Google Images, important news for Search and the SEOs

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A parallel and fully visual search engine, used daily by millions of users worldwide and which has its own specific rules for positioning: often underestimated, Google Images is actually a very useful tool to leverage for SEO and can give a positive boost to organic site traffic. In this insight we will discover the origins of this free service developed by Mountain View, its operation and the main advice to try to improve the ranking of the images published on our pagonas.

What is Google Images or Google Image Search

Officially launched on July 12, 2001 (and then almost 4 years after the basic Google Search ), Google Images is the image search engine on the Web, which works in parallel to the classic Google Search.

As it says online, Google Image Search became necessary when the developers of Mountain View were faced with the “most popular search query” seen in the four years of Google Search activity. Jennifer Lopez in her exotic green Versace dress, this the query that convinced of the importance of providing users with an image search tool, which then evolved constantly and was integrated into the basic Search.

How Google Images work

To briefly describe the operation of this parallel and visual search engine we can refer to the words of John Mueller, who dedicated one of his Youtube video tutorials to this theme.

For the US giant’s Search Advocate, Google Images helps users visually find web pages “for a wide range of tasks, whether it’s starting a do-it-yourself project, cooking a meal, finding an outfit or, as we recently saw, learning how to cut your own hair at home during quarantine”. In response, Google Images shows users relevant images and pages from all over the web, “so it’s as easy as possible to find what you’re looking for”.

From a practical point of view, the user can textually launch a query or using reverse search: the results show a preview image, attribution and a page title, and users can expand the preview to find out more about the image and content of the page. If Google believes that “a result is a product, a recipe or a video – which the site can specify with specific structured data – it shows this information to the user” with an icon at the bottom; when appropriate, also information on the license of the image appears. Finally, “of course, there is a big button to visit the page directly“.

What image search is for according to Google

During the Google’s Webmaster Conference back in November 2019, Francois Spies – Product Manager for Google Images, has traced the evolution of Google Images over the past five years in relation to new considerations and reflections on the usefulness of these multimedia resources for research.

Specifically, according to Google, image search is not just about finding a photo, but people use the system “to do things in the real world”, because in many cases they use this engine to shop, find ideas for interior design, various inspirations, learning visually how to do certain operations and so on.

And so, image searching is “a tool that helps people’s brains process information faster than reading a web page.”, and Google has changed its search engine to reflect different use cases and support people more appropriately.

How Google Image Search changed through the years

Initially – and until about two years ago – Google simply provided images without context, making it more difficult for users to understand where the image came from and navigate to complete the action they had in mind.

For this reason, many changes have been made, first of all to provide more context to the images thanks to the appearance of text snippets and the indication of the domain in which the resource was loaded. An intervention apparently simple and minor, but that allows users to determine which result is the most relevant to them based on their use case.

Very important in this sense was the spread of smartphones and mobile browsing: just on mobile devices debuted the new version of Google Images – then also implemented for desktops – with an upgrade of the preview viewer, aesthetic changes and a “visit page” button that connects directly to the URL of the ranked site.

Changed the approach to the ranking of images

At the same time, the approach to the ranking of multimedia results has also changed: in the backend Google has gone from simply considering images to evaluate for positioning the “images published on the best landing pages based on what the user wants to achieve”, to help people find the content behind the image more precisely.

Google assesses the relevance and importance of images

John Mueller, who in one of the classic appointments with SEO office-hours on Youtube explained how and when Google chooses to show images in the search results pages.

Basically, algorithms try to determine whether people show a preference for image-like results over textual ones, to provide them with what is really relevant and significant that time.

It therefore reaffirms the value of relevance, expressed not in relation to keyword but to the context of user search, as “act of showing users what they really want to see”. So, images can be relevant to give an accurate answer to people’s actual intentions, to really give them what they are interested in, while in other contexts Google will find it more appropriate to serve a video or a text response.

To achieve this end result there are several automated algorithms that work independently in answering to the query, labeling them with a kind of relevance score that serves to determine how and where to show the different types of results in SERP.

In practice, Mueller continues, if the image search system believes that image results are important for a query, they are extremely relevant, the SERP will provide boxes “somewhere” on the page: in the prominent position at the top if the images are super useful and relevant to the query, or in the middle of the page or elsewhere.

On the contrary, if the system determines that the web results are more relevant, then it will show textual or other results, hiding the images or putting them in the background.

The process is still evolving and Google’s ratings may change over time: if systems recognize that many users are looking for images for a query that at that time does not provide images in SERP, In fact, it is likely that there are changes and soon there will be a box of images to meet the needs of people.

The use of structured data

Still with the aim of helping users to the maximum Google has pushed a lot on the use of structured data for the search of images of products, recipes and videos with the appropriate markups and today the information included in the structured data is displayed by users when they click on an image to enlarge the preview.

The new Google Images interface

Looking in particular at the latest innovations introduced in the system, the first change was (apparently) only usability: last August started the new interface of Google Images, with a different design especially for the preview box of the selected resource.
Clicking on one of the thumbnails proposed by the search engine, in fact, now opens a dark box on the right with a preview of the photo in larger size and the main information on the host site, with double links to the page and captions added to the related images shown below the selected image, to allow you to know the destination before clicking.

How Google Images changes

The important feature, highlighted also by a post on the official Google blog, is that the side panel is flanked by the results page and does not replace it, thus leaving visible the other images placed on Google Images to allow further comparisons to the user.

Nuova interfaccia Google Immagini

Additional info on the product pictured

Moreover, depending on the query the search engine can also provide additional information details: in particular, transactional searches can report “details such as brand, price, availability and reviews” to facilitate purchasing decisions. A choice that could also favor those who use this channel to get organic traffic and conversions, since thanks to the new “updated interface people are more likely to visit a web page to get useful information for a business or to buy a product on your site,” they write from Google.

Google Images, here comes the licensable markup

Still in 2020, after months of beta testing, Google has announced that it is now officially available for all the licensable markup, which activates the special Under license badge in Google Images. Thanks to this new feature, it will be possible to show the licensing information of multimedia resources published on the website and it will also be easier for users to understand how to use images responsibly.

A markup to show info on the license of images on Google Images

To report the completion of the beta test on licensable is an article published on the Google Webmaster Central Blog signed by François Spies, Product Manager of Google Images, that also retraces the various steps that led to the decision to pay more attention to the licensing of multimedia resources and help image owners to sell and get credit for their photos.

Screen di Google Immagini: come funziona il markup licensable

The collaboration between Google and the licensing industry

In recent years Google has “collaborated with the image licensing industry to raise awareness of licensing requirements for content found through Google Images”: in particular, recalls Spies, in 2018 “we started to support the metadata of IPTC image rights“, and last February we started testing the new metadata framework through and IPTC for licensed images.

In recent months, the new standard has been adopted “extensively by websites, image platforms and agencies of all sizes”, and so Google has further improved the features of Image Search that will highlight license information for images and will make it easier for users to understand how to use images responsibly.

What is the licensable markup

The Under License badge on the results page tells users that for the selected image information about the license are available and provides a link to the latter in the image viewer (i.e., the window that appears when you select an image), which provides more details on how users can reuse the resource based on terms provided by the content owner or licensor. When available, Google also offers an additional link that directs users to a page of the content owner or licensor where the user can acquire the image.

At the same time, Google has also simplified the search for images with license metadata, intervening on the Google Images user rights menu to support the filter for Creative Commons licenses, as well as for those with commercial or other licenses (as seen on the following screen).

Nuovo filtro licenze in Google Immagini

How to add the structured data or metadata of IPTC photos

The guide page dedicated to this theme also provides the correct directions to report to Google which images can be licensed by adding structured data or IPTC photo metadata to each licensed image on your site. If we use the same image on multiple pages, we must enter the data to each image on all the pages viewed.

Currently there are two alternative ways to add license information to the image, both valid to ensure eligibility for the Under License badge. It should be noted that using such metadata is an optional choice and that using them or not has no impact on search rankings.

If we choose structured data – defined in the guide as “an association between the image and the page where it is displayed with the markup” – we will need to add structured data for each instance where an image is used, even if this does not change. Alternatively we can use the IPTC photo metadata, embedded in the image itself and able to remain unchanged even when they are transferred from one page to another; in this case, therefore, the IPTC photo metadata must be indicated only once for each image.

The advantages for image licensors

Spies’ post also analyzes what are the main advantages that the licensable markup can offer to licensors, in what for Google is “a step to help people better understand the nature of the content they are looking at on Google Images and to understand how they can use it responsibly”.

First of all, it is easier to find the information about the license and, above allmost importantly, purchase it or get the possibility to reuse the resource: as we explained, when the licensor provides the metadata on the image (activating the Under License badge), you will be able to find in the image viewer the details page and the one for the acquisition.

In case the page that hosts the image is not configured to allow you to acquire it (for example it is a portfolio, an article or a page of the gallery), users can link to a new URL from Google Images which directs them directly to the page where they can purchase or obtain the license for the image.

Last but not least, metadata can also be applied by publishers who have purchased the images, which means that the license details are visible even when the media resources are reused by customers (which, of course, must not remove or alter the IPTC metadata provided).

The main comments of image licensors

At the bottom of the article, François Spies also reports the words of some executives of large image-licensors groups who are collaborating with Google, to make it clear how these innovations are evaluated by professionals.

According to Paul Brennan (VP of Content Operations at Shutterstock), for instance, “the new features of Google Images help both creators and consumers of images as they give visibility to the way creators’ content can be properly licensed.”.

A thanks to Google comes from Alfonso Gutierrez, President of CEPIC (Coordination of European Picture Agencies Stock, Press and Heritage), who greets with enthusiasm “the window of opportunity that is opening up for photo agencies and the image industry in general thanks to this collaboration”, which has already led to ensure “guaranteed identification of authors and rights holders on Google Images”.

He talks about “a huge advantage for image providers” and “an incentive to add IPTC metadata to image files” Michael Steidl, head of the IPTC photo metadata working group, summarizing the scope of the functionality by explaining that now “When an image containing the embedded IPTC photo metadata is reused on a popular website, Google Images will redirect an interested user to the image provider”.

Unanimous opinions on the feature’s value

“Google’s licensed image functions are a big step forward in making it easier for users to quickly identify and get licensed for visual content,” says Leslie Hughes, president of the Digital Media Licensing Association (DMLA), that highlights the work closely with Google to get to the development of the functionality.

Wider the reasoning of Ken Mainardis, SVP, Content, Getty Images & istock at Getty Images, which begins to highlight how “we live in a dynamic and changing media landscape, where images are an integral component of narration and online communication for more and more people”. This means that it is “crucial that people understand the importance of licensing their images from appropriate sources for their own protection and to ensure that they continue the investment required to create these images”, and so Mainardis hopes that “Google’s approach brings greater visibility to the intrinsic value of licensed images and the rights required to use them”.

For Ramzi Rizk, co-founder of Eyeem, we are faced with “a significant milestone for the professional photography industry, as it is now easier for users to identify images that they can acquire safely and responsibly”. Positive also the opinion of Marcin Czyzewski, CTO of picturemaxx, “the world’s largest network of professional suppliers and digital image users”, that “appreciates Google’s licensed image features because for our customers as creators and rights managers, it is very important not only the visibility in a search engine, but also the display of copyright and license information”.

The last two voices supporting only those of James Hall, Product Director of Alamy, and Andrew Fingerman, CEO of Photoshelter; for Hall, “licensable tags will reduce confusion for consumers and help inform the wider public of the value of high-quality creative and editorial images“. Finally, Fingerman stresses that making “Google Images A reliable way to identify licensed content, Google will promote discovery opportunities for all independent agencies and photographers, creating an efficient process to quickly find and acquire the most relevant and licenseable content“.

Google Images, evaluations and the impact on the SEO

In its twenty years of life, then, there have been various changes implemented in Google Images, which has functions and filters autonomous and specific to the classic Search, but which perhaps has never enjoyed the right consideration by webmasters and SEO. Things are changing in recent times and with the growing interest of users in new forms of content, which go beyond the classic textual article and push more on multimedia.

The first point to consider is that Google Images can bring a lot of organic traffic to a well located site, so it is important to take care of SEO optimization for images.

The first advice is to check that the image is actually indexed in Google Images, testing the site Urls through the Google test tools and checking that the values related to the attribute “src” of the image tags are accurate (in addition to the correct use of the <img> tag in HTML code). Still from a technical SEO point of view, it is good to add an image sitemap so to speed up the way Googlebot finds the site images.

Tips to improve image performance on Google

Moving on to more practical optimizations, you must always write some alt texts, which are used by Google to understand the context in which you insert the photo, then through the use of structured data and other meta data to allow a better interpretation and indexing of the resource, which can then be shown in the Serps.

How you can improve the ranking of a site on Google Images was also the question at the center of an episode of #Askgooglewebmaster, the space on Youtube in which John Mueller devotes himself precisely to answering doubts and difficulties that people encounter in the Google ecosystem.

How to improve the ranking of the images

The Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst hence offers us some quick and useful indications to improve ranking on the engine for images search, very well know to be an important source of organic traffic, and often an underestimated one.

Images are great, starts the Googler, showing some really funny pictures prior to truly “dig in”: when we talk about images, “first thing to consider is how you’d want to be found on Google Image Search, what you expect users to search for and how can your site be useful to them when they find you”.

Therefore, first John Mueller’s tip is “don’t just optimize for Images just because it exists, but rather do it with a specific goal in mind, so to offer a useful resource”. Once we have found this purpose, we can move to consider the technical aspects to enhance the performance of these files, by complying with some basic criteria.


Six quick works of optimization

Mueller lists some suggestions of SEO optimization of images that can be applied to any site typology:

  1. The use of high quality images.
  2. The placement of images on visible and relevant positions.
  3. The use of descriptive page titles and of a useful alt text for images.
  4. Possibly, to add a caption.
  5. The use of filenames.
  6. The upload of the image file in order to be quickly provided to users.

Consigli di Google per ottimizzare le immagini

There are many other things that can be done in order to “optimize images for the search”, adds the Googler, but these are the fundamental steps that must be the foundation of every strategy. We go from writing tips (interventions on titles, captions, filenames and alt text) to the kind of suggestions closer to the simple “common sense” and user experience, like the choice of the right place to put images in or the loading speed of the resource.

Nothing particularly new, in this short video, but a confirmation by proxy of the usefulness of Google Images and the importance to consider this search engine as well within an SEO strategy.

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