Last year, the search marketing landscape changed significantly when the big engines started integrating images into regular organic search rankings. Experts agree that blended search is here to stay, providing increased opportunity to use both still and video images to boost visibility and drive traffic and relationships.
"Motion and still images are valuable," says Amanda Watlington, owner of marketing consultancy Searching For Profit. "Somebody might not read the story, but they'll recall the images."
Blended search also presents challenges, as any type of images (including personal pictures) can turn up in organic search results.
"Clients can't totally control [the] message online, but they can influence it by creating lots of content sources," says Erin Byrne, Burson-Marsteller's chief digital strategist. "If they're not participating, they're irrelevant. Even the Treasury Department set up a YouTube page for new currency launches."
It's important to ensure that images are relevant to the audience, high quality, and optimized. "Good quality, optimized images will push lesser quality, lesser optimized images out of range," says Watlington. "It's a 'sing louder' strategy. If you're getting hideous picture [results], put better ones out there so you'll have [a chance] to own the real estate."
Anne Kennedy, managing partner of Beyond Ink, notes the importance of using the appropriate format (usually JPEG for pictures and graphics and GIF for other images) and keyword-rich appropriate language for image names, captions, and alt tags. Byrne advises researching keywords if you're unsure and avoiding jargon and proper names of technology.
"If the picture is of a pineapple, call it a pineapple," Watlington adds. "If you've titled the image 'pineapple,' the caption should have a connection."
Images on Web pages must have alt tags. "[An alt tag is] the most important item behind the page telling someone what that image is," she explains. "It also makes it accessible to the visually impaired."
Don't go overboard with keywords in alt tags - especially if you have a visually impaired audience, as screen readers recite all keywords aloud.
"Consider how pictures will drive action and use images that bloggers and other online marketers will link to," says John Squire, chief strategy officer at Coremetrics. "You can use all the images you want, but unless somebody is linking, clicking, and finding them relevant, you won't get the reach." Coremetrics clients Bass Pro and Petco both have big communities that upload photos (often of products or services they like), which may point back to the clients' sites. If clients use such images on their sites, they must be described such that search engines index them to deliver relevant traffic.
Consider all the places images might show up online: Since Yahoo bought Flickr, it's delivering Flickr images in organic search. Facebook and LinkedIn are also searchable. Use this to your advantage by uploading relevant, properly named, and tagged pictures.
"The basics of optimizing images are fairly straightforward - the more important thing is the picture that already exists," Kennedy notes. "Monitor your reputation online in images, just as with text search. People who believe in attack PR can use Flickr by tagging pictures and putting up less than flattering ones. It's very hard to keep a wall between private and public life. Suddenly vacation photos are searchable if tagged appropriately and these will show up in what might be a more public search - say, of someone running for office. The line is blurred."
Kennedy explains that images can be very useful in crisis management, as people expect to see videos and pictures, while Byrne cautions against misleading images.
"Choose images that support the overall message," she says. "There's nothing worse than driving to content and you've somehow misled [visitors]. Be very careful about positing appropriately."
Kennedy notes that blended search is good for SEO providers and PR pros because clients need visibility and help keeping up with the rapidly changing environment.
"This [is] good news for PR because we can prove our value," says Byrne.
Use relevant, high-quality images
Use meaningful, connected names, captions, and alt tags
Place images on Flickr and social networking sites
Block search engines from crawling image folders
Forget to monitor the images' impact on reputation
Use or tag images in a misleading way