A hotel’s guide to image SEO in 2018

Image search is an often-overlooked element of SEO, but hotels that take the time to optimize their imagery will find that it can bring significant benefits to their marketing efforts. With travel being such a visual and emotive industry, strong imagery, made easily searchable through strong optimization, can be a good way to inspire travellers to visit your destination, show off your hotel’s venue or event/function facilities, and build the overall brand of your hotel.

The following article explains how hotels can better optimize their images for search engines to ultimately bring more people (and hopefully potential guests) onto the website.

How search engines index and rank images

Gianna Brachetti-Truskawa of Bold Ventures has a great explainer (itself based on image optimization expert Martin Missfeldt’s book and own work on the topic) describing the complex algorithm and technology driving Google image search.

For every photo uploaded onto a website, Google doesn’t save “your” image, but rather “the” image (i.e. an internal meta copy) to its own index. Google then uses artificial intelligence to identify what’s IN the image, whether that be a person, furniture in a bedroom, a sunset, etc. (If you’re interested in seeing this in action, check out Google’s Cloud Vision API to test out their image analysis capabilities.)

Google images ranking algorithm
The Google Image search model, by Martin Missfeldt

If it’s a unique image, Google will associate their internal copy to the original website source, analyze on-page signals on that source, and map important keywords to the image. As long as that specific image remains unique, the image source will always link to the original source page.

Of course, if there are multiple copies of the image already online—for example, if the image on your website is a stock photo—then Google will map the multiple URLs to their meta copy, but only display the meta copy in the search results.

Google will only detect a new image as one that has a different dimension or file size than another. For that reason (and according to Martin’s model), it’s dangerous to adjust live images on your site if they’ve got good rankings. Google will initially see this as a new image, and it will then have to cycle through various image detection tests. It might take a while to get re-updated within the image results, so it’s always best to keep the original image live at its current location when making such image changes.

Meta image file card
Meta Image Index Card: The basis for rankings in Google Image search, by Martin Missfeldt

Changes to Google image search in 2018

Quite a few big changes have occurred specifically to Google search in the past few months that specifically affect image search.

View Image button
The biggest change to Google’s image search function came a few weeks ago with the news that they’d removed the “View Image” button from the search page, angering quite a few users and making relatively big headlines.

More interesting was the reasoning behind this change: Google had been put under pressure by Getty Images, which had complained to the European Commission that Google Images’ anti-competitive practices encouraged image piracy and copyright infringement (something of a recurring theme with Google in the past few years).

Google View Image button
The previous image results showing the “View image” button still visible (this has now been removed)

Although consumers may be upset by this change, it has brought benefits to website owners. At Travel Tripper, we’ve already noticed that some sites have seen a relatively large increase in organic search traffic as a direct result of this change by Google in February.

Why is that? The removal of the “View Image” button means users must navigate to the original website page to see the full image, instead of being able to go directly to the image file itself.

Image captions
Yesterday Google announced another fairly big image search change with the news that they are going to start displaying image captions in mobile search results.

Google image captions

Google went on to state, “This week we’re adding captions to image results, showing you the title of the web page where each image is published. This extra piece of information gives you more context so you can easily find out what the image is about and whether the website would contain more relevant content for your needs.”

The image caption itself is being pulled from the page title, so it’s important that your Meta Title tags are optimized for search, which for hotels in this instance may simply be a case of ensuring your hotel name is mentioned.

Other important changes to Google Image search include the addition of product and recipe tags that were added to images from mobile devices, as well as the mention of the domain name within the results page. These all lead to a more informative and helpful image search experience–one which leans in favor of the website owner, and one which brings with it more SEO opportunity.

Does Image SEO provide valuable traffic to my hotel’s website?

This is a common question: what is the value in ranking highly in Google image search (or Bing, Baidu or Yandex) if these people are just looking for images? These are searches that typically have no commercial intent (at least in many cases), so it’s worth investigating further.

From a hotel and travel perspective, the main product being sold here is obviously the booking at the hotel—a hotel’s number one objective will be in obtaining as many direct bookings as possible. With that goal in mind, here are a few examples of how someone may be using image search as part of their customer journey below:

Phase: Destination research (High in booking funnel)
Action: Looking at Google images for photos of the places they’re thinking of visiting on holiday.
Opportunity: Ensuring the hotel website is returned as part of this—for example, showing images from their blog post where they talk about attractions in the nearby area.

Phase: Hotel research (Low in booking funnel)
Action: Looking at Google images for photos of the hotel they’re thinking of booking.
Opportunity: Ensuring the hotel website has many high-quality images returned here, giving a good impression of the hotel and telling them the direct booking benefits when/if they visit the site via image search.

Making use of additional channels such as retargeting through Google AdWords and Facebook may then help to capitalize on these previous website visitors, where you can then encourage them to return to the hotel website later to complete a booking or to perform some other action (newsletter signup, for example).

Retargeting to specific audiences based on the pages on the site they visit is a good idea, so that you can tailor your ad strategy based on the visitor’s position in the booking process. Someone who’s only visited your hotel blog or your wedding venue pages will likely need to see different messaging over a longer period, versus someone who’s been to your homepage, rooms, or offers pages.

Although there aren’t many opportunities for hotels to obtain visits through image search from people who are actively in the “hotel booking” phase (last stage of the funnel), it does provide them another channel to obtain visibility further up in the funnel, even before the user is thinking of booking a hotel. This has become a much more prominent area of SEO for hotels in the past year or so—obtaining visibility from organic search and other channels over a much wider space, where the competition is far more reduced.

How to measure organic image visits to your hotel website

Determining how well your website is ranking in image search is a relatively difficult process. In 2013 AJ Kohn wrote an excellent guide on how to carry out image search analysis within Google Analytics, but sadly this method no longer works due to changes within Google Analytics and Google search.

Now it seems that the only option available is to use Google Search Console’s search insights report, which admittedly isn’t as quick as opening a report within Google Analytics.

Image search traffic in Google Console
The image search report within the new Google Search Console

Because it’s only currently possible to measure image search traffic within Search Console, at Travel Tripper we decided to make use of the excellent Search Analytics for Sheets extension, which we’ve setup so that it automatically pulls in the image search traffic to a particular Google Sheet for our SEO clients on a monthly basis.  This enables us to quickly see image search traffic for our hotels without having to go digging regularly within Search Console.

How to optimize images for search

There are several things to do to ensure your hotel images are fully optimized for search engines:

1. Try to ensure the images you use are original and are of a good quality (not blurry, low resolution, or poorly taken). We have seen stock photography images indexed and ranking highly in image search, but this is mainly due to the authority the hotel’s website has, plus the context the images had been used in (see point 2).

Image SEO for hotels
A screenshot showing one hotel’s image search ranking for the “souvenirs” keyword

2. Context is important. Ensure relevant images are used to support on-page copy. If your page is well-optimized for search, and subsequently ranks well, it’s likely images used will also rank highly in image search.

3. File size is important. Ensure the size of the image isn’t too high (anything above 500kb is a bit too large unless you need it to be extremely good quality). Speed is a big factor as part of SEO, especially with the mobile-first index. Mobile visitors to the website won’t wait long for pages to load, and you don’t want images to impact that. Using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) can help speed things up in many cases; this is when they host your images on a separate server and deliver them from a server which is physically located closer to the website user, thus speeding the load times up.

4. Use alt tags to describe the images for visually impaired users. Don’t stuff keywords here, instead try to use keywords in a natural, helpful way. Use title tags to briefly describe the image too; this text is visible when a user “hovers” their mouse over an image, while the alt tag text will be shown when the image isn’t displayed in a browser.

5. Use a descriptive filename for your images. Don’t just name an image “location.jpg” or “hotel.jpg”, instead make it more descriptive and easier to understand for search engines—“new-york-hotel.jpg” or “times-square-map.jpg” have much more SEO power.

6. Make use of image XML sitemaps to list all your images and their URLs and then submit the sitemap to major search engines. You can use a tool like Screaming Frog to compile the image sitemap before uploading to your server, but remember that the sitemap would need to be updated manually when image changes are made.

7. Use redirects when changing image URLs. Although Google does “save” images based on their actual data, and doesn’t completely associate it with a specific URL, you should still 301 redirect an image when its location changes, for example during a new site launch. This should only be done when the image is remaining exactly as it was before (same dimensions and file size). Those images may have been linked to on the web already, and they may be ranking in image search results because of backlinks. Without the redirect the image would return a 404 error message and eventually drop out of the index.

Takeaways on Image SEO

Hopefully with the above information you’ll feel more willing to give image SEO more time and value, particularly with the recent changes made by Google which look to have begun generating more traffic to some of our client’s websites.

Images are an essential part of any hotel website, so don’t forget to optimize then for search, too!

Matt Tutt

Matt Tutt

Matt is a SEO Specialist with extensive knowledge of optimizing hotel websites for maximum visibility online. He loves helping hotels to improve their organic search rankings and grow their direct bookings.

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