Episode 103: Image SEO with professional photographer Joe Lenton

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What's in this episode?

In this episode, you will hear Mark Williams-Cook joins professional photographer Joe Lenton to talk about image SEO and photography. Together they'll cover:

  • Common image SEO mistakes

  • How certain niches in search are image-led

  • Alt tags are not just for SEO and the be-all and end-all of image SEO

  • Why stock images might be a false economy


MC: Welcome to episode 103 of the Search with Candour Podcast, recorded on Friday the 19th of March 2021. My name is Mark Williams-Cook and in this episode today, we're going to be talking about Image SEO and the basics of using images on websites. So I actually had a conversation with professional photographer, Joe Lenton, this week, and I thought it'd be really useful to share on the podcast. We've done this a few times before, where we've put talks from SearchNorwich on or other events that I've been at, where I think they'd be helpful for everyone. And this was just a really interesting conversation.

Joe is really heavy into photography and images for websites and helping clients to use them to increase conversion. And he dropped me a line and asked if I'd have a conversation with him about images and Image SEO, and answer his questions. Really enjoyed it and I thought I'd share it with you here because it's not something I hear talked about so much. There are some good guides out there for Image SEO, but a lot of the time, I've seen it as, just compress the images and do alt text, and that's it. But there's quite a lot more to it than that, and hope you enjoy this conversation.

Before we get started, as usual, I want to let you know, this podcast is sponsored by Sitebulb, which is a desktop-based SEO auditing tool for Windows and for Macs. It's a tool that I personally use, we've used at Candour for years now, so I was delighted when they came to us and they agreed to sponsor the podcast because it's something I can talk very honestly about because I use that tool on at least a weekly basis.

If you go to, you'll be able to get... They have a free trial, but if you go to, you'll actually get an extended 60-day trial, and you don't actually have to use any credit card or anything like that, so it's a completely no-obligation trial. You can download it and give it a go. I'm still, to my surprise, encountering some quite well-known SEO's that aren't using Sitebulb, they haven't tried it yet, and they're using some older tools that I know a lot of us that have been in the industry for a while grew up professionally using, and you're very cosy using those tools. And I'm not saying put those on the shelf and never use them again, I'm saying, add this to your toolbox because it will give you a different perspective.

And some of the features, actually I see in Sitebulb, are almost always first to market with these great new features. There are other tools out there and they seem to be playing catch up, in my opinion, at the moment, so Sitebulb has really been helpful, in terms of bringing new features, and like we've talked about before with the HTML versus DOM comparisons, they're doing stuff now with Core Web Vitals, so really, really interesting. Download it,

JL: Hello, everybody. And today, I'm with Mark from Candour and we're going to be having a look at SEO. Now for many of us, SEO, we might not even know what it stands for, but if we do, it might seem a bit confusing. We get conflicting signals, we get those emails in our inbox saying, "Oh, yes, can you sign up for this and that and we'll get your website to the top of Google within a week." Or you get other people who say, "Oh, SEO, oh, don't worry about that. Just put some nice content out there." So Mark, who should we listen to and why?

MC: Yeah, that's a really good question and it's hard, I think, to answer. Interestingly, I actually recorded last week, a podcast with a chap named Daniel Foley Carter and we discussed the downsides, disadvantages, the dangers of business owners and marketers learning SEO from social media and who can they trust when you see someone posting some advice. And like you say, you'll see someone else, maybe say something exactly opposite a week later.

JL: Yeah.

MC: And everyone seems legitimate. And I think that's one of the difficult things about SEO, is that there's no real bar to entry. Anyone that says they are an SEO until they prove they're not, they are. So it's like an innocent until proven guilty. At least I think with things like websites and web design photography, you can at least, very clearly, look at someone's work and make some judgment there as to if you like it or the standard.

So I think the most basic advice that everyone should do is, if you actually Google, so do the Google search for Google “choosing an SEO”. Google gives you some basic guidelines and they're obviously a good non-bias source at least for choosing an SEO. And they mention things like actually something you said, which is to be wary of SEO firms that email you out of the blue. So that's not really what I would class as normal behaviour for an SEO consultant or agency. We don't tend to just randomly email people and ask them for work. And one I actually encountered this week with a colleague at another agency was, they were pitching against someone, another agency who said they had a special relationship with Google.

JL: Oh really?

MC: That could help them rank faster. Yeah. And again, this is something Google specifically mentions in this guide. So actually link them to that and said show the client this because although there are certain partner programs for Google around their paid advertising, there's no type of relationship an agency can have with Google that's going to impact their organic ranking. So that's like a huge red flag. If someone is claiming that to me, it's immediately off the list. And lastly, it's... The advice Google gives there lastly, they've got several other bits, is to just be clear about actually what they're going to do because if you don't understand what they're doing, you can get yourself into a bad situation pretty quickly. So apart from what you're trying to achieve, you should really clearly understand what that actually involves. My personal litmus test is then with anything because that might scare people, if they say, well, what are they going to do?

And you're like, well, I don't understand it. The litmus test is nothing should be done for SEO that's going to harm or detract from the user experience. So if people start suggesting putting content on your site that doesn't sound right or doing something that is in some way going to impede your users, then again, that's like a... That's a big no for me. So those are the... I guess the absolute basics that I would tick off before deciding who to listen to and engage... Who you engage with, if you actually wanted to hire an SEO is another thing. The only advice I'd give there is to speak to their existing clients, like three or four of them.

JL: Yeah.

MC: Cut through everything, ask for their clients, and don't just make it one or two, because everyone's got a friend that will say they did a great job. So three or four and hear from them, what results did they get? What did they charge you? And you can't go far wrong I think if you're just speaking to the clients.

JL: It seems to be one of those areas where a little knowledge is dangerous, almost worse than knowing nothing. If you've got just that little glimpse behind the scenes that you think you, therefore, know what's going on, and that makes it quite difficult for people to actually hire someone in because they can get so duped by this because you'll get one of those emails coming through saying, "Oh, I've picked up this error and that error in the other... On your website and you haven't got the right links and so on." And some of those words are enough for people to connect to and think oh, I understand that, and I think I need that. I suppose that does then raise the question is, do you try and educate your customers to understand enough so that they know what they're buying? Because it can be like that with photography to an extent. Yes, you can see it, but sometimes people don't necessarily appreciate some of the nuances of crafting something to produce something which is high end, as opposed to just acceptable.

MC: Yeah, definitely. So, I one hundred per cent agree, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. And you know, again, some agencies will be very pushy, like you've said, using technical terms. And again, I actually published a phone call that I received from an SEO agency that had emailed me about one of my websites saying, "Oh, there's all these things wrong with it. You need to see our audit." And I replied to them from my work email address that says that it's Candour, which is obviously a digital agency with my job description, which is director of digital marketing. And I just said to him, look, be honest, you won't have anything in that audit I'm interested in. And they responded to that with a link to... For me and my calendar to have a call with them, to discuss the audit. So I thought, okay, fine, I will have this call with them.

And it essentially descended into them telling me to rank in Google, I need to let them host content on my site that's invisible to users and can only be seen by Google and links to their websites, which again, that probably didn't mean a lot if you don't know a lot about SEO, but you know, it breaks my rule of, is it good? Is it harmful? Is it harmful to the user experience? Hiding stuff/ content from users makes no sense. And us linking to them is almost like the opposite of SEO. If you like, really what you're trying to achieve is getting other websites to talk about you, write about you, link to you to show, to send users to you to show search engines that you're trusted. So even if you know... And we got quite technical in that call. So I was told things like, that the text to HTML ratio on my website was incorrect and it needed to be 50/ 50. It needed to be balanced, which again is garbage. And you know, so yes, a little bit of knowledge is dangerous.

Locally we actually set up an event called Search Norwich, which we invited businesses to every two months and we had SEO and PPC people come and talk. And the idea was companies could educate themselves in a non-sales environment. So I do think getting a level of knowledge is very important. And I think also getting that knowledge in a non-sales environment is important; so learning from people that aren't trying to sell you something. There are some options now. If you are in a company and you've got a significant budget you want to put to SEO, and for whatever reason, you don't have someone on your team that's knowledgeable, you can actually hire people now to help you with that procurement process.

So there are a few people now acting, for instance, as freelance SEO's that will help you interview and vet agencies. But I would, again, if you don't have the knowledge, I would say, don't even get involved in those technical conversations, speak to the clients because you want to know just what comes out the other end really, that's what's important to you. Are they going to get results? And what did it cost? If you want to understand more about what is happening, then really I would pull in experts because it's going to be worth the money because SEO is a long-term investment, you know? So this isn't one thing you're buying and you can return. You're going to put money into it. You've not going to see that money again. So you want to make sure you're getting the most for it.

JL: Yeah, absolutely. I've found it useful, sort of, although I don't necessarily contribute but dipping into kind of expert conversations when they're going on online, you can kind of pick up little bits and pieces. There are your unsolicited SEO tips that I know you put out on LinkedIn and that interaction you then get between people who run SEO agencies and so on, you then start to weed out, perhaps some of the chancers in there.

I think I'd like to move on to having a little bit of a think about a particular aspect. I mean, from my point of view of being a photographer, obviously, the main thing that I'm interested in most of the time is images. And what I want to do is be able to help my clients to get the most out of their images. Now, whenever you look at things like website audit's and people talk about SEO on a superficial level, it tends to be very quickly going into talking about technical tags. Have you got an H1 tag, an H2 tag, all these kinds of things, and it's very text focused. So I was wondering, could you suggest some ways in which images relate to SEO, please?

MC: Yeah, certainly. So that's interesting. I think that the conversations that start around SEO naturally start with the kind of technical stuff because that's a finite job and it's an amplifier for everything else you do. And just to caveat it sometimes if the technical stuff is really bad, which is fairly rare nowadays if you're using a well-known sort of CMS like WordPress or Shopify or something like that, it's rare. It's going to be really bad, but it can block everything else happening. And in terms of audits, hopefully, most SEO agencies are doing different types of audits. So for instance, we do a technical audit, right? Which will cover things you've mentioned, like geeky stuff. And then there are content audits, which look at everything else, which is like you said, text, it can be video, it can be images. So content, I think it's important to immediately break that thought that when people think content, they think texts, right?

Because it can be anything people can see and get value from. And then we've got other types of audits. We do like link audits and things like that. And all of these play a part in SEO. But if we focus on the content stuff, because that's where images fit in.

JL: Yeah.

MC: As I see images as that mix of content, they've really got three things they do, which is we can drive traffic directly from search engines, from image search. And I think that's massively underestimated, especially for E-commerce sites. Again, this morning I was on a call with an E-commerce client and they get a huge amount of traffic from Google images. So that is people searching for their type of products. And rather than click on individual websites that are ranking, people go to images and just scroll down this list of images until they see things that they like.

And then they click on the image and you probably know this better than I do. Date wise I think it was a year or two ago, Google actually removed this button called view image from their image results, which means now to see the image, you have to basically go to the site. So actually we drive a lot of traffic through that. And shopping especially is a really visual activity. We've been trained over, I guess generations. We go and just look at stuff. We scan stuff that is of interest to us. It's not as natural picking through search results. So image search is hugely important.

JL: That's a great opportunity to stand out. If people are searching in Google images and they want to look at something, if they see a manky picture or something or really glossy, good looking one, which one they're going to click on?

MC: Well, this is built in actually to some of the different types of algorithms. Because again, there isn't just one Google algorithm, right? There's lots of different algorithms working together. So for instance, there is an app. Well, the Google app has Google Discover and Google Discover for those that haven't used it, essentially surfaces website stories that it thinks you'll be interested in. It's almost like predicting what your next search is going to be. And there are things you can do to optimise for Discover. And one of them is, Google specifies, you need high resolution images to appear in Google Discover. You are much less likely to appear, if at all, if you've got some grainy, 600 pixel wide images. They want high res images that are going to be able to look good on all devices.

And Google Discover, although it's very spiky in terms of traffic, so you get featured, can drive huge amounts of traffic.

JL: Mm-hmm

MC: So, and this links closely actually to the next kind of points. I said there's three things about it, which is, good quality images add to the overall experience of that content. Images, you know, it's documented to the point of boredom, how images impact conversion rates. People want good images and it helps people actually buy. And while there's a lot of misinformation about exactly what Google was measuring in terms of these user signals, user experience signals. Certainly it's helping if people are going to a site, staying on it, and buying and not coming back and clicking lots of other places, you're showing you're satisfied with that result. So those two things are kind of... It adds to, I think the quality of the page and Google has lots of ways it can monitor that, and it helps improve conversion rate.

JL: Yeah. Well I mean, I suppose then we could say if I'm choosing images for a website as a business owner, what matters most then if I was to think of it for the moment from an SEO sort of angle, what might influence how I choose my images?

MC: Yeah. So I think the most common, I wouldn't say it's a mistake, but a missed opportunity if you like, is people automatically going for stock imagery. There's a couple of reasons for this, which is if you go to Google now and type something in like an eclipse, or something that's going to show you pictures, and you look at images, what you will not see is the same image over and over again in the search results. And that's hopefully an obvious reason why. If it's not helpful once, it's not going to be helpful twice. Now obviously the issue with stock image, really, is that you're not the only person using them. So if you're relying on stock imagery, you're essentially pretty much killing all chance you've got of ranking well in Google images because there's probably someone before you that's using that. Google's happy ranking that image therefore.

So the first thing I say is, look to get your own photography done, and in terms of images in general, there's two things I like to look at, which is, you can get really strong hints as to where images will be particularly helpful from doing a Google search. So for a client, we work with the search term. I know off the top of my head, problem-solving techniques will not just show you a list of websites. Normally at the top of that result are some diagrams, some images. So I'm already informed by Google then that the most helpful type of content here is imagery because that's getting the idea across and the same with... Another good example, someone spoke to me about once was people searching for things like what is the height of London’s, The Shard, right?

Because the answer is, I think, 200 something metres, but unless you know, some people can't picture what 200 metres is, right?. So if you did an image showing here's The Shard next to, I don't know, if you're from France, maybe the Eiffel Tower or some common landmarks, an image is a really good way to demonstrate the height, like subjectively. So there's all these different uses for photography and imagery that as I said, improve, they help fulfill that intent. And all of SEO really is about fulfilling user intent.

What should we consider when we're considering photography? Of course, not stock photography, where we can. We should consider all the different use cases for imagery and photos, apart from here are some photos of our product. And then as well, as we said, like the actual quality. There is some technical stuff as well. So you can actually do... You can use things called Image Sitemaps, which is essentially a big list of all your images for search engines. So that negates the need for them to have to crawl around and explore your site for them, and maybe miss something. You can actually just say, look, here are all my images. And again, that can help you rank well.

JL: Great. You come back quite often to this sort of the user experience of interacting with the website. And you're saying your SEO is more about building on that. So I suppose it leads quite nicely into My next question: what kind of mistakes can we fall into, and what kind of pitfalls are there?

MC: I guess the most basic one that I see clients miss, is around image compression, which is they get these beautiful photos done, and then sometimes you have like a four megabyte image on a page, which again, four megabytes, just to give you some context if you don't know that means; If you used to use little floppy disks, because it's like three or four of them full of information, and on a 3G connection, that's going to take you probably the best part of 30 seconds to a minute to maybe download that. So again, it comes down to user experience right, about these pictures. So there are all kinds of solutions - site performance is key. Images can drastically impact that. So compression, and I'm sure again, Joe, this is probably a subject you know more about than me, but generally there are two types of image compression, there's lossless and lossy.

So lossless is essentially when you make the file size of the image. So not actually necessarily the size of the image, but the file size. So how long it takes to download is smaller by stripping away information that doesn't need to be there, that's not visual. So for instance, a lot of photos attached, I believe it's called EXIF data, which is like what camera was used, and sometimes on phones, where it was taken, you don't need to know that and it takes up space, so you can get rid of that. And lossy compression... Lossless compression means there's no difference in the image quality. Lossy is when you compress the image size with an algorithm. So it essentially guesses or computes what some parts should look like. So at the extreme end, if you look at old images on the internet, you see these very fuzzy JPEGs that looked like someone's wiped Vaseline on your screen, and that's the extreme end of lossy.

But Google actually changed its recommendations a few years ago now from using lossless to using lossy compression, because at the high… Well, the low end of compression of lossy, the actual difference to the user is almost imperceptible, and you can shave significant file size off. So having your content management system manage that for you is really helpful. So you get this best site performance as well. And again, I think I kind of already mentioned these points, which are around the site maps, not using stock imagery.

And lastly, when you're getting these images ready, no doubt the conversation of op text will come up. If you're talking about SEO, an alt text is essentially labeling the image with some text and it's primarily actually for accessibility reasons. So this is people maybe who are partially sighted and using a screen reader. And it's describing what the contents is, the image is. Now interestingly, search engines still do use alt texts to help them decide what's in an image, but they have come so far now with the actual analysis of what goes on in image results, specifically. So if you do a Google search for Google Vision API, there's a free service you can upload a picture to, and Google will tell you what's in the photo and the accuracy nowadays, I find it creepy. So it won't just say like, there's a dog in this photo. It will say golden retriever in this picture.

JL: That's impressive. I think we're all going to want to go and try that now. People used to say, well, if you've got to have an old tag there, because Google can't see the picture, all it sees is here's a bunch of data that makes up a picture. So if you don't put in the old tag, if you don't tell it what the picture is of, it doesn't know. Well, so in a way that's no longer true.

MC: Yeah, absolutely. And this is really, as well, demonstrated by how good Google Safe search is now. Because it's very rare you accidentally get adult pictures if you've got safe search on. And part of that is in image recognition that it's working out what's in these pictures that it maybe doesn't want to show. Now, and that's certainly not saying don't do old tags because the number one reason you should be doing them is for accessibility. There's legal requirements around making websites accessible and there are benefits to it, and search engines still do use it. I'm just saying it's not the be all and end all for them working out what is in a photo. The other kind of thing is there are ways to automate that out as well. So you can actually use those vision services. So Microsoft has one where if you've got 10,000, excuse me, 10,000 images, you can actually get an AI to attempt to write those tags for you. And then you can review them.

JL: Hmm. That's pretty smart. I suppose then people are going to think, well, there's an awful lot of work that goes into all this. So many things to consider. And one way that people can often think, well, they might be able to keep the costs down by giving you the information, giving you what you need in the best possible format. So you're not wasting time on things. Are there any recommendations that you would make? So if someone wanted to work with you, any recommendations you would make as to how people can make your job easier, make it more efficient for the whole process as to how they deliver the images and that to you.

MC: Yeah. Again, I have one of my litmus test golden rules for this, and it was a piece of advice I was given a long time ago, which is, if you're using a computer to do a repetitive task, you're using the computer wrong. And I've loved that piece of advice because it's held true for me for a lot of years. So what we can do to make things easier for both of us is, firstly, don't make the photography like an afterthought, because there's nothing worse than us working with someone on an e-comm, and then you have quarter of the products don't have any photography and the rest is kind of rushed and it's negatively impacting everything. So make sure this is part of all of the discussions as you're building the site or relaunching it or whatever you're doing, as part of your plans.

If you have big repetitive tasks to do like, oh no, we've got 10,000 images and we know we need to do these alt tags. That's when you have a discussion with someone like us, because I'm not going to tell you that we're going to sit there and write them for you, because that's a terrible use of an expert's time, because you're paying them a premium to sit and do what's a fairly simple task. But that's maybe where we could say, okay, well, if we've got this many to do, the best way is actually to invest two days in setting up like the automation, and then just let it run, because that will do most of the job for us. It's certainly talking where there are repetitive tasks because there's ways that automation can help you save time with that. And just getting that best practice in as early as possible.

So we do a lot of training with our clients as well. So rather than us getting into this process of clients doing something on the website, we come and say, oh no, no, no, no, it needs to be like this and changing it. And then them doing something and then paying us to come and essentially tell them off, like a school teacher. It's much better if we have the conversation, say like, here's the best practice. Here's the tool you need to use. Here's the process you need to follow. We can give people this training and then it's just done right the first time and maybe we check on it and give guidance.

So it would just be, being open to changing maybe your internal process, because it will be cheaper for you in the long run. And that's ideally what an SEO agency should be aiming for, because although obviously at the end of day, we're paid to do anything we're asked to do. I would rather us focus on things that are going to generate better results and just have other stuff done where we can get it done because if I can deliver good results, people will reinvest when they see that.

JL: Absolutely. I mean, I've sometimes said to businesses that are kind of similar to you in that way, that there is a danger with waiting until you've planned everything to then say, "Oh yeah, and we need some photographs, and we think we want this." And then I turn round and say to them, "Do you realise how complicated that is, to create and to now engineer that back in?" I say it's a lot easier for me to help you if you involve me earlier in the process, and it can save you planning, going on a wild goose chase, planning something that's never going to be really achievable. I think in many ways, it's like what you're saying with the SEO, if you can be brought in at the right sort of points, you can save a lot of waste.

MC: Yeah, a hundred percent. And I think that comes down to the little bit of knowledge thing again, which is, it's a really common trait in humans, I think, that when you know a little bit about something you overestimate how easy it is or underestimate how complex it is. And it's only when you start to specialise in something you realise, oh, actually there's quite a lot of things involved here. So definitely the same goes for photography. And I've learnt the same about working closely over the years with developers and designers. And it's funny seeing it in different industries now or different specialisms, I should say, when we get, maybe a client comes back with a development request, and it's attached with… - that's like a 10 minute job, right? And we're being asked essentially to move Jenga blocks at the bottom of the stack.

And it's definitely not a five minute job, and it, like you said, it would have been easier if we'd had that discussion earlier on and we can build things accordingly.

JL: Yeah. I mean, straight how you're going to construct your website, what's going to go where, all these sorts of things. You're then asking someone to put the foundations in after you've built the thing. Kind of cart before the horse sort of thing, isn't it?

MC: Exactly.

JL: Well, it has been really interesting delving into a little bit on that, and I really appreciate your time for coming on and recording this for us. I would encourage people to take a look at Candour, and take a look at Mark's unsolicited SEO tips on LinkedIn. He also does SEO training and so on. So if you need to find out more, if this has wedged your appetite, then please do get in touch. So thank you very much Mark.

MC: No problem. Thanks for having me, Joe.

I hope you enjoyed that. It was something a little bit different talking about Image SEO. I hope you tune in next week where we're going to start our series of interviews, picking specific topics with SEOs, and we'll be back then on Monday the 29th of March, and I hope you'll have a lovely week.

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