445 EFFECTIVE KEYWORDING
By: Cheryl Pickerell DiFrank
December 11, 2001
In the past systems for finding images have been visually based. A buyer would look at pictures in a
print catalog. A researcher would take a stack of images out of a file drawer, lay them on a light
table and look at them one by one to find the ones appropriate to the project. To the extent words were used in this
process they were designed to store a "class" of images in very broad categories in order to
limit, somewhat, the number to be reviewed in any particular search.
In the digital environment it is impossible to see any images unless words are used in some
way to call them to the computer screen. For the most part the categories we used in the
past are too broad, and tend to call up too many images.
This problem is lessened if the person doing the search has broadband
access to the database, but the ideal is to reduce the number of images that need to be reviewed
by introducting additional categories and sub-categories.
In effect this is what is happening when we attach keywords to an image and search using keywords.
It remains important to include all the broad category words so it is possible to find, if necessary, all
the images that fit such a category.
But once a large group of images have been identified within the total database, it is important
for the buyers to be able to narrow and focus their searches. Additional words let them do this.
When keywording we need to keep in mind that most of the searches will not be done by trained people
within a stock agency who understand the agency's system. The searches will usually be done by the
customer who may use totally different words to describe the images they need.
For example you may have pictures of oil wells, and oil drilling rigs. In your files they are
filed under "oil." You know that "oil" is the place to go if you are looking for this type of
image. However, some buyers of this type of imagery may use the word "petroleum" or "petrochemical"
to begin their search. If the keyworder hasn't attached those words to the image then
these buyers may not find the images.
If a buyer gets no hits on "petroleum" he may root around using other words until he finally
puts in "oil" and gets a lot of hits. But suppose your images are part of a large database that
includes many suppliers. Let's say there are 1,000 images in the database under oil and a few
smart keyworders added "petroleum" to the 50 images they put into the database.
Our buyer finds 50 images, thinks that is all there are, and doesn't bother to use other searching
strategies to try to find an additional 950. As far as this buyer is concerned the 950 don't exist.
The number one key to success for selling stock photography in the digital environment is
keywording. Unlike in print catalogs of 50 or 1,000 images, on a website of hundreds of thousands
of images, clients are NOT going to simply scroll through pages and pages of images until the
right one hits them in the face. They are going to input a keyword or group of keywords to
quickly indentify the images that fulfill their specific needs. Your image may meet their needs, but
if your keywords don't match the ones they use, they will never see it. In the digital environment,
a poorly keyworded image is an image that is effectively hidden from the clients.
Unfortunately, the process of keywording is time-consuming and very labor intensive. There is no
way to completely automate it. A human mind is required to think about the meanings
different words can have and the process clients might use to search for each particular image. At Stock
Connection, we have been keywording images for 10 years and, though we have learned a great deal
about the process and how to perfect it, it still takes us an average of 15-20 minutes to keyword
each image. When we are done, we have an average of 100 keywords attached to each image,
insuring the best odds that a customer looking for the image will find it.
Currently, there are almost no software options available to help photographers in the keywording
process. Without some keywording tool, photographers must resort to a pencil and paper,
brainstorming on any words that may apply to a particular image. Many stock agencies have
developed their own proprietary software that is usually not shared with photographers or competing
The only tool that we are aware of that is available to the general public was developed by
StockMedia.net. In addition to the website portal service they offer to photographers and stock
agencies, StockMedia.net has developed a keywording tool that can be dowloaded for free at
http://www.stockagencies.com. This tool was initially developed for keywording images for
their portal, but can be used to keyword images for any system. A list of words generated by
this system can be easily exported.
The tool walks you through several different steps, prompting you to supply the necessary information
about each image. In the actual
keywording section, you pull down pre-set lists of words in different categories, and simply click
on applicable words to add them to the list for the image you are keywording. Nevertheless, the process is
still very "human-dependant". You still must decide which words fit the image, but working from a
prompt list is much easier than having to come up with all the possible words on your own.
Whether you are using some keyword tool, or simply a pencil and paper, there are six basic steps
to follow when keywording images for the stock photo market.
Step 1: Orientation and Release Information
Always start with two basic, indisputable facts about the image - orientation and model release
information. Many clients will search on these criteria if they want a particular orientation or
definitely need model released images. If you are keywording images for a portal or for your
agency, there may be a place in the search engine (separate from the keywords) where a client can
simply click on a certain orientation or release requirement. In this case, these items would not
necessarily need to be included as keywords. But it never hurts to include them in your keyword
list (and they are probably the two easiest to determine!)
Step 2: Proper Nouns
No keyword tool, no matter how complete, will ever include all proper nouns in it's list of
possible keywords. In many cases, the proper nouns (locations, animal species, building
names, etc.) may be the most important identifiers of your image. Make sure to manually add any
important proper nouns, and always check the spelling twice!
Step 3: Elements Of The Image
Next, list all the basic elements in the image - people, places and things actually visible in the
image. Certainly get the major elements that are critical to the image. You will have to make
judgments as to the importance of certain things that are actually visible in the image, but may
not be critical to the meaning of the photo. For instance, if you have a photo of a family having
a barbecue in the backyard and their is a neighbor mowing his lawn far off in the background, it
may be misleading to include the word "lawnmower" as a keyword. The lawnmower is certainly not
the focus of the image and it is probably NOT the image someone is looking for if they search for
the keyword "lawnmower". (See the list on the left below for the family barbecue image.)
Nouns & Elements
Step 4: Don't forget plurals
It is critical to include the plurals in addition to the singular version of any nouns you have in
your keyword list. Some customers will search in the singular (i.e. "baby" or "telephone") even if
they are looking for images with more than one baby or more than one telephone in the shot. And
other clients will search in the plural (i.e. "babies", "telephones") even if they are looking for
an image with only one baby or one telephone in the shot. It is simply a matter of how the person
thinks (which you can never fully anticipate.) If you've got an image of a baby that you've
keyworded "baby", but not "babies", the customer that searches for "babies" will not find the
image when using most search engines. For "exact match" searches, the word the
customer is searching for must "exactly match" a word in your keyword list or the image will not
be seen. If you don't include both the singular AND plural of all nouns, half of the customers
may never see your images.
Step 5: Synonyms And Their Plurals
Once you have the elements of the image and their plurals, go back and add any synonyms (words
that mean the same) of any words you've already got in your list. Again, you never know exactly
what word someone might use to find a particular image, so you must be prepared for many
possibilities. For instance, if you've got an image of a woman, you will want it to be found
whether the client searches for "woman," "women," "lady," "ladies," "female" or "females." All of
these words describe the woman in your photo and if someone is searching for "ladies" you want to
make sure they find your image! Don't forget the plurals of the synonyms! (See Step 4.)
Software solutions can help here. Stock Connection has developed a filter that adds words that
have the "exact same" meanings as the words in our primary list. Using a thesaurus is not a
total solution. There are many words in a normal thesaurus that have "related meanings" to the
word, but not the "same meaning." You only want words that are commonly recognized as having
the same meaning. Thus it is important to custom build such a filter and regularly review it.
When we add synonyms to the list we developed in steps 1 and 2 we get the list below for our
Step 6: Concepts
Finally, you want to include any concepts that might apply to your image. Obviously,
most advertisements use a concept to sell a product, and the advertisers want images that
illustrate those concepts. They want images that illustrate "communication," "protection,"
"success," or "finance" to name a few. The buyer may not have a specific image in mind, but
may be looking for a variety of solutions to illustrate a particular concept. This is an area
where you can expand the market potential for your images. It is also the most
difficult part of keywording. It takes a lot of abstract thinking to decide if a particular
concept applies to a particular image. We find that about 30% of the searches done by
clients are for concept words, as opposed to specific elements of an image. The list below
includes the words developed in steps 1 through 5 in the three left hand columns. The
concepts are in the far right hand column.
Steps 1 - 5
Too Many Keywords Will Give You Too Many Hits
One of the favorite arguments of people who don't want to spend time keywording is that "too many
keywords will give you too many hits," They are convinced that the reason there are often too many
images to look through as a result of a search is that there are too many keywords attached to
the images. Therefore their solution is to limit the number of keywords.
In fact, exactly, the opposite is true. The more words you have (assuming they are all appropriate to the
image) the more it is possible for the person doing a search to narrow his or her selection to a
limited number of appropriate images.
When only a few keywords are used then the only possible search is a broad one. There are no
words that will let the buyer narrow the search. If you have a man, woman or couple in the
picture you are going to want to use those as keywords. Obviously there are a huge number of
images in any database that have these keywords. The way to narrow the search is to be able to
search on a "woman" who is a "minority" and doing something specific, or having a specific
But the real question is does the extra effort in keywording make any difference in sales? We have
lots of evidence that it does, but let me describe one of our clearest examples.
Stock Connection represents one photographer who also has images with several other agencies. It
so happens that through us this photographer put approximately 50 images onto PictureQuest. One of
his other agents put more than 10 times this number of images on PictureQuest. Stock Connection
did its usual extensive keywording of the 50 images. The other agency did very minimal keywording.
The range of subject matter and the quality of the images were the same for both agencies. In
theory, whenever a buyer does a search on PictureQuest they should see all the images from both
agencies. The only variable is the keywords.
One would expect the photographer to earn more than ten times the revenue from sales through
PictureQuest by the other agency as he earns from Stock Connection. He has so many more images being
shown by the other agency. But that is not what happened! So far the
photographer's earnings from PictureQuest sales are almost 5 times more from the 50 images keyworded
by Stock Connection as he has earned from well over 500 images placed on the site by the other
Below you will find three examples of similar images. The keywords for the images on the left are
found in the three columns below the images. The keywords in the far right column are an example
of what many seem to feel is adequate keywording. Which image do you think has a better chance
of being found by more buyers?
Other Things To Consider
In addition to the basic keywording steps, you should keep in mind a few common issues that may
affect the way you keyword.
Slang or Common Variations/Misspellings
Always remember that you are trying to make it easy for a client to find your
image. If they type in a search word the way they normally spell it, or the way they normally
abbreviate it, and they get no images (because no images were keyworded with that form of the
word), they will probably go on to another site. They will probably not think to try different
forms of the word until they come across the one that you used as a keyword. Consider including
common slang versions of words or even very common variations or misspellings of words in your
keyword list. For instance, the correct spelling of an outdoor grill is "barbecue," and any image
with a barbecue should be keyworded as such. However, we know that a common misspelling of the
same word is "barbeque," and a common abbreviation is "bbq". Often, we will include all three
forms of the word in the keyword list for an image with a barbecue in it. Obviously, you must be
very careful not to cross the line of including hundreds of misspelled words in your keyword list,
but you may want to include a few common ones. Also consider the two variations of words like
"color" and "colour." There are a lot of clients in the U.S. and Canada that use the British
Words With Multiple Meanings
Keep in mind that words like "turkey" (the bird) and "Turkey" (the country) are spelled the same
but have very different meanings. As most search engines are not case-sensitive (they don't
recognize the capitalized Turkey as being different from the lower case turkey), the seach engine
has no way of differentiating the two. Therefore, when a client is looking for an image of a
"turkey" on the dinner table, they will probably also get images of street scenes in Istanbul, and
vice versa. There is no simple keywording solution to this problem. Certainly you don't want to
leave the keyword "turkey" off your image of Thanksgiving dinner - but you should be aware that
the computer often cannot tell the difference.
There are lots of other words that have totally different meanings when used in different ways.
Getty Images was one of the first to develop a filter that prompts the customer to explain
which specific meaning they have in mind when the customer uses one of these words to request
images. If the word entered is "turkey" the customer is asked, "Do you mean the bird or the
country?" The customer gets to see a different set of images depending on which one they
Getty has added additional codes to these images so that only the proper images will come up.
This is something that only the site manager can do and is not part of basic keywording. Nevertheless,
it is important to recognize that this can be done and as the industry moves forward it will
become much more common on many sites.
Understand How The Search Engine Works
If you are keywording for your own website, your agency's website or one or more portal websites,
you should always be aware of how the individual search engines work. They all work a little
differently. This may affect the way you keyword. Some search engines may have a built-in
"thesaurus" which will make some of the synonyms associations for the client during the actual
search. This means that, if you've keyworded your image "woman" but NOT "women" and a client
searches for "women", the built-in thesaurus will see the search word "women" and go get any
images that are keyworded "woman," "lady," "ladies," etc. With this type of search engine, you may
not need to add synonyms as keywords. It will make some of the connections for you.
However, in some cases the search engine first identifies all the images where there is an "exact match"
with one of the keywords. These images come up first for the buyer to review. Any images that are
found as a result of using the "thesaurus" come up behind the "exact match" images. Thus, the
people who do extensive keywording have a much better chance that their images will be among the
first to be displayed, and ahead of the images of those who rely on the "thesaurus".
Some search engines bring up the images that have the "most words common to the request" first. If
the request has five words in it, the first images to be shown will be all those that have all
five words as keywords. The next images will be those that have 4 out of the 5, then 3 out of the
five and so on. Finally, the images that the thesaurus finds will be shown. If this is the way
the search engine works then it is definitely better to add plurals and synonyms to the keyword
list rather than letting the thesaurus take care of the problem.
Be aware of seach engines that only do "exact match" searches. For those it will be necessary to
include all forms of each word, as discussed above in Step 5.
Limits On Number Of Words
Some search engines may also have a limit to the number of words or characters that are allowed in
the keyword field. Be very wary of seach engines with such limits. Often the limits are so low
that no more than 10-20 words per image will be allowed. We believe that is usually too few. You will
be forced to leave out too many important words making it difficult to find your images.
Minimal keywords, or category words can work if the site has very few images on it. But, in these
cases you have to ask yourself why a customer would want to go to a site that has very few
images to choose from.
Don't Over Keyword!
Be very careful not to go overboard and put on too many inappropriate keywords using the "the more
keywords, the more hits" mentality. It is true that a more thoroughly keyworded image will get
seen more often than a lightly keyworded image, but you will frustrate and alienate clients if
they are constantly getting images in their searches that don't really apply to their search word.
For instance, years ago when we had our photographers doing their own keywording, there was a
photographer who had an image of a downhill skier flying through the air coming off a ski jump. The
photographer included the keyword "accountant" on this image because he happened to know that the
skier/model was actually an accountant by trade. This may have been true; but any customer
searching for a picture of an "accountant" would certainly have been frustrated if presented
with pictures of skiers. Make sure all the words in your keyword list for each image are appropriate
and would make sense to most people looking at the image for the first time.
Think Like The Client
Similar to above, you must remember that you are keywording for the client, not for yourself. Try
to think, "Would this make sense to a client's?" You walk a very fine line between keywording
thoroughly and making the client's searches frustrating. You may have been thinking about a
particular concept when producing an image, but does that concept really make sense upon looking
at the image for the first time? Remember, the client only knows what they see in the image. They
do not know what else was happening on the day of the shoot that may have affected the way YOU
look at the image.
Keywording is very hard work. Most photographers will do anything they can to have someone
else do it for them. Many agencies keyword their own photographers images, and some portal
websites will do the keywording for you for a fee. However, no matter who is doing the work,
always make sure that you are comfortable with the quality of keywording they are doing. If they
are doing it for free (or charging very little) you should wonder how they are able to do all of
the above steps so cheaply. Is the keywording really being done thoroughly? Remember that, no
matter how much you don't want to do it, if someone else is doing a poor job for you, you are
simply paying them to hide your images online. That doesn't make sense.
Improving The Keywording Qualty
As we look toward the future we will need systems that track what words are being used to request
images, if we want to improve our keywording. The data needs to be tracked over fairly long periods
of time. As users get more sophisticated,
and learn how to narrow searches using keywords, they may begin making more use of "qualifying
words" that they didn't use initially. Then some of the qualifying words we are adding now will
become more important. On the other hand, it is a waste of time to add words to a keyword list
that buyers will never use.
In the beginning it is better to err on the side of having too many keywords, rather than too few.
But hopefully, as the business of searching online matures, those doing the keywording will become
more efficient at indentifying words that various buyers use to search for images, as well as those
that are never used.
Various specialties will have their own set of words that people within their specialty use.
Photographers who work within such specialties can help those doing the keywording by pointing
out the importance of certain words in these specialties.