One of our partners recently asked us how ranking images in search works – so we told them. But, during the course of that discussion, we realized that this is a part of SEO that doesn’t get much attention. It’s also an element of our service that we’ve never talked about before, which is strange considering image search is the second most used function on Google.
Ranking Your Pictures
The bare bones of ranking images isn’t that much different from how it works for ranking pages. Google bots crawl the code of the image and arrange them in the order that’s most relevant to the user’s query. The only difference is that the spiders have much less data to go through when crawling images. This is because it doesn’t have to go through hundreds of words to find relevant terms.
As a result, site owners usually have two attitudes regarding the coding of an image. Either they don’t pay as much attention to what they write, since it won’t be that comprehensive anyway. Or, they focus on it even more because they have less space to give Google a reason to rank their image.
Regardless of how they approach image coding, however, it’s something that they need to do if they want to maximize the effectiveness of their SEO efforts. Image search is a high traffic function that has a lot of potential for sites to get a user’s attention. It’s an avenue that any SEO company would be remiss to ignore.
The Image Tag Trident
There are three parts to an image code, and it looks like this:
<img src= “image.jpg” alt= “image description” title= “image title”/>
The only parts coders can touch are the alternate and title attributes, and Google has its own set of rules on how people can use these effectively.
These rules were first discussed in a Google Groups discussion thread back in 2008, and John Mueller explained the function of each part. To quote 2008 John:
As the Googlebot does not see the images directly, we generally concentrate on the information provided in the “alt” attribute. Feel free to supplement the “alt” attribute with “title” and other attributes if they provide value to your users!
So for example, if you have an image of a puppy (these seem popular at the moment :-)) playing with a ball, you could use something like “My puppy Betsy playing with a bowling ball” as the alt-attribute for the image. If you also have a link around the image, pointing a large version of the same photo, you could use “View this image in high-resolution” as the title attribute for the link.
Unfortunately, access to the thread is limited, but there is a retro Google blog post that essentially says the same thing. You can check that out here.
Alt is Greater Than Title(?)
Now, there’s probably one piece of information that jumps out at you after reading the Mueller quote. Crawlers concentrate on the information within the alt attribute, since it’s the part that’s supposed to describe the image. Google advises site owners to be as descriptive and accurate as possible with this part, since this is where the bots decide if the image is relevant or not.
This leads many people to ask the question “what about the title tags?” Similar to how the search engine approaches all its other algorithms, Google wants site owners to provide as much value to users as possible. This strikes a lot of people as a lightweight response, and gives the impression that it’s less than useless for SEO services to even bother with.
It was recently brought up again during a Twitter discussion with John (again) in late March. You can check the entire thread here.
@dawnieando If you’re changing the title with onmouseover, I doubt we’d pick that up. If it’s just the title attribute: maybe. Test & tell?
— John Mueller (@JohnMu) March 29, 2016
The roundabout way John is answering the question may already be an indicator to plenty of people that they can comfortably ignore title tags without fearing any kind of ranking penalty. So the question now is “should we bother with title tags?”
The Real Focus
Our answer to that would be yes. The people who want to ignore using title tags because they don’t have any effect image rankings either way completely miss the point. The reason why title tags exist on both the image code and the metadata isn’t for Google’s benefit, but for the users.
The tags can include more information about the image that would go over the heads of bots, but may be what the user is looking for. In an industry obsessed with algorithms, data, and rankings, there are some instances when people forget who exactly we’re trying to help. Our purpose is to give our clients a better chance to connect with their market and grow through the digital platform. Google is just the vehicle through which we do this, sure it’s the biggest vehicle, but deciding everything on how it affects the algorithm isn’t our focus. How it helps our clients – that’s our focus.