Image and Video Search: How to optimize (as best you can)

Ian Lurie

This is part 2 of a series of articles on Universal Search. If you don’t know what universal search is, or think blended search is a new kind of foo-foo drink, read the first article: click here.

I am an authority on Snidely Whiplash.
Betcha didn’t know that. I didn’t either, actually, until Google Image Search suddenly started sending traffic my way for the phrase ‘Snidely Whiplash’. A little research quickly showed why. An image I’d used in an article was the top image result for that phrase. That immediately got me a top-4 position in Google’s web search results for the same name:
Behold the power of universal search (aka blended search). You can leapfrog over thousands (or millions) of other rankings and get first-page placement in a fraction of the time it’d normally take to gain a top 10 position.
But how? Why do some images and videos pop right up on page 1 of Google’s web search results, while others pine away on page 20? I’ll take a crack at explaining, and provide a few tips for optimizing your own images and videos:

Image Search Optimization Factors

We can’t be 100% sure how search engines rank images, but we know a few things for certain:

  1. They can’t accurately read the images themselves. Yet.
  2. The text around the image matters a lot. A keyword-rich caption, plus a page title tag, heading and copy that are all closely related to the image, all help.
  3. The image filename matters. An image named ford-mustang.jpg will definitely appear more relevant than the same image named 123098123.jpg.
  4. The image file’s location matters, too. If an image is stored in /cars/ford-mustang.jpg that’s better than /images/ford-mustang.jpg.
  5. The image’s location on the page matters. If the image is at the top of the page, it’s more likely to be considered relevant.
  6. Image size matters. A larger image can often receive greater relevance.
  7. ALT tags matter. The ALT or alternate tag is a bit of information that tells web browsers and other software what to display if they can’t retrieve the image itself. I won’t get into the details here – just search for ‘alt tag” and you’ll learn more.
  8. There are humans involved, sometimes. Google and the other major search engines all have folks go out and tag images by the thousands. (On Google, at least, your site and its images won’t be part of this process unless you check off ‘include my site in Google Image Labeler” in Webmaster Tools.)

In my Snidely Whiplash example, I became the lucky expert because the image is close to the top of the post in question, and is surrounded with highly relevant text in the headline, title tag and copy:
Plus, it didn’t hurt that the image filename is snidely-whiplash.jpg and that the ALT text is the same thing.

How to Optimize For Image Search

Given all this, if you want to get a high ranking for image search results, you must:

  1. Put your images near the top of your page.
  2. Put like with like. Make sure your images are surrounded by highly relevant copy, on a highly relevant page. At a minimum, make sure the page title tag and top level heading include the phrase for which you want the image to rank. For best results, include a keyword-rich caption and put the same phrase in the paragraphs adjacent to the image.
  3. Name your image using the key phrase. If you have to put it in a folder, make sure the folder has a relevant name, too.
  4. Use a decent quality image. Make it large enough that someone clicking from page to page in a stupor can correctly tag the image.
  5. Use an appropriate ALT tag.

There are arguably more things you can do. These are the essentials. If you want to geek out and try to do even more image optimization, check out this great article by Dosh Dosh.
One last point: If you’re trying to place an image on Yahoo, consider using Flickr. They own it, and they seem to bias search results heavily towards their own site.

Video Optimization: How to be a suck-up

Google is totally biased when ranking videos in universal search. Put your video on YouTube, or you’re sunk.
Yahoo!, on the other hand, seems to ignore YouTube. Maybe they’re jealous. I dunno. Use MetaCafe or just about any service that’s not YouTube.
Microsoft’s Live Search will rank YouTube videos and just about any other source they can find, probably because Silverlight is such a flop.
You can host videos on your own server and try to get them a decent ranking in universal search. For Google, at least, that seems utterly hopeless. It can get you placement on Yahoo! and Live, though, so I’ll include tips for videos you host yourself, too.
Once you get past the bias and decide you’re going to have to do some serious butt-kissing, the ranking factors remain mysterious, but there are a few things I know for sure:

  1. The title and description you write when uploading your video matter a lot. Use your keywords in both.
  2. Comments written about each video matter. The quantity of comments indicates a level of interest that Google at least seems to use as a ranking factor. The keywords in the comments matter to demonstrate relevance.
  3. Velocity matters. If you can get a lot of people to view your video in a short time, that could potentially give you a boost. That’s far more important with YouTube, since Google owns the site and almost certainly pulls viewership data.
  4. Links (probably) matter. If other sites link to your video, that demonstrates authority.
  5. Embed your video in a highly-relevant page on your own site. The use of the video will get you more views, which helps with velocity, and also helps search engines determine relevance.

In addition, if you’re completely out of your mind hosting your own video:

  1. Create a video sitemap. If you don’t use YouTube or another video service to host your video, you’re insane. But if you’re insane, at least create a video sitemap using the standard. Google has a tutorial here.
  2. Put all the videos in a single folder on your site.
  3. Make sure the video filenames are keyword-rich.
  4. Make sure the text adjacent to the video – the headline, title tag and caption at the very least – is keyword-rich.
  5. Put the video on your home page, or at least link to it from there.

Just remember – if you’re not a major site, hosting your own video is like voting for John Kerry. It makes your opinion clear, but leaves you wondering what the hell happened the next day.

Get to Work

Optimize your images. Optimize your video. If you don’t, you’re missing a major shortcut into the rankings, and I’ll use that to kick your ass all over the internet.
Don’t forget this is part of a series. Tomorrow, I’ll be writing about product search.

  1. Universal Search, Lesson 1
  2. Image and Video Search: How to optimize (as best you can)
  3. Product Search: The pain and agony, and why you need to suck it up.
  4. News Search: Why it’s hopeless (unless you’re a news outlet).
  5. Local Search: How to optimize.
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Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at

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  1. Hi Ian,
    I am wondering if you can expand on your claim “If you don’t use YouTube or another video service to host your video, you’re insane”. Is it a bandwidth issue or getting ignored in the universal listings or what? If I am not aiming to place a video on the search results does it matter what provider I use? Also do you have a recommended hosting service other than Youtube. I was using Google Video (better resolution, cleaner embed, no adds, no link to other videos) but I am sure you have read by now that Google is cancelling Google video.
    Thanks for the great blog, I appreciate your work and the time you spend spreading your expertise.

  2. Thanks for this post Ian…
    …love your writing style.
    You outline your message very well and make your posts very enjoyable to read.
    Great job!
    -mike b.

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