Oops! Keywording Mistakes to Avoid

Time for a reminder of the most common keywording mistakes to avoid. Pay attention to the list below so that your images aren't overlooked in a search due to poor keywords. Incorrect keywords can lead to frustrated buyers that hurts everyone's downloads.

Keywording should start before you shoot an image. Think of the range of major keywords that might apply to images as you plan a shoot. This will help creatively as well as the process ensures that you plan for all possible scenes within a shoot. Whenever you take an image think of the keywords that might be possible.

Red apple

House in autumn

Accurately keywording photographs or illustrations by describing the most important nouns and verbs shown will ensure that users will not overlook your images. Read on for the major pitfalls. (The images that I have used to exemplify each example have been keyworded correctly with the exception of one or two incorrect keywords—also I chose winter themed images in many cases since ‘tis the season!’)

1. The most common keyword error that creates irrelevancies is auto populating of keywords. If you use such a practice, you must review each image against the keywords to ensure that they all apply to each image.

2. Using all even remotely related words can negatively effect your pictures in search results. Examples are using words like “teacher”, “school” and “learning” for an image of an apple. Or an image of a house that has the keywords “mortgage’, “bank” or “finances”. Or the keyword “flu” for a picture of a bottle of pills or a portrait of a doctor. If the image doesn’t show the word, don’t use it.


Petrochemical Industry

3. Don’t describe minor details in an image. For example, if an image carries the keyword “fence”, the fence should be prominent in the image not barely visible on the horizon. If someone is searching for an image of a fence, they want to SEE the fence. I’m going to depart from my promise to only use images that are correctly keyworded for one shot that is an excellent photograph and very useful but not as an image of a fence. See the refinery image above.

4. Overuse of conceptual keywords. A photo of a mountain climber might look dangerous to you but it could mean something completely different to others. Stay away from metaphors or conceptual keywords. Use descriptive keywords instead. Give the user the benefit of having an imagination. If a designer wants an image that says ‘frightening’, she should be the one to think of the subjects that might be dangerous.

5. Don’t use words describing a possible use in the keywords such as “calendar” or “greeting card” as this is allowed only in the description and will skew the search results, harming your image. (Very difficult to find images that have followed this rule.)

Retro Christmas Card [Red]

Christmas card

6. Don’t use plurals when the singular case applies. An image of a child alone playing in the snow should never have the word “children” attached to it. However, the singular, ‘child’, can be used as a keyword when there are more than one in the image. Think of the search from the point of view of a designer looking specifically for an image of a single child. What a time waster for the designer to have to wade through pages and pages of images of groups of children.

7. Since we have added the ability to search in other languages, some have thought that we will accept keywords in languages other than English. Not so. Only use English when adding keywords to images except for foreign location names.

Happy boy on a snow day

Children playing in snow

8. Don’t use keywords instead of fully developed sentences in descriptions. New users: beware of using descriptions that belong in a family album such as "This is my dog and I love him a lot." Instead use words that are important to buyers.

9. Avoid very long titles that contain reference numbers or other unrelated information. This will ruin your chances for search relevancy.

10. Limit words like “sexy” and “attractive” to images of adults.

11. If you use a thesaurus, ensure that the synonyms really do apply to your image by looking up unfamiliar words in a dictionary.

12. Don’t add opposites to the keywords for an image. An image of a peacefully sleeping baby should not be keyworded 'crying'. Or ‘summer’ to teens in the snow. The only time ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ should be in the keywords is when both elements are present like in the image below of a hot drink in the hands of a model dressed for cold weather.

Group of teenagers snowborders

Warming cup of soup

Many thanks to our Carmen and Petar for their suggestions for this article.

Ellen Boughn
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  • Ellenboughn
  • Bainbridge Island, United States
I have written a about microstock photography released in 2010. I was the Director of Content at Dreamstime for two years ending in Feb, 2009. You can order my book from amazon via my website at www.ellenboughn.com/blog.

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July 31, 2016

I found very useful. Thanks for the post!


June 04, 2016

I find this very helpful however I do have a question instead of using where the photos can possibly be used for like rescues, vet dog, cat, puppy, should I look for alternative key words? like us a thesaurus to help find other forms of key works? and maybe not let the key works auto populate when adding in a description or title to the image? I try to keep my titles sweet and simple. Same with my descriptions. Just wondering I am a new stock photographer. I don't want to lose any potential clients with something I may be doing and not aware of.


June 07, 2014

Sorry one more thought. I think the accuracy of keywords would be increased also if there was a editable version of conceptual and abstract in the groupings section.


June 07, 2014

I think a large part of this issue stems from the fact that the keyword requirement is so large. I am a good writer and compose things such as ad copy for various projects on a regular basis. With the way that this download area pulls your phrases and descriptions into pieces it is difficult to keep keywords relevant.
if you put the phrase Rhode Island Red in you description you then come up with Rhode and Island as keywords both of which have no bearing on the actual appearance or relevance to this subject BUT with a 10 word minimum what do you do, you leave them in ...... to top this off you need the phrase Rhode Island Red as this is the breed of chicken and in the case where you are taking picts of eggs you also need it to differentiate as if you are an egg expert or dealing with a organization that requires specific imagery then the photographer would be limiting them self from this category and market.
some images do not have 10 relevant key words so you are forced to start conceptualizing as you cannot submit the picture without attaching some incorrect or unrelated information.
I believe the system sometimes causes more issues than it corrects, site admin should realize that this is an issue and either drop the keyword requirement down to 3 to 5 keywords and also realize that as besides being artists we also have to become good marketers as well because as most of us know you can be an amazing artist and super prolific but without proper sales technique's your work will just be discovered long after you are dead and gone as you have expired from starvation and exposure from financial issues ...........


October 09, 2009


I think the word "Indian" was used because of "Indian Ocean"


June 25, 2009

Interesting article...and very interesting discussion!
Thank you! :)


June 25, 2009

I've been submitting suggested keywords for images, mainly for fun because it can be a challenge since it's not worth the time to earn two pennies.

As such I've been noticing a number of issues, and the main one is knowledge of English. It's not fair for many that English is the dominant language, but for good or bad, it's become the "language of business."

I have yet to find true intentional spamming. I have found numerous examples that many would question. In one case, the contributor has a series of images with the word RED in it and there was nothing in the images that came close to having the color red. The images were from an underwater dive, and when you saw that other images were from Egypt and the Middle East, it became obvious that they were referencing the RED SEA.

It becomes a poor choice of words because the color red was lacking and I would doubt if anyone would search on RED SEA (unless they were looking for regional vacation resorts). Underwater scenes are underwater scenes and it doesn't matter what body of water they occur.

In one of the examples listed in this thread, the poster questions the word INDIAN. The image is a child sitting in a tree by a body of water. Perhaps the INDIAN OCEAN? Or the boy is from INDIA? There are many nonsensical examples like that... but do make sense if you think about it. But you're still going to annoy a Buyer if they're searching on INDIAN.

One image I submitted suggested keywords, it appears the reviewer will accept or reject specific words. The image was a train station, and while my suggestions were accepted, at least one word was removed from the list: DEPOT. I was surprised but I guess one must realize there are various degrees in fluency for English. Reviewers probably need to work quickly, there is no profit for DT if resources spend significant time checking suggested keywords, so it may have been an honest mistake or just missed.

I am finding that keywording is a skill and an art; even with American contributors I see many words missing for an image that should have been included.

Keywording seems to be a huge factor in how successful you are. Those with many sales have excellent keywording and I am impressed when they are from non-English speaking locations.

But for the most part, from what I've been seeing when playing around with keyword suggestions, is the level of skill with English. There is a big difference between keywording womAn and womEn, another mistake I've seen more than once, and something sure to bother Buyers.

I've found it fun to help those who do not know English, but it's just random hit and miss with a few images here and there. It's made me see how keywording is a problem. Contributors are missing opportunities for sales and Buyers get steered in the wrong direction.


June 24, 2009

very interesting article, thanks for sharing :)


June 15, 2009

Before I completely go through my entire portfolio and change keywords, I thought I would see how the most downloaded images are keyworded.

For example:

 Red Velvet Theater courtains 

has the keywords Actor, announcement, and comedy. Even though there isn't an actor present, nor anyone making an announcement or people laughing . . . I completely understand (as a buyer) why they keyworded this image the way they did.

The next image:


has the keywords: Holiday and Indian. I understand holiday(although I think of Holiday as Christmas trimmings, Fourth of July colors, Memorial Day, etc.,) But they probably think of it as they're not at work, therefore Holiday. But I'm unsure about the Indian keyword.


 White Dove in Flight 1 

has Faith, religion, and free as keywords. Again as buyer I understand their choices. Even though the word FREE isn't in the image, the image implies freedom.

 Collection of snowflakes, vector 

This image has the keywords card and greetings. Those are suggested uses according to Ellen's blog. Again as I buyer I don't see the harm in these keywords.

Lastly this image


has the Month April keyworded. If that is the route they took, they could also have said May, June, September, etc.,

This keywording discussion can go on forever, and I"m not here to tattle. In fact I understand why the keywords they chose. So before I shoot myself in the foot by taking out good keywords. . . is it advantageous to have Less keywords. . . Or More? Can we keyword 'implied' words, or is it best to leave them out. Suggested use is apparently taboo. As a buyer I like it when photographers give suggestions. I'm always open to suggestions. But apparently it ticks some buyers off.


January 29, 2009

Hallo Ellen,Im new on here and Im so pleased I found your article,Im inwardly digesting as much as poss.Thanks a million.


January 27, 2009

Group of teenage snowboarders, would be correct, not the use of two plurels.


January 27, 2009

Ellen........... thanks for trying to clear keywords up - I agree w/ one of the comments that it is about the most difficult part of the equation. As a new contributor, I'm still trying to figure things out, so the article & various comments are helpful. Thanks to all...........


January 26, 2009

As a media buyer and the owner of a design firm, I would hope that Ellen's comments would be taken to heart by the photographers because I am tired of the keyword spammers and the nonsensical keywords for a photo.

It only makes me more frustrated and consumes more of my time in trying to find the right images for a design. Sure there is a way I can make my thoughts known about the keywords to a photo, but that just adds to my frustration and I don't have time for it.

In recent years I have adopted a philosophy that I will boycott photographers who keyword spam or use nonsensical keywords. I can't be the only media buyer/designer who is adopting this philosophy.

The microstock model has been around for years now, and it is time for the photographs and Dreamstime to start cleaning up their acts. I believe Dreamstime if they truly want to be a good stock library they need to start demanding that keywording be done with in the rules or else your photos won't be accept and if you spam too much your gone.

Just my two cents.


January 16, 2009

Okay! Thanks for this article. Perhaps, when I try the keywords, I make less difficulty! Happy week end to all!


January 14, 2009

New article posted: Oops! Keywording Mistakes to Avoid

Yes, you did quite shed the image can answer the often weak, but my English is not very good, I take a translator to help. Dreamstime translation back into English, and sometimes it is something quite different there. What mistakes can I avoid this?

Greetings Robby


January 01, 2009

Thank you - went to the movies instead!


January 01, 2009

"Don’t use words describing a possible use in the keywords such as “calendar” or “greeting card” as this is allowed only in the description and will skew the search results, harming your image. (Very difficult to find images that have followed this rule.)"

Does this mean that if I have for instance a photo of a dog, I should not use the word dog as a keyword, but only in the description field? If so, I'll have to spend the entire Newyearsday editing keywords!

No not to worry you can take New Year's Day off. The warning was not to put a possible usage in the description....such as 'greeting card'


December 31, 2008

"Don’t use words describing a possible use in the keywords such as “calendar” or “greeting card” as this is allowed only in the description and will skew the search results, harming your image. (Very difficult to find images that have followed this rule.)"

Does this mean that if I have for instance a photo of a dog, I should not use the word dog as a keyword, but only in the description field? If so, I'll have to spend the entire Newyearsday editing keywords!


December 22, 2008

Thanks a lot for this article it's really useful. Happy holidays!


December 17, 2008

Thanks Ellen.
A few further points (as a designer I have come across all these, and it's so frustrating!):

"Teenager" or "teen" should not refer to an 8 year old boy. (Logically, should only be 13-19 year olds, but I'd say 11-20 year old was reasonable.) I think one problem may be that people are putting 'pre teen' as a keyword, but this is then split into two, so the photo comes up in searches for teens.

"Toddler" should not refer to a 20 year old woman. (probably 1-3? no more than 5 anyway).

"Man" should not refer to a child.

"Child" should not refer to a sexy woman! (unless she is dressed as a child of course).

"Boy" should not refer to a girl, and "girl" should not refer to a boy.

Of course, many photographers don't have English as their first language. Would some kind of glossary help?