Universal Search Mocks Me

Oy, Google. Why do you do this to me?

I have a client who is very happy with the service I’ve provided him. Since I got started working on his site, he’s expanded the business considerably and still can’t keep up with all the customers he’s getting. He’s so happy, in fact, that he keeps telling me he doesn’t need me to do any more. He doesn’t even want me analyzing his traffic.

Now, I’m not going to waste my time having ClickTracks go through his log files just to satisfy my own curiosity, but now and then I’ll check up on some aspect of the site to see how it’s doing. Today, I was in Google Webmaster Tools, checking on a couple of sites and figured I’d have a quick peek at the data for this guy. When I went to look at his top clicked queries, I saw this:

Google top clicked queries

See that on the first line? It says the site is #4 for searches on mouse. Just mouse. The single word. That’s number 4 out of a total of 261,000,000 results. There are 11,500,000 results for pages with the word “mouse” in their titles. I know I’m good at what I do, but damn, that’s good.

Obviously, I just had to go to the SERP and see what pages we’re sharing the top five with.

Google results for mouse

Just look at that: two pages from Wikipedia, and two from Apple. That’s some serious company to be in. But where’s my client’s site in this fancy-schmancy neighborhood? No, I didn’t cut off the image before his page’s listing. See those three pictures at the top of the results? The first one — the cute little mousie backed into a corner — that’s from my client’s site.

Damn you, Google! Don’t call that the number four result. It’s just a picture. Yes, the page on which it’s published is optimized pretty well for the word “mouse”. So put that at number four! So, people who want a picture of a mouse land on his page. Do they call him? Do they hire him? No! All they do is look at the picture, probably steal a copy of it, and make his server work a tiny bit harder than it ought to.

This is just unfair. It doesn’t give him business, and it doesn’t give me bragging rights. Universal search. Feh.

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Google’s Political Connections

No, I’m not talking about relationships between the company and any political figures. I just want to point out something I noticed regarding Google suggesting other searches when I look for information about a politician.

Let’s start with the names of the leaders of the two major parties in the US Senate:

I was planning on writing a post that would serve to mock Mitch McConnell’s minuscule mouth, so I ran a search on his name and then clicked “Images”. What did I see? This:

Google image results for Mitch McConnell

Why is Google suggesting I try searches for Durbin and Lott? And why are they leaving out Reid, who is (at least officially) the most powerful of the four? I doubt it has anything to do with the relative size of their mouths — only McConnell’s is comically tiny.

If I run an image search for Harry Reid, Dick Durbin or Trent Lott, I don’t get a recommendation to look at other people. It’s as if Google is telling me to avoid looking at pictures of McConnell, which is totally unnecessary. I know he isn’t pretty, but I can handle it.

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Image Optimization for Image Optimization’s Sake

Note: this post has also been published to my business site for the sake of posterity.

There’s been considerable talk recently about the idea of improving the ranking of images for specific keywords. This is due to the fact that images are now appearing not just on image searches, but on the main results pages of many of the major search engines. Ask’s new interface loads images in the right pane of the results, and sometimes at the top of the main results. Yahoo will sometimes, depending on the query, display the top results of an image search above the organic listings for pages. Google will often do the same, and as more of its results are coming up in what it calls “universal search,” we’re going to see an expansion of this, with videos, maps, links to scanned books and other different media appearing in the SERPs.

Making Use of Images and Other Media

Let’s look at some of the advice people in the industry have been giving out recently. Jim Hedger of Markland Media wrote the following in an article published at the ISEDB on June 25:

There are a number of ways SEOs can use multimedia content to create a greater number of placement opportunities for unique pages in a website. The addition of video, audio, mapping (local) or even image content opens a dozen new doors in Google Universal search and Ask.com. The trick is in cross-linking with social media and local search sites and using well planned tags and titles for those files.

If, for instance, Google visits a bed-and-breakfast site and sees a well produced video promoting the region drawn from YouTube that has the faintest hint of popularity with other YouTube users, that video stands a better than even chance of finding its way into some interested party’s Universal search results. Another universal winner is maps. By embedding a Google on the Contact page of a site, an SEO creates another placement opportunity in Universal results.

The next time you’re updating templates for your website, think about other types of files that can be added to enhance the types of results Google might present for any given page. Make your own Placement Opportunities.

Important Traits for Image Optimization

At the Chicago Search Engine Strategies conference held in December of last year, a panel spoke on optimizing images for search engines. Grant Crowell of Grantastic Designs reported on it at Search Engine Watch. In it, he wrote that “image search is the fastest growing vertical in the search arena today. Statistics from Hitwise show it to achieve 90% growth year after year, with over 360,000,000 searches per month across the top search engines: Google, Yahoo!, Ask, MSN, and AOL.”

Crowell’s report goes on to list some tips for optimizing images:

  • Image Originality – The panelists agreed that it is better to use your own original images rather than stock photos or pictures provided by the manufacturer of the product you sell.
  • Image Quality – The purpose here is usability: a high-quality image will look better when reduced to a thumbnail, and will therefore be more likely to be clicked on by a searcher.
  • Image Formatting – Shari Thurow suggested using jpg files for photographs and gifs for other images.
  • Image Naming – “Make the image names of your files match what is actually represented in the file,” says Thurow. “The image name will appear beneath the graphic image in search results. It helps to communicate to searchers that they are viewing the desired graphic image.”
    [Note: the file name appears on the results page in Yahoo, but not Google.]
  • Tagging – Add descriptive tags to your images so that they can more easily be found on social sites such as flickr or StumbleUpon.
  • Expand Audience Base – “There are all sorts of innovative ways you can get people interested in your company and hence build up traffic and conversions. For example, factories might show steps in product manufacture, hotels might show furniture and decorative art in addition to details on their rooms, and restaurants might show picturesque views or special event rooms.”
  • Optimize the Page – If the page on which the image resides is optimized for the same keywords as the image, it is believed that that will improve the image’s chances of ranking for those keywords.
  • File Organization – Don’t use robots.txt to block search engine spiders from your images directory, and don’t use JavaScript to link from a thumbnail to a full-sized image.
  • Usability – According to Shari Thurow, “It’s one thing for a graphic image to show up at the top of image search results, it’s another thing to get people to click on the link to the image and go to your site. Writing alternative text (which shows up in Google Image search results) that is keyword stuffed is not going to inspire people to click on the link in that image to your site.”
    [Note: I do not see an image's alt attribute coming up consistently as its description in the Google image search results.]
  • Freshness – Chris Smith made the following suggestion: if you’re targeting high popularity keywords, try experimenting with re-uploading your pictures, since image freshness is a contextual clue for the search engines and might affect relevancy.
    [Note: I haven't seen this suggestion anywhere else, nor have I seen any evidence to support it.]

Lisa Barone at the Bruce Clay blog had some similar advice earlier this week:

  • Use A Descriptive Filename: If it’s a photo of Tom Brady use [Tom Brady] in the filename. IMG 230984 doesn’t do much to tell the search engines what that photo depicts.
  • Don’t Robots Exclude Your Images Folder: Don’t laugh; people do it all the time. Your pretty, relevant images will do you no good if you put them in a folder the search engines don’t have access to. Make sure your robots.txt allows the search engine to spider your images. We’d also recommend not making the path to your images overly complicated, as http://www.yoursite/images is easier for a bot to find than http://www/yoursite/images/sportsgods/male/football/greatestfootballteamever/tombrady
  • Makes Friends With The Alt Attribute: Include a descriptive and accurate alt attribute for every image on your site that needs explaining. The alt attribute should describe what the image portrays, as well as use a keyword or two when appropriate. A good rule of thumb is to use 1 word for every 16×40 slice of an image. So, if the image is 50×100 pixels, you can use (50/16) * (100/40) = 6 words.
  • Provide a Direct Link To The Photo: Provide a direct link to the file, ideally with an optimized alt attribute and actual anchor text (and from a high PR page). It should look something like this:

<a href=”imagename.jpg”><img src=”imagename.jpg” alt=”keyword phrase”><keyword phrase in anchor text></a>

Utilizing good anchor text and linking to the photo will help the search engines decide how important the image is. Good anchor text for that smokin’ photo of Tom Brady would be [View Smokin’ Tom Brady photo] not [View Photo].

We had a couple of discussions about these concepts late last year and early this year at the High Rankings forum. In the first of those threads, I wrote the following about the importance of the alt attribute of an image:

I can tell you this much: Yahoo is very interested in the alt attribute.

I was checking the rankings on one of my sites yesterday, and when I ran one of the phrases through, I noticed that two images from my site were coming up in the little top four “Image Results” preview on the SERP, so I clicked through to see the full image results. Of the top 20, my site had numbers 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, and 17. Each of the images has the two-word phrase as the first two words of the alt attribute and the only other place on the pages where any part of the phrase appears is in the title tag, where a variation on the second word appears. The keywords are also not in the links to the pages on which these images appear, although they are all over the site. One other thing, and I have no way of knowing based on this whether this makes a difference: all of these images are linked, but they’re linked to copies of themselves (some of them to the exact same file, some to a larger version) outside of a page, where they obviously have no place for the keywords to appear, except in the file name, where they are not present.

The home page of the site comes up at #15 for the phrase in the normal results, by the way.

And in case you’re interested, this is very different from the results at Google: the site’s home page is #5 for the phrase, and on the image search, one picture from the site comes up, at #7. That image does not have the phrase in its alt attribute, but the phrase is the first two words of the page’s title tag.

In the second thread, in response to a question about Google showing image results in web searches on queries that included the word “images,” I wrote, “It looks to be pretty rare at Google, but Yahoo does it all the time. In fact, you’ll get images in the results over there even if your query doesn’t include a word like ‘pictures or ‘images.’”

Yahoo

Yahoo SERP for fashion model picturesHave these observed traits of Yahoo’s algo changed in half a year? The keyword phrase in question was [fashion model]. If you run that search through Yahoo right now, you may see images at the top of the SERP, and you may not. If you look at the image to the left, you’ll see a search I ran for [fashion model pictures] after the two-word phrase failed to give me the results described in the forum thread. Note that despite the three-word query, the text next to the Yahoo Shortcut logo and above the four thumbnails reads “Fashion Model – Image Results” rather than “Fashion Model Pictures – Image Results.” Moreover, the links anchored by “Fashion Model – Image Results” and “More fashion model images” both link to an image search for [fashion model], whereas the “Images” link above the search box takes the user to an image search for [fashion model pictures].

Only one of those four images is from the site I run, but that sort of change is to be expected over the course of half a year. Clicking over to the first page of image results (with SafeSearch on), my site’s pictures come up in positions 4, 8, 10, 14, and 17, so the only change is that the image that had been in the second position is gone. Again, the keyword phrase is the first two words of each of my images’ alt attribute, a variation of one of the words (“modeling”) appears in the title tag of each of the pages, and the footer navigation of each page contains the word “fashion” twice. The site’s home page now comes up at #14 in the web search.

Looking at the top four images on the SERP, we see the following:

First Image

  • Page URL: painetworks.com/previews/fq/fq2450.html (clicking through from the SERP brings up a 404 page, but I managed to track it down)
  • Image File Name: fq2450.JPG
  • Image Alt Attribute: Stock Photo of angie main002 woman model fashion glamour white dress slit
  • Page Title: Painet Licensed Rights photo of angie main002 woman model fashion glamour white dress slit
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 0
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 1
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 1
  • Page Meta Description: None

Second Image

  • Page URL: blogman.net/mt2/archives/000094.html
  • Image File Name: tianmodels-thumb.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: tianmodels.jpg
  • Page Title: BlogX: Life, Travel and Technology: More La Perla Fashion Model Photos from Boston
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 2
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 2
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 2
  • Page Meta Description: None

Third Image

  • Page URL: fmd.altervista.org/mom.htm
  • Image File Name: /alessandra_ambrosio/aa_thumb01.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: None
  • Page Title: Fashion Model Directory
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 0
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 0
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 2
  • Page Meta Description: None

Fourth Image

  • Page URL: annasinkovska.com/gallery/editorial06-04.htm
  • Image File Name: Anna-Sinkovska-Ed06-04.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: Fashion Model Anna Sinkovska in picture #4 of her second editorial from Gala Magazine
  • Page Title: Anna Sinkovska Modeling Gallery – Editorial 6 Image 4
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 0
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 0
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 2
  • Page Meta Description: Picture #4 of Anna Sinkovska from her second fashion editorial featured in Gala Magazine.
Yahoo: [Fashion Model] Keywords in Pages and Images
  Pg. URL File Name Alt Pg. Title Word 1 Word 2 Meta Desc.
1 No No Yes Yes Yes Yes No
2 No No No Yes Yes Yes No
3 No No No Yes No Yes No
4 No No Yes Part No Yes Part

Clearly, the image’s alt attribute isn’t carrying enough weight to rank the images on its own. One of the images has no alt attribute, and the alt of another is the the file name of the image it links to (a larger version of the same picture). The top three have both words from the search in their respective pages’ titles, and the fourth has a variation of one of the words. It seems that factors relating to the page are carrying more weight than those relating just to the image.

Google

I noted in January that Google web searches that returned images appeared to require words like “pictures” or “images” in the query. Clearly, that’s no longer the case. But what else has changed? My site’s home page is now at #10 on the web search. None of its pictures come up as one of the images in the main SERP, or even in the top 100 of an image search. The nerve of some search engines. Oddly enough, the three images that appear on the web search results page are not the top three of the image search results: #1 is the same, #2 is at #11, and #3 shows up at #6, so we’d better check the top three on both pages to look for trends.

Web Search, First Image

  • Page URL: asianweek.com/032599/fashionfusion.html
  • Image File Name: fashion_model1.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: none
  • Page Title: Fusion Fashion
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 0
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 11
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 2
  • Page Meta Description: Fusion Fashion Adaptability a common thread for APA designers By Fiona Ma and Heather Harlan

Second Image

  • Page URL: fashion-modeling-careers.com/
  • Image File Name: pink-blk-full-skirt-wht-bg.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: fashion model image
  • Page Title: Fashion Modeling Careers – Fashion Industry Occupations – Education and Employment Opportunities
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 4 instances of “fashion modeling” but none of “fashion model”
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 22
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 24 (includes “model,” “models” and “modeling”)
  • Page Meta Description: Fashion-Modeling-Careers.com is a directory of resources for Fashion Modeling and other fashion – related occupations that revolve around the runway. Check out our Careers section for tips on the hottest employment opportunites in the fashion industry, including merchandise marketing, the beauty industry, fashion design, product development and apparel manufacturing. Your dream job could be just one click away!

Third Image

  • Page URL: minxmodels.com/model_book.html
  • Image File Name: photo_book2.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: fashion models, fashion modeling, modeling agencies, fashion modeling agencies, modelling agencies
  • Page Title: Fashion Models – Fashion Models Wanted
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 0
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 0
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 7 (including plural)
  • Page Meta Description: Fashion models wanted. Minx Models is looking for fashion models, runway models, commercial models for modeling jobs.
Google: [Fashion Model] Image Results from Web Search
  Pg. URL File Name Alt Pg. Title Word 1 Word 2 Meta Desc.
1 No No No Part Yes Yes Part
2 Part No Yes Part Yes Yes Part
3 No No Yes Yes No Yes Yes

Image Search, First Image

  • Page URL: asianweek.com/032599/fashionfusion.html
  • Image File Name: fashion_model1.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: none
  • Page Title: Fusion Fashion
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 0
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 11
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 2
  • Page Meta Description: Fusion Fashion Adaptability a common thread for APA designers By Fiona Ma and Heather Harlan
  • Image Caption on SERP: Fusion Fashion (Caption is page title, beginning of meta descripton, and in bold text near the top of the page.)

Second Image

  • Page URL: math.binghamton.edu/alex/Fashion_Model.html
  • Image File Name: Fashion_Model_s.jpeg
  • Image Alt Attribute: empty
  • Page Title: Fashion Model Page
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 1
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 1
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 1
  • Page Meta Description: none
  • Image Caption on SERP: A Sketch of a Fashion Model by Emily … (Beginning of H2 tag)

Third Image

  • Page URL: english.people.com.cn/200409/01/eng20040901_155531.html
  • Image File Name: 0831_A16.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: Photo:<!–###IMAGE_BRIEF###–>
  • Page Title: People’s Daily Online — 2nd New Silk Road world fashion model contest to open in Hangzhou
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 10 including plural
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 10
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 10 including plural
  • Page Meta Description: A website by the People’s Daily newspaper; China, business, world, science, education, sports news
  • Image Caption on SERP: Over 40 fashion models from 29 … (Beginning of sentence that appears three times on the page, once under each image on the page)
Google: [Fashion Model] Image Results from Image Search
  Pg. URL File Name Alt Pg. Title Word 1 Word 2 Meta Desc.
1 No No No Part Yes Yes Part
2 No No No Yes Yes Yes No
3 No No No Yes Yes Yes No

Google search result for ford edselMaybe we should try another search, like [Ford Edsel]. Once again, we get a different set of results depending on whether we run a web search or an image search. The top result on the web search doesn’t come up at all in the top 100 results of the image search. #2 on the web search is #1 on the image search, and #3 on web search is #2 on image search. Let’s just look at those three from the web search.

First Image

  • Page URL: worldofstock.com/closeups/TRC1379.php
  • Image File Name: TRC1379.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: Stock Photo titled: Ford Edsel, USE OF THIS IMAGE WITHOUT PERMISSION IS PROHIBITED
  • Page Title: Stock Photo: Ford Edsel – World of Stock Photos
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 2
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 2
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 2
  • Page Meta Description: A superb image entitled Ford Edsel, available as a Stock Photo or Fine Art Print
  • Image Caption on SERP: N/A

Second Image

  • Page URL: diecastcars.tv/index.php?manufacturers_id=2
  • Image File Name: 400-082011.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: 1958 Ford Edsel Bermuda Station Wagon
  • Page Title: Die Cast Cars, diecast collectibles- Diecastcars.tv Minichamps Diecast Cars
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 1
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 5
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 3
  • Page Meta Description: Diecastcars.tv has a huge inventory of diecast cars and diecast collectibles, beautifully detailed diecast cars including Nascar, Hot Wheels and more.
  • Image Caption on SERP: 1958 Ford Edsel Bermuda Station (image caption on page)

Third Image

  • Page URL: americancarsuk.com/Previous_Cars/previous_cars.htm
  • Image File Name: Ford_Edsel.jpg
  • Image Alt Attribute: none
  • Page Title: American Cars for Sale. Previous Cars. Classic Ford Cars For Sale. Spurr Classic Cars
  • Keyword Phrase on Page: 1
  • First Word of KW Phrase: 55
  • Second Word of KW Phrase: 1
  • Page Meta Description: Spurr Classic Cars. Previous Cars. American Cars for sale. Classic Ford Cars for Sale and Wanted. Pontiac Firebird Trans am, Transam, Chevrolet Camaro Z28, Corvette Stingray, Cadillac, Caprice, El Camino, Mustang, Chevrolet. Spurr Classic Cars.
  • Image Caption on SERP: Ford Edsel 1958 (from image caption on page)
Google: [Ford Edsel] Image Results
  Pg. URL File Name Alt Pg. Title Word 1 Word 2 Meta Desc.
1 No No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
2 No No Yes No Yes Yes No
3 No No No Part Yes Yes Part

What does this leave us with? At least for the time being, while the search engines work out the kinks in the software they’re going to be using to determine that a given file is a picture of a face rather than a toaster, it appears that an image’s relevance to a given search query is very much dependent on the page that contains the image. The name of the file doesn’t appear to make a difference, and its alt attribute needn’t even be present, much less relevant. It looks like the presence of the keywords on the page (perhaps in close proximity to the image) and in the title element — two of the more important aspects in getting the page itself to rank for the keywords — is what it takes for an image on that page to rank for the same keywords.

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