Visual search: The future is now

We are a visually oriented species. Humans can understand pictures in the blink of an eye. In comparison, we read terribly slow and understand the text even slower. What’s more, a percentage of the world’s population consists of visual thinkers — people who also think in pictures. Considering this, it is not strange to see search move towards a more visual way. You might just start your next search by opening the camera app on your smartphone. Meet visual search.

What is visual search?

Visual search consists of every search that uses real-world images like photos or screenshots as a starting point. Every time you point your Google Lens camera at a piece of clothing, you are performing a visual search. Whenever you use Pinterest to do a style match, you are doing a visual search. Visual search answers questions like: “Show me stuff that’s kinda like that but different”, or “I don’t know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it”.

It’s not just style matching that awesome outfit you saw or finding out what type of chair is in that hipster interior, it going much farther than that and still we’re only at the beginning. Photo apps can read text in images and translate it. Computer vision can recognize tons of entities, from celebrities to logos and from landmarks to handwriting. At the moment, visual search is making waves in the fashion and home decor sectors, with big brands like Amazon, Macy’s, ASOS and Wayfair leading the way.

Research shows consumers are very interested in using visual search as part of their shopping experience. What’s more, a recent Sparktoro article uncovered that Google Images is the second largest player in the search engine market with 21% of searches starting there. Images are here to stay.

Many US internet users would consider visual search a great addition to regular site search channels:

Today, people are taking pictures of everything, not just beautiful sceneries or mementos of their adventures, but stuff they need to remember or tasks they need to do. Visual search will increasingly help turn those images into actual tasks. Take a photo of a business card and automatically add the contact details to my address book. Or take a photo of my written shopping list and add the items to the shopping cart of my favorite supermarket. Everything is possible.

Visual search differs from image search

Visual search is part of something called sensory search, which consists searching via text, voice and vision. In the past, nearly every search started with someone typing in a couple of words in a text field. Today, increasingly, searches start by voice or by pointing a camera app at something. You’ll see these different types of searches converge more and more as visual search is a great addition to text and voice search.

Google Lens immediatly recognizes this cute dog as a Shiba Inu

While visual search uses visuals as a starting point, image search is different. Image search has been around forever. A classic image search starts with a typed search prompt in a search field and leads to a SERP that shows a number of images that match that specific search. These images can be narrowed down by selecting smart filters from the menu bar.

Cute fluffy Japanese dog on Google Image search
Google Image search gives great suggestions and lets you easily filter the results

How does visual search work?

People have been talking about visual search for a long time, but over the past couple of years it has really come into its own. Very powerful smartphones, increasingly smart artificial intelligence and consumer interest drive the growth of this exciting development. But how does visual search work?

Visual search is powered by computer vision and trained by machine learning. Computer vision can be described as the technology that lets computers see. Not only that, it makes computers understand what they see and to make them do something useful with that knowledge. In a sense, computer vision tries to get machines to understand the world we as humans see.

Computer vision has been around for ages, but thanks to hardware developments and vast new discoveries in the field of machine learning it is improving with leaps and bounds. Machine learning provides much of the input needed for an algorithm to make sense of images. To a machine, an image is just a bunch of random numbers — it needs context to get even the slightest understanding of what’s on it. Machine learning can provide that context.

Teaching a computer to see

Using machine learning, you can literally teach a computer what something is with a training set — starting small and then scaling up quickly. Feed it enough data and it can tell the differences between slight variations as well. To increase the knowledge of these machines, Google cross-references its finding with its knowledge graph. This way, it is becoming much easier for machines to connect the pieces of the puzzle to find out what’s in a particular image and how that image fits within the bigger picture — pun intended. Many providers also give their computer vision models OCR capabilities, meaning they understand text as well.

There are many third-party providers of this kind of technology if you want to add integrate computer vision into your software. In addition to all the third-party providers, platforms like Google’s Cloud Vision and Bing’s Visual Search Developer Platform give you various ways of incorperating visual search into your sites and apps.

Bing visual search matches intent to skills

Uses of visual search

You might be mistaken to think visual search is of not much use to the average site owner. Or maybe you think it doesn’t mean much for SEO. That would be wrong. Big brands are out there testing this and condition their consumers to use visual search. If you’re in commerce, you have to keep an eye on this development. We’ll see many more players enter the visual search ecommerce space, or quickly build their presence and power, like Pinterest with their new automated Shop The Look pins. There’s a lot happening, but visual search is still only at the beginning of its lifecycle.

Currently, the focus is on making sense of images and doing something useful with it. Soon, we’ll also see visual search come into contact with augmented reality and maybe even virtual reality? While AR and VR have been hyped to death by now, the killer application of these technological developments still has to be found. Maybe augmenting the real-world onto visual search results might be just that?

Visual search can be used for a lot of things, like helping you discover landmarks in a strange city, helping you increase productivity or find the beautiful pair of shoes that fits perfectly with that new dress you bought. It can also help you identify stuff like plants and animals and teach you how to do a particular chore. Who knows what else?

Some visual search applications

When we think of visual search there are a couple of players that immediately come to mind. It’s not so weird that almost every big brand is experimenting with visual search or doing research into what computer vision can bring for their platform.

Facebook, for instance, works on building an AI powered version of their Marketplace. They even purchased a visual search technology start up called GrokStyle that could drive that development. Apple also bought several companies active in the visual search space, mostly to improve their photo apps, while their ARKit developer program has very interesting options for working with visuals. Both Snapchat and Instagram let you buy stuff on Amazon by pointing your camera at an object.

Here are some of the most used visual search tool of this moment:

Pinterest Lens

Visual search has been around for some time, but there’s one platform that brought it into the limelight: Pinterest. Pinterest is the OG, so to say. It is an inherently visual platform as it lets users collect images in boards and helps them get inspired by looking at other peoples boards. While helpful and interesting, it was a fairly static product.

A couple of years ago, the company started investing loads in computer vision, AI and machine learning that eventually led to an app called Lens. Ongoing development brought things like Shop the Look, which was the first visual shopping tool of its kind. Things really took off for Pinterest. In 2018, a year after the release of Lens people did more than 600 million visual searches every month. That’s a 140 percent increase year over year. That suggests a meteoric rise, but its platform dependency makes it too ‘closed’ to reach critical mass. Plus, the competition is picking up speed.

Shop the Look lets you discover similar items

Google Lens

Google Lens wants to turn your phone into a visual search engine. Hit the tiny Lens icon, point your camera at an item and voila! Google is pushing Lens pretty hard. You can find it everywhere: the Photos app, Google Search app and Google Assistant. That last one is interesting, as you can use Assistant to do something with the images you capture. Take a picture of a recipe and ask Assistant to add it to your recipe book. Or use Google Translate to translate the foreign text on that sign — live, if you want.

Google Lens works in real time and recognizes over a billion products. At the end of last year, Google announced that Lens was also available for regular Image searches. The US only for now, but it is expected to be rolled out worldwide later this year.

Bing Visual Search

Bing is very active in the visual search space. Microsoft has been doing a lot of research and making lots of knowledge freely available. Not only do they have integrated their visual search in a really cool mobile app for the large platforms, but they also have a dedicated web platform. This website demonstrates the power of Bing visual search and it works very well. Just upload an image and see what Bing makes of it. Or use one of the example images to get a quick idea of how good it works.

While Bing mobile does much of the same stuff the other visual search providers do — point your camera at something and have it figure out what it is —, they have a big differentiator: skills. Developers can harness the power of visual search to append a skill to a matched image. So, if you have loads of products that Bing recognizes, you can define what a searcher should be able to do once your image has been analyzed. For this, the visual search identifies the intent of the search and requests different skills based on that intent. After that, Bing combines the skills and sends them to the app. If you have a home decor store, a search like this might not only yield a buy skill, but also a DIY skill. You can build these skills yourself. Try it on the Bing Visual Search Development Platform.

You can visual develop a skill for Bing Visual search

Amazon

Amazon is using their visual search technology mostly to provide other platforms a way of visually shopping for stuff. I’ve already mentioned they are working with Snapchat and Instagram to let shop via their camera app. For Amazon, visual search is important as it gives them a new way to have users shop. Now, if you see something in a store you can take a picture of it with the Camera Search functionality inside the Amazon app. It shows you all the relevant products that are available on Amazon and you can refine your search via visual attributes if you want.

Apparently, Amazon was working on an AI-powered shopping platform called Scout. Last month, however, Amazon announced a new delivery robot with the name Scout. As of now, it’s unclear what happened to the old Scout product. The old Scout let users build up a sort of taste database by liking or disliking products and product variants. This would eventually help them narrow down the number and uncover new products that would fit their taste.

Another interesting thing Amazon is working on, is combining visual and voice search. Products like the Echo Show and Echo Spot bring a smart voice assistant into your home, that supports the search results with visuals. Amazon also offers a lot of insights into how visual search works and how you can build your own integration on AWS.

But how does Google Image search tie into this?

Reading all this, you might think that good old image search is on its way out. Well, you’re wrong. A large part of searches happen in image search. Visual search is a kind of add-on for image search. You use it in different circumstances. The results are different as well. If you know what you need, you’ll go find an image in image search. If you see something interesting on an image, but you’re not quite sure what it is, hit that image and let visual search do its job.

Google Image search had a makeover this year. Almost every month, Google changed something or added new features. I’ve already mentioned the availability of Lens inside the image search results on mobile. Simply tap an image and see if Lens can see what it is. Image search now also has related concepts filters that let you drill down into your topic or uncover related items you never thought of. There are now badges to identify if something is a product you can buy directly. This is only a small sampling of the changes Image search underwent. O, did I mention that you can just type [fluffy Japanese dog] to come up with the search result of those cute Shina Ibu dogs you saw earlier in this post? Yay entities, yay knowledge graph!

Image SEO: More important than ever

As we are using images more and more to search for stuff, we need to take better care of our image SEO. Image SEO has always been something of an afterthought for many people, but please don’t be like that. You can win a lot if you just high-quality, relevant images and optimize these thoroughly. Google sees the massive potential and is putting even more weight into it. Here’s Googles Gary Illyes in a recent AMA on Reddit:

“We simply know that media search is way too ignored for what it’s capable doing for publishers so we’re throwing more engineers at it as well as more outreach.”

Gary Illyes

Last year, Google’s latest algorithmic change for Image search focussed on:

  • ranking results based on both great images and content
  • authority
  • relevance
  • freshness
  • location
  • context

It’s not hard to get your images ready for image search. We have an all-encompassing post on image SEO if you need to learn more. In short:

  • Use structured data where relevant: mark up your images
  • Use alt attributes to describe the images
  • Find unique images — not stock photos
  • Make them high quality if you want AI to figure out what’s on it
  • Add them in a relevant place, where they provide context to the text
  • Use descriptive filenames, not IMG168393.jpg
  • Add captions where necessary
  • Use the right sized images
  • Always compress them!

Our world is visual: now you can search with visuals

Over the past year, we truly see sensory search come to light. Everyone was all about voice search, but visual search is providing a helpful new dimension. Lots of the time, a visual search just makes much more sense than a spoken one. And sometimes, it’s the other way around. That’s why voice and visual will never be the default search experience: they build on the others strength and weaknesses. Combined with good-old text search, you have every possibility to search the way you want!

Now… where’s that mindreader?

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Image SEO: alt tag and title tag optimization

Adding images to your articles encourages people to read them, and well-chosen images can also back up your message and get you a good ranking in image search results. But you should always remember to give your images good alt attributes: alt text strengthens the message of your articles with search engine spiders and improves the accessibility of your website. This article explains all about alt tags and title tags and why you should optimize them.

Note: the term “alt tag” is a commonly used abbreviation of what’s actually an alt attribute on an img tag. The alt tag of any image on your site should describe what’s on it. Screen readers for the blind and visually impaired will read out this text and therefore make your image accessible.

What are alt tags and title tags?

This is a complete HTML image tag:

<img src=“image.jpg” alt=“image description” title=“image tooltip”>

The alt and title attributes of an image are commonly referred to as alt tag or alt text and title tag – even though they’re not technically tags. The alt text describes what’s on the image and the function of the image on the page. So if you are using an image as a button to buy product X, the alt text should say: “button to buy product X.”

The alt tag is used by screen readers, which are browsers used by blind and visually impaired people, to tell them what is on the image. The title attribute is shown as a tooltip when you hover over the element, so in the case of an image button, the image title could contain an extra call-to-action, like “Buy product X now for $19!”, although this is not a best practice.

Each image should have an alt text, not just for SEO purposes but also because blind and visually impaired people won’t otherwise know what the image is about, but a title attribute is not required. What’s more, most of the time it doesn’t make sense to add it. They are only available to mouse (or other pointing devices) users and the only one case where the title attribute is required for accessibility is on <iframe> and <frame> tags.

If the information conveyed by the title attribute is relevant, consider making it available somewhere else, in plain text and if it’s not relevant, consider removing the title attribute entirely.

But what if an image doesn’t have a purpose?

If you have images in your design that are purely there for design reasons, you’re doing it wrong, as those images should be in your CSS and not in your HTML. If you really can’t change these images, give them an empty alt attribute, like so:

<img src="image.png" alt="">

The empty alt attribute makes sure that screen readers skip over the image.

alt text and SEO

Google’s article about images has a heading “Use descriptive alt text”. This is no coincidence because Google places a relatively high value on alt text to determine not only what is on the image but also how it relates to the surrounding text. This is why, in our Yoast SEO content analysis, we have a feature that specifically checks that you have at least one image with an alt tag that contains your focus keyphrase.

Yoast SEO checks for images and their alt text in your posts:image alt attributes assessmentWe’re definitely not saying you should spam your focus keyphrase into every alt tag. You need good, high quality, related images for your posts, where it makes sense to have the focus keyword in the alt text. Here’s Google’s advice on choosing a good alt text:

When choosing alt text, focus on creating useful, information-rich content that uses keywords appropriately and is in context of the content of the page. Avoid filling alt attributes with keywords (keyword stuffing) as it results in a negative user experience and may cause your site to be seen as spam.

If your image is of a specific product, include both the full product name and the product ID in the alt tag so that it can be more easily found. In general: if a keyphrase could be useful for finding something that is on the image, include it in the alt tag if you can. Also, don’t forget to change the image file name to be something actually describing what’s on it.

alt and title attributes in WordPress

When you upload an image to WordPress, you can set a title and an alt attribute. By default, it uses the image filename in the title attribute, which, if you don’t enter an alt attribute, it copies to the alt attribute. While this is better than writing nothing, it’s pretty poor practice. You really need to take the time to craft a proper alt text for every image you add to a post — users and search engines will thank you for it. The interface makes it easy: click an image, hit the edit button, and you’ll see this:wordpress image details with alt attributeThere’s no excuse for not doing this right, other than laziness. Your (image) SEO will truly benefit if you get these tiny details right. Visually challenged users will also like you all the more for it.

Read more about image SEO?

We have a very popular (and longer) article about Image SEO. That post goes into a ton of different ways to optimize images but is relatively lacking in detail when it comes to alt and title tags — think of this as an add-on to that article. I recommend reading it when you’re done here.

Read on: Optimizing images for SEO »

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Photography SEO: How to optimize your images

Have you read my post on image SEO? On that post, I got this comment from Jerry, a professional photographer: “In galleries, do you have any suggestions about what the ALT text should look like? The main concern is that we don’t want to be perceived as keyword spamming; using the same keyword in all the images of a given gallery.”

That’s a good question about photography SEO. When thinking about the optimization of photo galleries for Google, I could actually only come up with one main comment: write more text to accompany these photos. You might even start a blog about your work and your photos. In this post, I will go over a number of random photos and explain what direction I’d go with that text and photography SEO. There might be some personal preference in this, but I’m sure this will help you to find a way that will allow you to easily add that text yourself as well. Keep in mind that you don’t need to be a copywriter to write appealing text ;)

Table of Contents

  1. Why would a photographer want to rank with images
  2. Single photos and SEO
  3. Photo galleries and SEO
  4. Wedding photography SEO
  5. Stock photos and SEO
  6. Food photography and SEO
  7. EXIF and ImageObject
  8. Why photographers hate SEO

Why would a photographer want to rank with images

Recently, a friend of mine received a claim for using an apparently copyright protected image. This photographer stuffed his website with copyright warnings, but also exposed all of his photos of very common objects on Flickr.com (although using an ‘All rights reserved’ status). I’m curious what the outcome will be.

We all know an image will be used at some point if you don’t make sure it’s useless unless bought. Watermark your photos if you don’t want people to use them. Otherwise, people will find your photo and use it on a blog or whatever. If you’re not watermarking, that could be one reason to make ’em rank: making money off people stealing your photo. But I think that’s an odd business model ;-)

I think the main reason you want your images to rank is because you are proud of your photos. And you want people to notice these, so they will hire you. That should be the main reason to invest in photography SEO in my book anyway. Your photos sell you as a photographer.

In the sections below, I’ll go over five common photography cases and explain how I would optimize these for Google.

Single photos and SEO

Colorful Apiary

I mentioned optimizing single images / photos in my Image SEO post already. For photography SEO, obviously a lot is the same. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Pick the right file name for your image
  • Make sure image dimension match the image size as displayed
  • Reduce file size for faster loading
  • Add a caption for easier scanning of the page
  • Use an image alt text, title text is not really necessary
  • Add OpenGraph and Twitter Card tags for the image
  • Use structured data when necessary
  • Don’t break the left reading line using an image
  • Use images in your XML sitemaps

In all this, it really helps to add text with that photo. Search engines can ‘read’ an image, but they use the context you provide to really make sense of it. The article mainly mentions images to make text richer, but it works the other way around as well. If you want to rank your image, you need to add relevant text.

Photo galleries and SEO

BMX Skate Park Gallery

You must have wondered how to rank all of these photos. They are pretty much the same. In the example, you see a BMX rider in a skate park. Jumping. I’m sorry if you are a BMX rider and know all the names and nicknames of these jumps, for the larger part of the world it’s a BMX rider jumping. How to optimize your photography SEO for that?

Well, this is a great reason to add text! You have probably spent the day with these guys, tested a number of lenses, tried to play with white balance and perhaps even some ISO values. You have created great stills from dynamic poses. Changed motion blur and shutter speed during the day (and that is where my photography knowledge ends). There is a story in this and that story shows your knowledge, so go write that blog post! It could show your passion for this niche of sports photography. It will tell the visitor in words that if they want great photos like that, they should contact you. The gallery page could already have a call-to-action for that reason.

In short: If you have created a gallery, write about it.

Back to Jerry’s specific question about the ALT text in galleries, as mentioned in the first paragraph of this article. In an ideal world, you would create unique ALT texts for all these images. Would that be keyword spamming? Not if you can use long tail keywords per photo, instead of repeating the same ALT text over and over again. Note that if your gallery is a hundred photos, you should ask yourself a) if that gallery isn’t too large, and b) if it wouldn’t be easier to set up a separate page to rank for the keyword (if any) and not try to rank that specific gallery page at all.

For more information, here’s an image SEO post about optimizing the alt tag for images.

Wedding photography SEO

wedding day stealing a moment alone

Oh, the emotion on that wedding day. So beautifully captured in photos. A couple stealing a quiet moment with only the photographer as a witness. It’s just that, I think. What makes you a great wedding photographer? Are you the always present kind that parties along with the guests and is invisible for that reason? Or are you actively involved in the day and present photo moments along the way? I can’t be the judge of your USP, but your subjects, the bride and groom, probably can.

We have done a nice post on testimonials and increasing trust a while back, and I think it works the same with wedding photography. If your wedding couple doesn’t mind their photos used on the internet, these great images could lure people to your website looking for the same style of photography. It’s not per se SEO that is optimized this way, but if you add a genuine testimonial to the wedding gallery/photo(s), that would help your conversion, right?

Of course, you could also write an additional post about how you ‘operated’ during the day.

Stock photos and SEO

Couple in front of a Graffiti wall

If you’re a professional in the stock photo business, you have probably done some photography SEO already. There are some general guidelines:

  • You’ve probably chosen one or more niches;
  • you’re doing all the right image optimization and more, as mentioned in our article on image seo;
  • of course, you’re trying to rank watermarked images, not the originals.

There is one more issue to consider when thinking about photography SEO. If your main business is selling stock photos, you probably don’t want to do that via your own website. There are plenty of well-visited websites that specialize in selling stock photos. Images in this article are from various photographers at 123RF. Using websites like that, and for instance, Shutterstock or iStockphoto will bring much more attention to people looking for these kinds of photos.

If you want your photo to do well in these on-site search engines, you want to focus on the image description. Use the right keywords. The file name will probably be changed anyway. If you can tag the image, do so using the right tags, not a surplus of tags.

One more thing: most websites allow for a photographer’s bio as well. Tell me who you are. If I can relate to your story, it’s so much easier to spend money on your photos.

Food photography and SEO

Blueberry Muffins

Food photography SEO is a whole different ball game. The topic is so popular that you want to make sure all images are set for sharing. Yes, that means giving away (a number of) these for free. Especially for photos that have baked, cooked, or otherwise processed food, the recipe will help your rankings. Even if it’s a magazine shoot, you can probably either use the recipe or come up with a related one.

Social platforms that help a lot with ‘spreading’ your image on the web are obviously Pinterest and Instagram. For instance Pinterest, it pays to add OpenGraph data to your image. If you have never heard of that, you are probably new on this website. OpenGraph image tags look something like this:

<meta property="og:image" content="http://example.com/photo.jpg" />

Be sure to add at least that one. On a side note: for the recipe, you should use Schema.org markup to improve your photography SEO as well.

EXIF and ImageObject

Although I wanted to write a post that would make photographers think about texts, I can’t leave out a bit of technical optimization. Especially for photographers, that understand EXIF and other data and would like to include that as well in their online images, please check http://schema.org/ImageObject.

There is another reason to include that EXIF data: for SEO. In the video below, Matt Cutts from Google clearly states that Google is very capable of reading this EXIF data and according to him, Google ‘reserves the right to use it as a ranking factor’. So make sure that your EXIF data is optimized for your keyword, or the subject of your photo, as well.

Besides exifData, you can also include things like copyrightHolder and copyrightYear. It will make it easier for search engines to grab that data. Will the copyright make you rank better? Probably not. But I would understand the wish to include that data.

One more thing regarding EXIF data: we frequently recommend using file size reducing software like JPEGMini and ImageOptim. Exif data is preserved in most of these applications, but please check the FAQ or changelog on their websites, like here, to make sure of this.

Why photographers hate SEO

I might be mistaken, but in my opinion, most photographers hate SEO. Why do I think photographers hate SEO? Because it simply has less to do with photography, and loads to do with extra, textual content or code.

Maintaining a website isn’t simple. You preferably need to know a bit of everything. We have seen a lot of photography websites over the past few years. To be honest, it would be a lot if two out of all these websites actually had decent content accompanying the images.

It all comes down to this: if you want your photos to tell a story, please tell that story to Google in writing.

Read more: Image SEO »

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