Ranking images in Google is extremely important for general SEO.

They make your website more eye-catching and can influence how your homepage, product pages and blog posts rank — but how your images themselves rank is also worth considering.

Have you ever wondered why, when you do a Google image search, your photos never seen to show up? Getting your images to rank in search engines is an art all of its own, combining user experience with proper optimization. If you’re not already optimizing your images for SEO, you could be missing out on a valuable chance to increase both web traffic and conversions.

Here’s a guide to what you should be doing to be successfully ranking images in Google and making the most of image SEO for your online business.

ranking images in google

Finding the best images

The images you choose for your website should help to tell a story or encapsulate an idea. It may seem obvious, but be sure to use images that are related to the subject of the articles they feature in. They should be good quality, clear resolution, and big enough to be viewed across devices.

There are lots of free image resources you can use to source photos, such as Google (labeled for reuse only), Burst, Flickr and Canva (plus more options here). Tools like Photoshop can be used to add text, graphics and personality to your images. And don’t forget, you can also create your own graphs, charts and infographics easily using software like Piktochart.

Ideally, you want to use high-quality original images that’ll help you stand out in search results – after all, a lot of websites use the same generic stock photos. Consider hiring a photographer to capture some original images that will show off your company in its best light. And whatever images you end up using, be sure to check you’re not infringing on copyright.

Naming your images

How do you choose the right file name for your image? From an SEO perspective, using descriptive, keyword-rich file names is paramount, as they enable search engine crawlers to understand the subjects of images. Google can’t ‘see’ your image, so you need to tell it what the image is about. This improves its SEO value.

The first thing to do is change the file name of your image from the default – likely something like DSC7839 or IMG8395 – to something more descriptive. Use clear, plain language. For example, if the image shows a pair of orange yoga leggings, you might name the image yoga-leggings-orange.jpg. It’s a good idea to put the main subject of the photo at the start of the file name, to give it more prominence.

Here’s another useful tip: consider the way in which your customers tend to search for products on your website. Look for keyword patterns in your website analytics and mimic these patterns when naming your image files for better search results.

The importance of alt attributes

The alt tag you use to describe your images is probably one of the most important image ranking factors of all. The alt attribute is your main signal for telling search engines what your image contains. Alt text is used in place of images if, for whatever reason, the images aren’t displayed. They’re also used by screen readers to help the visually impaired understand what’s in front of them on web pages (alt text is required under the American Disabilities Act).

Your image alt text should accurately describe the content of your image. The most effective alt text is clear, concise and specific – not stuffed with keywords. A good rule of thumb is to try to write as if you’re describing the image to a blind person. Take the image below, for example:

Acceptable alt text would be “jellyfish”, but that would be a very simple way of describing what’s in this image, and would leave out some useful information.

Better alt text would be “group of red jellyfish”. Over-optimized alt text would be “jellyfish jelly fish red pink sea ocean floating marine”. This kind of keyword-stuffed alt text may even have the opposite effect to the one desired.

Alt text can also become the anchor text of an internal link, should the image link to elsewhere on your site – so when you’re ranking images in Google this is well worth keeping in mind.

Image file size

Around 50% of visitors won’t wait longer than three seconds for a website to load, and images are often the main culprits when it comes to slow page loading times. This is important because Google uses page load time as one of its ranking factors, meaning overly large file sizes can directly impact your web and image search rankings. Therefore, it’s always worth resizing and compressing your images before uploading them to your website.

iPhone photos, for example, can be surprisingly big – sometimes in excess of 3,000 pixels wide. This is far wider than you are ever likely to need. It’s important to note that reducing the size of an image file doesn’t mean sacrificing quality. In fact, by saving the image at a lower resolution, you often get a clearer result on screen.

An easy way to reduce the file size of your images (without losing quality) is to use Photoshop’s ‘Save for Web’ option. If you don’t have Photoshop, you can use online compression tools like PicMonkey. Keep an eye on the image and make sure it doesn’t become distorted as you reduce the size. A reasonable image size to aim for would be around 60-90 KB.

File format

There are three fairly standard file formats that are used to post images to the web. These are JPEG, GIF, and PNG.

You’ll almost certainly have heard of JPEG before. This is the standard image format that’s been used on the internet for decades. Images saved in this format can be heavily compressed, which gives you a much smaller file size. Generally speaking, they tend to provide the best image quality for the smallest file size, though image data is lost every time a JPEG is altered.

GIFs are lower quality than JPEGs, and are only used for basic icons, thumbnails and decorative elements on a website. The GIF’s main strength is its support for animation. You should never use a GIF for large, glossy lifestyle images or product photos, as the file sizes would be much too large.

PNGs can be preferable to JPEGs or GIFs, depending on the intended use. Unless animation is required, the PNG format is seen as better than the GIF format for decorative elements since it supports more colors. In addition, its low average file size and support for transparency makes it ideal for graphics and logos. If you’re saving a photo as a PNG, it’s worth choosing PNG-8 over PNG-24.

Most image editing software will enable you to save images in any of these three file formats.

Other ranking factors

Because Google is never going to openly state the factors it uses to rank pages or images, we can never be 100% sure about everything that goes into rankings — but a lot of work in the SEO field has reached some fair conclusions about what other things play into Image Search rankings, including the following:

  • Dimensions
    • Whether it’s due to a need to create a results grid or a desire to reward standardized dimensions (probably the latter), it’s reckoned that Google prefers images to approximately stay within certain aspect ratios.
  • Engagement Levels
    • If other SEO factors push Google to rank an image low down in the search results but it starts attracting far more clicks than the images around it, that will suggest to the algorithm that it should be ranked higher. As such, even if you can get a weak image to rank for a while, it will invariably sink — so make sure your images are worthy of being ranked.
  • Page SEO
    • If your image is featured on a page with a strong SEO structure, it will benefit from that strength, and similarly be damaged by being placed on a page with weak SEO. If your site is a liability but you want your images to flourish, consider creating a second site for them: it’s easy to create a technically robust site using a low maintenance store creator or a free standard CMS and dedicate it to supporting your visuals while you slowly work on your main site.
  • Embedding
    • If you have an image on your site and get other sites to embed it, that will boost your SEO, much as a backlink to a page will raise its authority. It’s a sure sign that people appreciate the image but don’t want to simply steal it.

Let’s cover the key takeaways:

  • Images continue to play a key role in helping businesses and products get found. Too many businesses fail to optimize their images – as a result, they lose valuable opportunities to promote their brands.
  • Spend a little more time optimizing your images for SEO and the potential returns could be considerable. All it takes is a couple of minutes per image.
  • Source quality, relevant and preferably original images, name and tag them properly, save them in appropriate formats, and keep the file sizes down.
  • Investigate other ranking factors if you like, but remember that a lot of the details are unknown. Cover the basics very consistently and you’ll have a great chance.

In summary, if you run an online store or a business website, image optimization is not something to be ignored. When ranking images in Google can keep drawing in traffic through image searches… and by reducing your page loading times, small tweaks can lead to significant gains. Put some time into your image SEO and you never know — down the line, you might just find your images featured prominent in image searches!

Patrick Foster
is a writer and ecommerce expert from Ecommerce Tips — an industry-leading ecommerce blog that offers practical marketing advice so your online store receives the exposure it deserves. Check out the latest posts on Twitter @myecommercetips.