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The brain can process images in as little as 13 milliseconds. Even by the impatient standards of Internet users, that’s pretty quick. Visual content permits both robust communication and effective branding in a way that text articles cannot, and savvy businesses understand and utilize that value.
The problem is, until recently, images didn’t play well with Google. Beautiful infographics, informative slideshows, and other expressive pieces of content lacked the textual components needed for proper indexing.
Since the release of Hummingbird (Google’s latest search algorithm) in 2013, visual content creators have had more tools than ever before to bolster the SEO rankings of their visual content. The process of optimizing visual posts is now a simple matter of understanding the importance of a holistic approach to SEO and framing content in the best possible way to build links, traffic, recognition, and ranking.
A Brief Lesson in SEO
Computers are dumb, at least by human standards. For simple, mathematic tasks, like calculating how much money Susie’s lemonade stand will make assuming an average nominal tax rate, they are the perfect tool for the job. For calculating more sophisticated and nuanced things, such as the best link to serve a particular individual with a particular search query, things get complicated.
On the most fundamental level, computers only understand what we tell them. It’s the reason that engineers at Google spend a great deal of their time figuring out how to optimize the way computers understand search. The hardest part about this task, however, is that computers only work with data. Telling a computer that an article is of “high quality”, a judgement that is almost wholly subjective, requires a specific enumeration of the concrete elements that make it so, even if there’s nothing truly concrete about that characteristic.
Before Google’s algorithms became more complex, keywords were one of the primary indicators when determining the quality of a piece of content. The computer would look for the density and distribution of keywords and rate the page’s relevance to a search query on that basis (in addition to a couple of other factors). But what about slideshows and videos? What about infographics and animations? What about all of these types of content that lack the sort of data that the “primitive” algorithms require in order to make a judgement?
Since these questions arose, Google has determined that for more complex pieces and, particularly, visual pieces without a text element from which to draw data, this method simply does not work. Today, the list of factors affecting the final ranking of a page or site in a specific set of search results is extensive, and the implications for SEO are far-reaching.
The Importance of a Holistic SEO Approach
As we’ve said, the list of factors affecting SEO ranking is extensive. At the time of publication, over 200 factors affect the overall ranking of a page, each contributing varying weights to the final ranking itself.
This list indicates two things very clearly. The first is that there is a lot to take into consideration when optimizing a web page or piece of content. The second is that, even if your content does not check all of the SEO boxes, it can at least fulfill enough criteria, either directly or indirectly, to rank well without a lengthy text element.
This is an important concept to understand when working to optimize your visual content. Due to the complexity and sophistication of Google’s ever-evolving algorithms, “quality” is no longer a matter of keyword density and back link volume. Instead, quality in the modern Internet ecosystem is a holistic amalgamation of factors that indicate, whether objectively or subjectively, that your content is worth a look.
SEO Optimizing Step-by-Step
Since our visual content can’t rely on quantity/quality of outbound links or keyword density for a boost in page ranking, it is essential that we focus on optimizing every other aspect of our content for success. Doing so will not only help ensure that our content is seen, but will help make it more sharable, usable, interactive, and useful once curious eyes make it to the page.
1. Deliver Value
If there was one luxury afforded by the early search algorithms, it was simplicity. Hitting concrete data targets is a much easier task than hitting subjective targets, whether the intrinsic value is greater or not.
Delivering value can be a difficult concept to understand, so here is a basic breakdown. Let’s say you have a goal to fulfill. This goal may be discovery of the best boat to purchase, understanding of the nature and use of buyer personas, or even just entertainment for a few minutes.
When you have a goal in mind, you have a general idea of where you can go to fulfill that goal. Entertainment can be found on YouTube, information regarding buyer personas can be found on the Single Grain blog, and boat reviews can be found in Boating Magazine.
So why do you look to these resources specifically? Because they deliver value. Each channel provides information that allows you to make a more informed decision. In a tangible way, their content enables your goals and enriches your life. You can even benefit from your own business blogging: infographics can be linked in future articles as a source of sound statistical information.
Delivering value is important, not only because it helps build meaningful customer relationships, but because it increases the chances of linking and sharing. 64% of sharing behavior is motivated by the desire to look intelligent/funny/witty/etc. and valuable content fulfills that need. The remaining traffic you garner will be motivated by a desire to share useful, enriching, and meaningful information with others.
2. Provide a Great User Experience
Another subjective standard that has an objective effect on page ranking is user experience, or “UX”. UX is a combination of elements, including page layout, usability, ease of use, load time, and polish. Each of these factors affects the user in a way that ultimately affects where you fall in Google search results.
Let’s say, for example, that you are a blogger. As a blogger, you are looking for resources to better help your audience. In order to maintain an image of authority, and provide your audience with the best information possible, your goal is to find resources that are, both at-a-glance and upon thorough inspection, authoritative and trustworthy.
The first resource you find is questionable, for a number of reasons. The design is old and outdated, the page is slow loading, so your patience is already taxed, and the navigation keeps you from discovering that there are many, useful articles therein. The end result? You walk away from the site, the site fails to create a linking relationship between your blog and its information, and the site’s page ranking remains the same.
The second resource you find is a home run. The page loads quickly and the clearly polished appearance makes it easy to read the article. In addition, links to other relevant articles and an easy to understand navigation lead you on a journey of several minutes, during which time you discover that this resource has a lot to offer. Consequently, you link to this source multiple times, and the ranking of both of your sites rises as a result.
Simply put, a poor user experience dissuades potential linkages. At 4 seconds of loading time, 25% of viewers have already abandoned your site, and only 41% of the remaining users will actually read your article. That means that a strong first impression is crucial, and good UX makes it possible.
3. Don’t Forget Your Keywords
No, keywords are not as important as they used to be, but that does not mean they are no longer relevant.
For all intents and purposes, keywords are not a terrible metric by which to judge an article. Provided the piece is not attempting to “game the system” by nonsensically inserting the target keyword at odd intervals, a title, first paragraph, and body that all mention the topic with regularity are, by some objective measure, well written.
What’s important to understand is that keyword strategy has become more subtle. With large Internet players cornering the markets on more generalized keywords like “insurance”, “software”, and “hosting” seeing heavy competition, long-tail keywords have become the future.
Long-tail keywords are exactly what they sound like: long keywords. Instead of focusing on simple, high demand keywords like “books”, businesses and blogs can seek to fulfill more specific queries by focusing on keywords like “what are the top books of all time.”
Doing so achieves two goals. The first is that it taps into an untapped market by focusing on a more specific, but no less valuable keyword. The second is that it fills the need for specific queries looking for specific information.
The best way to execute an effective keyword strategy with visual content is to make sure you hit your keyword checklist. If you include a brief description before your visual posts, make sure it mentions the topic a couple of times and includes a long-tail keyword if tailored toward more specific queries. Additionally, add relevant descriptions to the “alt” tag of your images, featuring the keyword where appropriate. Each of these will help index your page and direct it toward relevant queries, regardless of how little text is on the page.
4. Make it Sharable
The advent of social media has been a boon for smaller sites. Previously, the viability of websites was determined largely by prevalence in consumer consciousness, leading to more direct and organic traffic and more linkages based on the perceived authority of the site.
What Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Pinterest have done is change the avenues for link building and, consequently, page rank. Google’s algorithm now looks at the social success of posts, perceiving that if content receives high sharing volumes, it is likely information worth sharing. Particularly for visual content creators, Pinterest pins afford a great deal of SEO credence to their subjects.
The problem with this logic is that it fails to consider the limitations or idiosyncrasies of each social media platform individually. A piece of high quality content may do well on Google+, where readers can see a marked-up snippet of the piece before following the link to the site, but may do poorly on Twitter, where a URL and brief comment are all readers have when deciding whether to click.
Take the guesswork out of social media posting and attach strong meta data and photos. Fortunately, visual content generally relies on more robust and captivating images, making image selection much easier and posts themselves more effective. Give each post a page title that is clear to understand at a glance and a brief description that is captivating when shown on social media, and consider that part of the work done.
5. Make Sure It’s Platform Agnostic
In 2014, research found that 425 million devices in American homes are now connected to the Internet. With 313.9 million people in the US, it is unlikely that those 425 million devices are all iPhones.
Traffic and, particularly, the sharing and linking that that traffic enables, is made possible through “platform agnosticism”. Platform agnosticism is the philosophy that all content, regardless of the device showing it, should render that content properly. The message here is simple: if your content isn’t designed to display correctly on desktop computers, phones, tablets, and other Internet enabled devices, you are missing out on valuable traffic.
For visual content specifically, this can be challenging. Infographics, for example, may render with too-fine detail on smaller screens. However, most modern blogs and websites are built on a framework of responsive design, meaning that images and layouts are served based on the platform indicated by the user web browser. Be sure that your website is responsive, and avoid uploading images in excessively high resolutions, as these can load slowly on mobile networks.
6. Welcome the Spiders
If you are arachnophobic, now is the time to take a deep breath. Search “spiders” are the programs or “bots” that crawl around the Internet and index content for Google’s records. These spiders look at the code behind web pages and dissect it for specific queries and formats.
A discussion of the workings of Internet spiders could take an entire article by itself. For our purposes, suffice to say that anything that is not hard-coded into the web page itself will go overlooked by these indexing insects.
When displaying visual content, be sure to add keywords and descriptive text to the “alt” tags of images. Where relevant, these tags should feature the target keyword for better optimization. For non-HTML/AJAX content, a script can be added to permit web crawling and ensure that nothing goes overlooked.
Visual content creators may be at a disadvantage, due to the absence of big blocks of text for dumb search indexes to dissect, but the increasing sophistication of Google’s ranking algorithm has opened the door for real SEO opportunities. What’s important is that your organization take a holistic approach to SEO, focusing on the factors that build traffic and linkages to your visual content. Wherever keyword and meta data apply, nail down these targets as well, and let your brilliant images speak for themselves once the organic search traffic inevitably arrives.