gym circuit example of complementary image concepts for optimizing your portfolio (Pro Strategy 3 from the SEO Guide)? You may want to shoot every piece of equipment, but the designer might only need one to three equipment images for the health & fitness website page, and move on to buying a juice shake and healthy food for the next page.

If you’re doing images of lettuce and tomatoes, figure out what your burger is; if burgers, find out what kind of burger it is, or find some fries and soda to go with.


What’s your impression of the elephant? How do you come up with keywords, categories, and why? Is it just a passion for the category? Are you selling it as an individual burger or trying to guess the kinds of “combo meals” of image elements that designers want? Leave a note in the comments section and good luck!

Back to Part 1

Scott M. Daly
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  • Smokinggun7
  • Frederick, United States
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March 27, 2017

nice article :)