How Images Affect SEO: Can Adding a Diagram Really Drive Rankings?

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Andy Crestodina
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SEO is all about text. Search engines read it, then rank it, right? And if the text is in an image, Google can’t read it. So images are a problem and the written word is all that is important. That’s how SEOs thought of images for years.

Not anymore.

Now we know that visuals are an SEO’s best friend. Or a very close friend.

There are at least six ways that images can improve your rankings. And this is not about Google Image Search and “Image SEO.” This is about how images can help your web pages to rank in organic search.

Step one is to create high-value, original images and add them to your search-optimized articles. Examples include:

  • Diagrams that explain a concept visually
  • Charts within some original research
  • Flowcharts that show a process

marketing-visuals

Each of these is a self-contained piece of visual content that explains a concept. Stock images don’t count. Just as you wouldn’t miss the chance to turn a paragraph of items into a bullet list, never miss the chance to use a visual to explain a concept.

So now that you have high-value images on your keyphrase-focused pages, here are six ways to leverage them to rank like a champ.

1. Image source link building with contributor quotes

You’ve been building relationships with content creators for years. You’ve included bloggers and editors in your content because you understand exactly how influencers affect SEO. Then one day, you get the email…

Someone would like to include you in their content.

This could be for a contributor quote, inclusion in a roundup or an interview request. You drop everything and go into PR mode. You lovingly craft a paragraph of insights that should fit perfectly into their piece.

But before you send it, you scan through your past content and look for related images. Find one? Add it to the contributor quote. And of course, below the image, add the image source link.

They may be thrilled to have a high-value image to add to their piece. And naturally, they’re likely to include the link, since of course, that’s good attribution. It’ll look like this:

If you’re a fan of exact or partial match anchor text, this is an opportunity since the image source link is typically the title of the article, which includes the target keyphrase of that page.

Sometimes, the editor will make the link text just say “image source” which is fine, of course. Keep working this strategy and eventually, you’ll notice “image source” as a popular anchor text in links to your site.

This clearly shows the value of images in SEO. Undeniable!

2. Make friends with copyright violators

Maybe people are already using your images in their content. If you find them, you can reach out and threaten them with legal action (useless). Or you can reach out and confirm that they’re giving you proper attribution, as in a link (high value!).

To find all the places that are using your images, use reverse image lookup. It’s easy and fun. Just go to Google Image Search and click on the camera icon. Upload any of your images and Google will show you matches on other websites.

Now scan through the list. Skip past your site and social media sites. See any blogs?

Click through to the pages. See your visuals there? Did they cite you as the source? If not, reach out to the writer or editor and politely remind them that they are using your work. You don’t mind a bit as long as they link back to the original version on your site.


britney-muller
Britney Muller, Senior SEO Scientist, Moz

Reclaiming stolen photo credit is one of the easiest ways to do link building! It also has a much higher success rate than other forms of cold email outreach.” 


3. Make a new page and target the “diagrams” or “charts” phrases

If you have a bunch of images, you can round them up into a new piece of content. Put your visuals together into a post. Target a phrase that includes your industry plus “diagrams” and see what happens.

Years ago, we put some of our diagrams together into a blog post. It’s a simple roundup called 7 Marketing Diagrams That Explain Content Marketing. It targets a fun phrase: “marketing diagrams.”

That post has attracted a steady trickle of visitors for years. Search ranking durability is a function of how much new content appears on that topic. Apparently, not a lot of people are writing new articles about marketing diagrams.

For us, for this one post, it’s meant thousands of visitors and dozens of subscribers.

4. Improving mobile search snippets

Even when they don’t affect rankings, even when they don’t help with links, images can affect click through rates from search, because they are often extracted from the content and shown by Google within search snippets. This is especially common on mobile.

If you’re seeing lower than expected click through rates from mobile search to a URL, images could be the issue. More compelling, more meaningful images may improve traffic from current rankings.

5. Win with images in featured Snippets

That top spot, that zeroth ranking, is the “featured snippet” and it now appears in 14% of all searches. This is part of the big megatrend in SEO and helps explains the general decline in click through rates from search.

But since it’s part of the game, we have to play. To win the featured snippet, you’ll need to rank on page one first. It helps to write simple grammatical forms (like you’re writing for a dictionary) and use simple list formatting (as in, short items within <li> tags).

Images are also a factor. Even when your page isn’t in that snippet, your image might be.

Here’s a search results page for “website navigation.” Wikipedia is the featured snippet. But the image is not. It’s from our article about website navigation. Click that image thumbnail and you’ll land in Google Image search. From there the “Visit” button brings you to our article.

Personally, I feel it’s a bit disingenuous for Google to show the text from one article and the image from another, because searchers may expect to find that image on that page. Clickbait? You decide.

6. Increased dwell time and positive “user interaction signals”

Your page ranks. A searcher clicks. They land on the page. What happens next? It’s usually one of two things:

  • They stay for several long minutes, consuming the content. (long click, high dwell time)
  • They stay for a few short seconds, then hit the back button. (short click, low dwell time, aka “pogosticking”)

search-click-pogosticking

In both cases, the visitor bounced. But the second visit sent a much different signal to Google. Dwell time is a “user interaction signal” and it likely affects whether or not your page continues to rank well.

And what’s the secret to high dwell time? Content that engages the visitor quickly and keeps their attention. That means no long blocky paragraphs and lots of compelling visuals.

We used to recommend adding an image to every article. Now we recommend adding an image to every scroll depth of every article. So there is never a point at which the visitor doesn’t see something of visual interest.

 

This may not always be possible because some topics just aren’t that visual. In these cases, you can use other formatting such as bullet lists and short paragraphs. And never miss the chance to add an image.

An article without a diagram isn’t optimized for search

That’s how important images are to SEO.

They are so helpful, so important in so many ways. Do it for authority, for rankings, for clickthrough rates and for your visitors.

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Comments (9)
  • what about accessibility of images? How do you suggest handling that? Meaning screen readers and the like. There are alt tags, and summary text, is that enough? How would you suggest addressing complex images (like a process)?

    • Thank you for the comment, Sunday. This article doesn’t cover any of the accessibility considerations that go with images. But it’s an important consideration.

      The recommendations here are to use images that are supplemental to the written content, so anyone following this advice can still have content that is easily accessible to users of screen readers or any other accessibility tools.

      If you have a very complex process to explain, it’s useful to use a supporting visual, but this shouldn’t be the only way that the process is described. It should also be laid out in plain text, nicely formatted with a numbered list. Everything needs to be text. Images, PDFs and videos are supportive, but should not be the exclusive formats for information.

      Alt tags, summary text and titles are important for accessibility. Even if they’re not important for SEO (I’m not sure they are) they should be included. SEO and accessibility work well together. They’re in harmony.

      One final thought and reminder for everyone: even if you believe that accessibility is important to just 1% of your audience, that’s still thousands of people over the lifespan of a website. 1% might sound low, but the total number over time is very high. And besides, even if the number is low, these are people, not numbers. Why not help them? Accessibility isn’t just important. The United Nations has declared that it’s a human right.

      PS: We plan to publish more content on accessibility soon.

      • “Alt tags, summary text and titles are important for accessibility. Even if they’re not important for SEO (I’m not sure they are) they should be included.”

        Insert brain exploding emoji here. Do you think Google has lessened the importance of alt tags/summary text/etc. recently, or have we always overvalued those kinds of tactics?

  • I agree with the comment about accessibility. It was my first thought when I saw the image charts, diagrams. If it’s good for SEO is it good for accessibility?

    • See above!

  • Thanks for the great tips! It’s good to know you don’t have to be a professional photographer to get high quality, original images to go with your content, and I especially love your tip about making friends with copyright violaters. It’s so counterintuitive, but you made a great point.

  • Hi Andy – good stuff as always.

    One important part about dwell time not mentioned here is that not all short clicks are bad. If you give your users an answer quickly, that’s not necessarily going to hurt your search rankings. Also, dwell time is just one metric – and one I wish people would stop obsessing over, because we can’t see it anyway. Only the search engines can.

    Also I cringed a bit at “adding an image to every scroll depth of every article”. You do a great job in this post with image use. 🙂 But I know, as a user, too many images can become annoying / distracting, almost like ads, when I just want to read. As with all things, measuring is key to see if adding images really improves rankings / metrics that matter to you because results will vary.

  • Hey Andy Crestodina,

    Great post with helpful tips. I really like the points that you have mentioned. I totally agreed with you that text and images really matters in seo. Its absolutely true true that images plays an important role for seo and help web page to improve the ranking. Creating original and high quality images means a lot in improving the seo rankings,
    whereas a high quality image attracts many readers and viewers and generate more traffic.I truly love your tip about making friends with copyright violators.

    Really helpful post and thanks for sharing

  • What if your business only provides intangibles (like mine – public speaking) where I really don’t have any quantifiable data to share?

 
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