The Contributor's Guide to Understanding the SEO of Stock Images

Business strategy with seo concept

(This featured image was the first result for "SEO" on Dreamstime.)

This is not a leaked document, nor a methodical dissection of any general or specific stock library algorithm out there, full of equations and statistics or anything mathematical. Instead this is one designer's common sense guide for contributors to help optimize their portfolios.

Please know that I do not currently have my own contributor portfolio, so I am sure there are intricacies and rules of the road out there that could additionally serve as practical insider tips. While I lack the exact knowledge of those tips, I can empathetically do my best nevertheless to not contradict them. That being said, please do read this from a designer's perspective, one who has searched professionally for over a decade^ for hundreds and hundreds of images across hundreds of categories; and from a business owner's perspective who has hunted for images for over 50 niche websites of his own, along with dozens of client sites. (^OK, maybe I haven't been sitting chained to my computer searching stock images for 10 years straight, but it feels like it sometimes.)

What this stock image optimization guide will do is:

* teach you the basics of using keywords and tags,

* demonstrate the power behind unlocking the long tail of keywords,

* prep you for advanced search mastery,

* and even reveal 4 pro tips on stock image optimization,

all of which can help boost your stock image performance.

Is there a science or even an art of search engine optimization for getting found in stock image libraries?

After personally admitting that it can take a really long time for me to find the right picture, you might assume that the answer would be a resounding "no," although we know that not to be the case. Getting found on stock image libraries certainly is not easy. However, it can be easier for both contributors and designers, if a few simple SEO techniques are employed.

Keywords 101

Websites have a section of code called the meta tag that is supposed to contain a few keywords and a description about the website's content. Old school SEO managers used to do "keyword stuffing" here and on the page itself, reiterating the keyword and similar words and plurals and misspellings in order for the page to show up in search engines. But search engines got wise to it and started penalizing for that tactic.

Titles were and still are significant for SEO for a web page to be found, and you still want to include descriptive keywords in web page titles.

Just as tags and titles are important for web pages (and cars?), they're still important for images in the stock image library. Perhaps even more important. For with images, you do not have the contextual luxury of all the text content of a web page that a search engine can read and crawl. You just have an image file and the textual information you add to it.

While I would not be stingy with the tags, I would try to be very smart and realistic about which terms I chose.

* What terms are actually going to lead someone to your image?

* Which tags are broad terms and popular?

* Which terms are specific enough to stand out in a realistic search?

* Which terms might be too specific?

Unlocking the Long Tail of Stock Imagery + Getting Specific + Staying Realistic

We have all seen the t-shirts out there of clever search terms describing the person wearing it in a humorous way. Sometimes there is a concise term for tagging an image, but more often than not, in order to be found fast, especially in broad or popular categories, you need to be specific with the terminology describing your illustration, video, photo, or now, audio file.

This is a delicate balancing act and is best answered by doing the search for your [proposed upload] image yourself, checking out the images that show up when you type in a phrase and seeing the number of results and pages. No sane designer is going to search through 20+ pages of search results (except me, and I probably don't qualify as "sane").

They're going to instead amend their search, and there are three ways of doing this:

1. adding or removing search terms

2. changing the search phrase entirely into a synonym

3. using other functionality of the site or more refined filters

Figuring out an appropriate synonym is of course more difficult because it forces us designers to think. We don't like that. So we'll usually default to #1 first. And since we usually have too many results to skim through, that usually means adding keyword upon keyword to refine our search. This is called the "long tail" approach. Basically if you can tap into this instinctually and anticipate what the next best keyword will be in the search string, you'll have won this game.

Here are some quick knee jerk ways to do that in general:

* Answer the main who, what, where, when, why and how questions in your image description and tags.

* If your image is a person doing something, it often may be more than one thing. What is that second thing? That person "working" on the computer might also be "smiling" and "talking on the phone" and "twirling a pen". That seems nit-picky and it is, but it's how we roll, and how your image gets found.

* If you use a preposition like "with" or "on" when describing your picture, this is probably important to focus on improving. Is it included and is whatever follows the preposition on target as being popular and accurately specific enough as well? Is the person "on her computer," "at her computer" or really "with her laptop"? While these words may not matter as much in strings like "woman" + "laptop" vs. "woman with laptop," they may matter as exact matches for your image's keywords. Prepositions might even alter the "what" of the phrase. For instance, "on a boat" conjures up motorized watercraft while "in a boat" anticipates images of a person in a kayak or rowboat, or in the cabin of a yacht, which is totally different. Taking all this into account, it might even be worthwhile to check out the internet for short lists of regularly used prepositions (like here.)

Consult Your Thesaurus Like It's an Oracle, Prophet, Sage, Haruspex

Synonyms. Not to be confused with cinnamons. You need to bookmark your favorite thesaurus site when doing uploads and use it like a wizard's tome. It's not just about defining the what of your picture that counts, but also the how, which is, by the way, as much of an adverb as an adjective. It's funny to me how artists, photographers, and musicians can work so hard on a masterpiece and just call it "Nude #4" or "Fifth Symphony." Elaborate a little!

When designers change their search term entirely (tactic #2), you need to be there. Try searching for a synonym instead of your initial thought and see how it compares in terms of

a) the quantity of search results,

b) the quality of the result images, and

c) the keywords of the best quality images on the first page of the search results. They may be showing up for less than literal reasons and your image may still qualify to compete with it quickly based on direct usage of the synonymous term, thus giving your image the chance to show up based on relevance instead of popularity or sales.

How many people just looked up "haruspex"?

Be careful about getting too obscure or too specific.

You want to ensure that you're still using the language that the searcher is going to use. If you have a fairly specific photo (like of a place or a type of machine, for instance) and you're sure that the people who would want that image would know the word for it, then go for it. However, if you're using acronyms or insider slang terms, that's a sign that you may want to back out a bit and clarify your image description.

Mastering Advanced Search Functionality

Tactic #3 above is about utilizing other search functionality and filters. Every stock image site out there is different and nuanced in this regard, so I'll speak to Dreamstime's current feature set. Although I'm sure they're handy, I'll skip the opportunity to advise on the Content Filter, License type, and the entire Image Properties and Latest Searches tabs, because they're pretty self-explanatory for one, and for two, they're fairly intrinsic instead of extrinsic to the image itself.

Rather, let's focus on the Advanced Search and People tabs. I think that there are still a lot of contributors out there who either don't realize the potential of these tabs or deliberately try to hack them in the wrong way. I still see far too many images showing up in results for age- or race-refined searches that shouldn't appear, which tells me that either contributors are checking off too many boxes and being deliberately indiscriminate and ambiguous about their images, or they're lazy and not qualifying their images. Whichever the case, the functionality should be brought to your attention, along with the fact that designers like myself really do use these filters.

Exclude Keywords: If you're using a keyword stuffing technique, especially with something that's not really even in your photo, you could have your image inadvertently excluded if it contains tags. I've searched on "laptop" and excluded "phone" before to just get images where the model is not on the phone. Some photographers batch the keywords for their entire shoots and end up with "laptop" and "phone" on all of their uploads this way, even if some have just one or the other. Other than avoiding this issue, omitting certain non-descriptive or misleading keywords from your description and tag set might improve your performance.

Exclude/From/My Favorite Contributors: Networking with designers and getting your portfolio added as a Favorite Contributor is a huge way of improving your performance odds. Networking is important, and can be accomplished through staying active on your social media (Twitter and Facebook tabs are available on your portfolio dashboard) and Message Boards for communication. [I have to say, it would be great if direct email was easier, but it would have to be done right as things could get unwieldy or spammy quite easily.] But networking aside, more often than not, it's going to be the quality of your work, your range of topics, and your style that gets your portfolio added to favorites, and that you have more control over.

The People Tab: Demographics of an image can be filtered by quantity of people, race, gender, and age range. I think that the latter three are probably used more. This tab is probably much more popular with designers than contributors think. Again, I don't have the stats, only the experience. But I imagine that this can also be confusing and challenging for the contributors to manage. What if your image has both genders, old and young, and many races—or is that "Multi-racial?" I don't have the exact answer for you except to try be as accurate as possible, and also to allow for different options in your shoot. If you have a diverse group of business people, for instance, consisting of both males and females and various races, does it cost you much more portfolio space or shoot time to do individual solo shots? Because if you do that, you can avoid confusion and have the best of both worlds. Also, if a designer is drilled down and narrowly searching and finds your solo shot of your "Male + 46-65yrs + African American" image and likes it, they might hop over to your group photo, bring it up in your portfolio, and find your solo shot of a "Female + 31-45yrs + Asian", and download both or even all three.

Other Pro Strategies to Stock Image SEO Competitiveness

Pro Strategy 1: Me Too & The Skyscraper Technique

Learning from, copying from, and stealing from the masters, is an ancient technique used in any kind of art or business. Burger King applies this "Me Too" approach to its marketing so it can compete against McDonald's. In SEO, copying tactics like tags and keywords is not enough because of a key factor: time. Similarly, the longer the Burger Kings and McDonald'ses of the stock image world have been in business, the more downloads and sales they have, and the higher they will often continue to rank for sales, downloads, and sometimes also relevance. It's good to learn from the masters, but then you have to also:

* learn from their mistakes and weaknesses, and

* do one better in terms of quality.

In the SEO and content marketing world this is called the Skyscraper Technique.

Start by studying the lead images for a desired search term. Break it down, element by element. Then take a look at the portfolios of their contributors and see how they might have alternates for that image in the portfolio that are less popular. Why are they less popular? Is the composition stronger? Was it the orientation, model, background, or pose? Sometimes you can learn more from the context of the portfolio alternates than the second image in the search results. If there are no alternates, perhaps the contributor lacks the drive or knowledge to test and experiment with ways to optimize their performance. This is an opportunity. If you can think of ways to test different factors on a similar model or composition, your image may not only just shoot up the ranks faster, but even surpass the top spot.

The second step is emulation and testing. Keywords and jargon may be outdated from the leading image to yours. Exploit the mistake, or hone in on variables that may allow you to improve the quality over the lead image, staying scientific with "all else equal" but testing one variable at a time. Give it some time to see what works and what doesn't.

But that doesn't mean just wait around. The Skyscraper Technique also deals with marketing to the same people or linking to similar sites as the most successful site for a search term. In SEO these are called backlinks. For stock image sites, the closest it usually gets to identifying someone else's downloading customers is taking a look at their "I am a Favorite Contributor For" column, especially the names that are not also under "My Favorite Contributors." If you reach out to those folks who favorited the top image's contributor, you've got a qualified lead for a potential download or at least an easier lightbox add.

Pro Strategy 2: Portfolio Organization & Enhancement

[As a designer, it's a little disappointing that Dreamstime's portfolio's do not seem to have a Portfolio "shoot" or "section" functionality to group the images easier. Especially for portfolios with thousands of images that would get capped at the browsing page to page maximum, this could really aid both designers and contributors.]

All the more reason for contributors to leverage the portfolio functionality they do have to its fullest.

* Stay chronological or at least complete with uploading order to facilitate easy scanning between shoots and upload batches.

* Browsing multiple pages is made easier by obvious color palettes as well.

* That being said, legibility and scannability of images is improved by sprinkling closeups with full-length or wider shots. It's weird, but if it's closeup after closeup and full-length after full-length, my eye may assume that the image is just the same model over and over again, especially if the color palette is similar. Alternating closeups and wide shots may offer the same visual hierarchy as large headlines and subheadlines break up chunks of smaller font body text.

* If there are a lot of busy backgrounds in images adjacent to each other in your portfolio, I may not be able to quickly "read" the main object in the foreground of those images, if I'm quickly browsing.

* Finally, I know that it is not always employed, and some may even argue against this to get more designers into their portfolios, but as a designer, my job is easier if you leverage the "Other Photos with This Model" option. I add a lot of images to my lightboxes via that feature.

Pro Strategy 3: Offering Horizontal Complements & Category Verticals

Just like a product getting added to a shopping cart before checkout, getting your image added to lightboxes is a huge first step. The funny thing about lightboxes is that quite often, a lot of related ideas to the original idea get added, too. The problem is, without access to the stats I can safely say that 97.4% of contributors out there only think in terms of being the best "thing itself" not also "the related thing." This is potentially a huge opportunity for you with related, relevant items that are either complementary, or in the same vertical of the product or topic.

Let's use an example of an image in the popular Health & Fitness category. This is heavily saturated, so standing out is going to be tough. Most contributors would default their thinking to doing a photoshoot of a typical gym circuit: barbells, dumbbells, squats, treadmill, etc.

However, if you're a web designer for a weight loss website, are you going to download the whole gym circuit? No. It'll probably be just the most popular image of the set for the "workout page" and then I'll move on to the next necessary image for the next topic or page.

As a contributor, it would behoove you to determine what that next topic or web page might be.

* Think product substitutes (coffee —> tea —> energy drink) or other ways of solving a problem.

* Think what other related services a business might offer, or where they may be in terms of a supply chain (coffee—> coffee bean farm —> factory —> freight truck —> proud cafe barista —> commuter with coffee travel mug).

* Maybe instead of the same model on another gym machine, it's about wearable FitBits, gym clothes, home gym equipment, diet, supplements, blending/juicing, staying active outside with sports, or avoiding gross foods at fast food restaurants or in the grocery store. Each of these terms is a web page on the same website, needing one or two images each (not a whole gym circuit-worth).

Pro Strategy 4: Staying Fresh & Being Firstest with the Bestest & Mostest

Being first still has an effect on SEO and business. And so it is also true with stock image search engines. Staying fresh is useful as well, especially since you can switch the search to "Latest uploads" instead of "Best selling" or "Most downloaded". But freshness has a peculiar closeness with relevance since stock image models, hairdos, fashion and technology can all become outdated. Freshness is also entwined with being first, because how else can you plan on being first for an eventually popular keyword if it's not popular yet?

Therefore, uploading frequently with quality images of trending, new concepts or topics, or fresh alternative takes on classics, is a solid tactic employed by the trendsetting pros themselves.

Get More Eyes On Your Images

Thanks for taking the time to read this stock image SEO guide. I hope you gain some insights into how to improve your work and its chances of ranking within the stock image search engine. Now go get out there and get found!

Photo credits: Paulus Rusyanto.

Your article must be written in English

January 11, 2017


We learn how we live. Great blog! Thank you for sharing and advise!

December 29, 2016


Thanks Scott. Nice article and good suggestions. Still not sure how propositions listed in key words section get matched with our key words?

December 12, 2016


Brilliant article, especially for newbies like me. Many thanks

December 11, 2016


Great article! So much useful info. Many of the people who need to read this, won't.
but that means more sales for me.

December 10, 2016


interesting article :)

December 09, 2016


Thank you Scott. Perfect timing for me. Lately I have been thinking I need to improve my key-wording and categorizing and it is great to receive such good free advice. Thanks again.

Related image searches
Optimization related image searches