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Image SEO: How to Optimize Your Images for Backlinks & Traffic

Free traffic and backlinks?

What could be better?

In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m talking about some of the benefits of image SEO.

Optimizing an image for search engines only takes a few seconds, and the steps are extremely simple.

In other words, you’d be crazy to skip it.

But before I get into the how-to of image SEO, let’s talk about exactly how image optimization affects your site.

Do images help with SEO?

No one likes busy work.

Publishing articles frequently is hard enough without adding even more steps.

So is it really worth it to optimize all your images?

Yes, in fact, images can help a lot with your SEO.

Here’s how…

1. More traffic

By optimizing your images for keywords, they become eligible to rank in Google images. Without any optimization, they’re unlikely to rank at all.

This can be a nice way to gain traffic in any niche, but it’s especially important in visual niches where people commonly search for photos and graphics.

If you are in a visual niche, there’s a good chance that Google puts an image pack into the regular results. Ranking well there will bring your site a lot more traffic.

Google Image Pack

Googling “cloud icon” shows an image pack first, and you can’t even see a regular result without scrolling down the page.

If you’re trying to get more traffic and backlinks for a photography site, then this type of traffic can also be important for landing new clients.

If your images are highly visible in the SERPs, bloggers will use them in their articles.

Sometimes, they’ll include a source link, which means hands-off natural link building for you.

But often, they won’t link to the source at all. That’s why we built Image Prospector. Use it to find every site on the web copying your images, and let them know they need to link to the source. It’s highly effective 🙂

3. More accessible

Optimizing your images for search engines also involves optimizing them for visually impaired readers. Following the steps outlined here, your images will become “readable” for visitors who use screen-reading apps too.

Now that you know exactly why optimizing your images is worthwhile let’s get into the step-by-step optimization process.

5 SEO image optimization tips

Optimizing images is simple, and the process starts from the moment the image is created.

Follow these five steps to optimize every image you add to your site.

1. Use a human-readable filename

The first step to optimize an image for SEO is to use real words in the filename.

For example, an un-optimized filename would be like 5380243981.jpg. This string of random characters tells search engines nothing about the nature of the image.

You can make an image SEO-friendly by using real words in the filename separated by either hyphens or underscores.

List of optimize image filenames
This is what your image filenames should look like

If you want to take things a step further, include keywords in the filename. I always use my exact keyword in my post’s Featured Image. For example, the image at the top of this post is called image-seo.png.

If you have lots of images in your post, make sure to give them descriptive filenames and try to include related keywords. You don’t have to force the keywords if they don’t fit, but avoid using meaningless characters for filenames.

With your image filenames using hyphen-separated words (and hopefully keywords), the next step is to add alt text.

2. Add alt text

Every image on your site needs alt text.

Alt text stands for “alternate text,” and it’s displayed alternately if the image can’t be loaded.

You don’t see alt text replacing images very often on the modern web, but it’s still used in other ways.

Google can’t “see” images, so it uses alt text to understand what’s in them. Therefore, adding alt text is probably the most important Google image SEO best practice.

Additionally, those who are visually impaired use screen readers that read articles aloud to them. Whenever they reach an image, it’s the alt text that is read out loud.

JAWS screen reader website
Trying a screen reader like JAWS will give you a whole new perspective of the web

So before you cram a ton of keyword spam into an image’s alt text, think about how goofy it’s going to sound when it gets read out loud.

When it comes to alt text SEO best practices, you should prioritize writing an accurate description of the image and then try to include relevant keywords. Usually, this happens easily on its own, but I err on the side of accurate description more than pasting in keywords.

How to set an image’s alt text

Alternate text is a core feature of the web, so adding it will be simple no matter what CMS you use.

If you’re working with WordPress, you can click on an image in your post to find the alt text option here in the sidebar:

Where to find the image alt text in WordPress

While alternate text is the most important factor in optimizing an image, the surrounding text is critical too.

3. Optimize the surrounding text

If you want to optimize even further, make sure the image’s keyword appears in the paragraphs before and after the image.

Google uses the alt text and even the entire page/document to understand the image, but it’s also been revealed that they place extra importance on the content immediately surrounding the image.

Screenshot of Google's image optimization guidelines

This should happen somewhat naturally, but it doesn’t hurt to include the keyword directly before or after the image. Using image captions is an easy way to accomplish this.

While these first three steps are the most important ways to optimize an image, the next two steps have to be followed or you won’t get any results at all.

4. Make sure it’s crawlable

There are hosting configurations and security plugins that can block images from showing up in Google Images.

For example, Cloudflare has a hotlink protection feature that stops other sites from displaying images hosted from your site. This will block them from appearing in Google Image results.

Cloudflare's Hotlink Protection setting

Since you need your images to show up in Google to get search traffic and backlinks, you’ll have to disable this feature.

With that out of the way, there’s just one last minor optimization…

5. Don’t disable right-clicking

A lot of image-focused websites choose to disable right-clicking in an effort to stop people from copying images.

Well, here’s the thing…

The images are still easy to copy using other methods that don’t require right-clicking. Since they’re publicly accessible, there’s no way to stop copying.

I would recommend allowing right-clicks and even encouraging people to reuse your images. You can’t stop the copying anyways, and the more sites that copy them, the more outreach prospects you have for reverse image search link building.

Those are the steps you can take to optimize your images. Now here’s a way to do it all much faster.

How to optimize images faster

One of my favorite little plugins is Format Media Titles.

Format Media Titles plugin

It’s saved me countless hours over the past few years, and it only takes a minute to set up.

From the settings menu, you choose which characters to remove from image filenames, which ones to capitalize, and where to copy this new text to.

Here are the settings I like to use:

Screenshot of the Format Media Titles settings page

Using this example, if I uploaded an image named image-optimization-guide.jpg to my site, the alt text would get added automatically as “Image Optimization Guide.”

Sometimes the alt text needs editing, but oftentimes, the automated version is perfectly fine.

It’s a small timesaver, but after hundreds of posts and thousands of images, the savings really add up.

Does the image title affect SEO?

Images have a “title” attribute you can add via your CMS just like the alternate text.

When it comes to the question of titles affecting SEO, a lot of SEO blogs say, “no,” but the truth is more complicated.

While it doesn’t carry the same importance as alt text and the filename, Google does consider the title attribute to a small degree, and they say so themselves.

Another screenshot from Google's guidelines

As I mentioned previously, placing relevant text near an image is helpful, and that’s basically what they’re saying here. The title attribute shows up in the image HTML element itself, so that gives it extremely close proximity.

And this leads me to the next common question about image optimization…

Do image captions affect SEO?

Image captions don’t get special weight in regards to image SEO the way alt text does, but they still help.

I’m not saying you should add captions to every single image – that’s not necessary.

But if you really want an image to rank well in Google Images, you should surround it with relevant text, and a caption is a great way to do that.

If you are having trouble getting a keyword into the paragraphs around the image, then the caption may be a clever way to accomplish that.

For certain niches, optimizing images for search engines can mean multiple times more traffic.

But regardless of what niche you’re in, properly optimizing your images will lead to an increase in both search traffic and backlinks.

The best part is that many of these backlinks will be totally natural and built for you. If that sounds like your kind of thing, then you’ll probably want to read this next:

How to Get Natural Backlinks (Passive Link Building)

Thanks for reading this guide on image SEO, and if you haven’t already, subscribe to our launch notification so you can find out when Image Prospector becomes available to use.

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