Visual Search: how to optimise for it

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

The contrast of an image can affect a search engine's ability to identify its contents.

Recent developments in visual search are being welcomed by users, but this rapidly-evolving type of search activity also provides real opportunities for marketers. There are several reasons for this.

We shop with our eyes

93% of consumers said they consider visual factors above all else when making a purchase, and image-based searches mean they can get to these quicker and more easily than ever before.

More social-generated sales

93% of active 'pinners' said they use Pinterest to plan purchases, and 87% said they’ve bought something because of Pinterest. Visual search features, like the Pinterest Lens, make finding and shopping based on a single image easier – so there’s more opportunity for ecommerce brands to drive sales from the platform.

More buying-intent behind search

Shoppers searching with images tend to be looking for a specific item or product. With visual search, they’ll find your product faster and when they do, they’ll be less likely to abandon basket.

More opportunity for cross-sell

If a user searches for ‘gold bag’ and finds your product, they might be tempted to buy other items featured in the same image, like additional accessories or clothes.

Easier path to purchase

Visual search saves users time and makes finding (and buying) products easier. This is particularly true for brands who incorporate visual search into their apps, like Amazon.

Low competition

Relatively speaking, visual search is in its infancy and as such, rarely features in marketing strategies. This presents a big opportunity for brands who are willing to invest in featuring prominently in visual search results (VSERPs).

How to research consumer phrases and keywords for visual search

While identifying keywords for image searches isn’t as straightforward as it is for text-based queries – at least until Google introduce ads into image SERPs and AdWords – there are a few tricks you can use to find the right terms to use…

Image stack

Google often includes an image stack in a keyword’s organic search results if a lot of users re-enter the keyword in image search immediately after – an indication they were looking for images to begin with.

To see whether a keyword has image-based demand, search for the term and see if an image stack appears in the organic search results.

Autocomplete

In the absence of any real image keyword data, autocomplete is the next best thing.

Google has confirmed that search ‘popularity’ and ‘freshness’ are key factors in its autocomplete algorithm, so if it suggests a keyword in image search, chances are it has demand.

Type your root keyword into the image search bar to see which variations Google suggests. Be careful, though – your previous searches have a heavy influence on autocomplete results, so make sure you’re in Incognito Mode.

How to optimise images for visual search

Keyword research sorted? Here are some simple tricks you can action right now to harness the power of image search, help search engines understand your images and push them up the search results…

Embed images in HTML

First, make sure your images are embedded in HTML and not in CSS using the background-image property, as this method isn’t crawlable.

Optimise your metadata

Make sure you include your target keywords in the image’s file name. For example, image-01.jpeg doesn’t give a search engine any information, whereas red-trench coat.jpeg is far clearer.

Next, make the most of your image alt tags. Originally created to help accessibility software for the visually impaired, it’s common SEO knowledge that search engines also use them to understand images. Optimise these tags with your target keywords, to provide them with additional relevancy signals.

Captions are the descriptions found beneath an image and are another great way to provide users and search engines with context. You can also use your metadata to distinguish between images showing multiple angles of the same object.

Use structured data

Another way to help search engines understand your images is to use structured data. Include keyword-rich microdata – such as the search engine approved schema markup – to give your images an additional relevancy boost. This one is especially important for product images.

Create an image XML sitemap

Search engines love sitemaps. It’s always risky to rely on crawlers discovering your pages through internal linking alone, and the same goes for images. Creating an XML sitemap for your site’s images will help search engines crawl images that may otherwise be inaccessible – such as images blocked by JavaScript.

It also offers another opportunity to give search engines more context to your images, such as their type, subject matter, title, caption, and location. Crucially, you can also attribute a priority score to each image to help search engines understand which are the most important.

Think about image contrast

To give search engines the best chance of seeing your object/product, it should be against a plain contrasting background. So set your light objects against dark backgrounds and dark objects against light backgrounds.

Read our beginner's guide to visual search here.

Sam Colebrook is a content strategist at iCrossing

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