557 KEYWORDING AND BROCCOLI
May 21, 2003
By Randy G. Taylor
Keywording is about as exciting as eating
broccoli. At least, that's what PDN writer David Walker says. He's
right, of course. However, good keywording, like broccoli, is a
healthy habit to adopt. Keywording is the third most important task
for selling images in modern markets (the image itself and marketing
being first and second). If researchers can't find it, they can't buy
it. In an ideal world, keywording should be done by the most
experienced, smartest person on staff. This article is intended to
help the rest of us to keyword successfully and increase sales as a
result. Let's first review general preparations, cautions and mindset
that should precede the actual keywording.
Value Your Efforts
Some image marketing outlets offer a method of keywording online, web
access to enter or update captions directly in the database of the
agency or portal. It is probably not in your best interest to use an
online data entry process or software that does not give you back the
results of your efforts - the keywords. Creating keywords in the
agency's web site essentially gives away your labor for free. It is a
better strategy and long-term investment to keep and control
keywording in-house. Then leverage the value of your time invested by
submitting keywords (and photos) to multiple distribution channels
from a centralized source that you control.
Although keywording can be done by just typing words into a word
document of some kind, this is an inconvenient and inefficient way to
do it. Another option is to enter words directly into the "File
Info" of an image using Photoshop or similar, then extract the
words in a program like Portfolio or Cumulus when needed. Newspaper
photographers commonly use File Info (IPTC) for captioning. But this
is also inefficient because each image must be opened, one at a time,
to add keywords unless special software is used to bulk process the
Some keywording software can be purchased, such as A2Z (available from
for $279 per individual or $1,279 for agencies).
There is one universal software that is free. Keyword Compiler has
been gradually refined by the staff of StockMedia.net since 1996. It
is available for free download at stockagencies.com. A special version
is also available free for members of Creative Eye/Mira.com.
Some service-oriented agencies or reps will do keywording at a
reasonable price that usually ranges from $3 to $6 per image. (Some
example are Stock Connection, Mira and Stock Media). A new option is
Keywords To Go, a paid service by industry veteran Paul Henning (see
Many agencies will provide you with their
proprietary software for submissions. Regardless of the software or
process chosen, it is extremely important that you end up with an
exported set of keywords.
The Search Engine
As difficult as it is to determine, you should try to find out how
words are searched and used in the database that holds your images. In
many engines, for example, fields or groupings of words are separated
by a comma. So, the phrase "Paris, France" might be searched
as "Paris" and "France" by default. (This is a subtle, but significant
point.) Do searches only find an exact match?
Or, will they find any word in the caption? Or either? Also, verify if
both the keywords and the caption are searchable, or just one or the
other. And, find out if searches are case sensitive. If so, you'll
need to carefully consider the difference between words like
"park' (as in to park a car) and "Park" (as in
Everglades National Park). Understand the structure of the database
for which you are keywording.
Ask how dates are handled. Engines with an editorial emphasis usually
have a separate field for the date of the event. In editorial, it is
significant if the photo shows President Bush at the microphone on the
exact day that he gives Iraq a 48 hour deadline vs. the hundreds of
other press conferences. And, what format it used for the date?
European style with the day preceding the month? Abbreviated? Spelled
out? (Although important for editorial, for commercial images, dates
reduce sales since few would choose to buy an "old" picture.)
Most engines will get confused if keywords contain prepositions, or
worse yet, the specific Boolean logic words ("and",
"or", "not"). So, avoid prepositions, except in
captions. (One major engine uses natural language search in which
buyers can enter whole sentences. This process, however, is
problematic for searches in foreign languages and limits their ability
to expand into global markets.)
And speaking of Boolean, does the engine use the plus sign
("+") and minus sign ("-") to mean "and"
or "or"? For example, does "man+woman" search the
same as "man and woman"? In the learning curve of software
development, some engines found that the minus sign creates havoc with
hyphenated words. So, a search for "African-Americans" might
find pictures of wildlife in Africa if the engine reads it as
"African not Americans". This, of course, is extremely
politically incorrect. How the search engine is structured will have
hidden but profound differences on the search results that are based
on the keywording that you submit.
The first tip: Multi-word phrases should often also be entered as
individual words when appropriate. So, "wide-angle lens"
should also be entered as "wide-angle" and "lens".
But, "The White House" should NOT also be entered as
"white" and "house".
Is it case sensitive?
Are both caption and keywords searched?
Are searches based on "contains" or "exact
Are you required to enter data via proprietary online input
Are keyword fields separated by commas or tabs?
Is Boolean logic used in searches?
Are certain topics put in separate fields?
How are dates handled?
Are the plus and minus signs used for Boolean searches?
Pick Your Target
Editorial vs. Advertising. Early in the keywording process, you should
pick your target market for each image. You must decide if the photo
is more likely to sell for editorial use in a magazine article or
textbook ... or for commercial/advertising use in a brochure or trade
ad. As a comedian once said, "You can't have it all. Where would
you put it?". Trying to be all things to all buyers will actually
reduce your sales. Know for which target market you are keywording
BEFORE you begin keywording. (In fact, it's wise to know your target
market before you shoot the picture. Keywording experience will
probably help you to shoot more saleable pictures.)
Clients seeking images for editorial use want to know the standard
five W's (who, what, where, why and when) in the caption of each
image. Editorial captioning is a delicate dance that balances the
amount of information that is necessary to be provided while not going
overboard with expository description. Often, publishers seek
extremely precise images for editorial use, especially in specific
categories such as science or nature. Detailed keywording is necessary
to find (and sell) these images.
Commercial uses are virtually the opposite, needing an undiluted focus
on the emotions and concept most conveyed by the image. Commercial
researchers really don't want to know the facts. For these buyers,
details just get in the way, turning up irrelevant searches.
Successful commercial images have in common a single dominant theme,
concept or subject that is instantly apparent in viewing the image.
(Ironically, shooting styles for commercial stock, contrary to popular
belief, can actually be far more trendy and free than with editorial
imagery because of this.)
The goal, then, for keywording commercial photos is to keep the
caption short and to use as few of the dominant concepts, emotions or
subjects as possible, but also to add as many variations as possible
of keywords that exactly describe those same concepts. Commercial
images need significant keywords, but tiny captions.
By contract, successful keywording of editorial images demands
abundant information in the caption, sufficient to make detailed
searches and then to make a purchasing decision from information
displayed. Editorial needs a thorough caption, but minimal
For now, suffice it to say that effective captions for editorial
images are crammed full of details while the keywording for good
selling commercial images removes as much information as possible,
leaving only pure emotion or concept. (This is explained later.)
In editorial, it is unbelievably important to be precise and to get it
right! (This is an area in which the photographer can assist editors
enormously in captioning. After all, who knows the details better than
the person on the scene who can ask questions?) Editorial image buyers
are often extremely demanding about the details of a subject. What
they need is exactly what they need, and nothing similar will do.
Because of this, editorial keywording can demand detail that is not
apparent in the image, provided that it is completely relevant,
accurate and concise.
Religion and ethnicity are good areas in which to illustrate the
point. A researcher might be looking for an image specifically of
Mormons or Latter Day Saints, in which case an image of Protestants or
Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists just won't do. An image of people
praying in a generic church will not sell to this market. Or, a buyer
might be seeking a Shinto temple in Japan, but not a Buddhist temple.
Or, they might be tracking down an image that is not just of Judaism,
but one that specifically illustrates either the Reform, Hasidic or
Expand on the precision. An editorial caption that speaks only of
"purple flowers" will render the image worthless. Calling
the flowers "painted daisy" and "daisies" is
better. Adding that they are "goblin gellardia" makes them
saleable to include textbooks or similar. And, knowing that this is
also a "desert flower" really completes the potential for
sales. The burden is on the photographer to provide this level of
detail and precision on many topics such as scientific, geology,
wildlife and nature, medical, etc..
It is very important that the details be relevant. For example, that a
person pictured is Irish American is irrelevant unless that image
shows an environment or situation that supports that particular
aspect. So, it doesn't matter if a person shopping for groceries is
Irish American. That image should not be captioned as such. But a
person walking in a St. Patrick's Day parade - and most importantly,
who you know FOR A FACT is an Irish-American without assuming anything
- should be captioned accordingly. Include relevant details and only
relevant details. And, make sure they are true and accurate. In short,
Abbreviations and region can also be part of this required precision.
An MRI machine needs the keyword phrase "Magnetic Resonance
Imaging". Emergency Medical Personnel are probably also known as
"EMP". Then there is the factor of descriptions that change
from region to region. Where you live today, would you order a
submarine sandwich, a sub, a hoagie, a grinder or a Philly?
Precision and detail are important for editorial. But, this is not a
game show. You don't get points for being close. If there were a score
keeper, you'd get one point for each correct detail and loose a
thousand points for each wrong one. If you don't know what the subject
is, don't say something that is wrong. Don't guess. Scientific
editorial sales demand exact details of what the subject is. Being
wrong can be very messy.
The Catch 22 is that all this precision is often lost on the
gatekeepers who initiate the first wave of most research. These are
often young and inexperienced individuals who are searching for
exactly what they're told. They have little knowledge or imagination
to expand a search when results are suspiciously absent. So, that
makes it tricky. Don't submit vague or overly wordy captions, but
don't submit wrong ones either.
Early keywording committees decided to standardize many aspects of
words. By limiting keywords, search results would be more consistent.
So official guidance, for example, said that keywords should always be
singular (not plural) and in the masculine form (only significant in
non-English languages). These rules, however, required buyers to
conform to an unnatural standard.
Since then, the marketplace has spoken. The reality is that committees
cannot change or dictate to the instinctive buying habits of clients.
One must, unfortunately, throw out the wisdom of structured form and
plan for the chaos and random nature of the research process. One must
anticipate the variations possible. So, you probably should include
masculine, feminine, singular and plural (nuevo/nueva, baby/babies).
You just never know how the client will search. (Note: Plural use is
debated. Precisionists argue that "a child" is different
from "children". This editor would opt to keyword for the
majority of buyers who don't understand such nuance.)
Some photographers falsely believe it benefits them to add every
possible keyword imaginable, no matter how remote or disconnected it
is from the theme of the image. In fact, this type of "gaming"
actually hurts sales. Search results become laughable (and clients
don't return to the site) when keyword searches turn up unrelated
images. This conflict - inexperienced keyworders adding unrelated
words vs. clients seeking precise, limited results - is the biggest
problem of keywording currently. Nothing will destroy a database and
drive away clients faster than having countless, undesired images come
up on every search.
Admittedly, it's a leap of faith. But photographers must accept that
they are better off to accurately present their images to likely
buyers than to attempt to put every image they've ever created in
front of everybody, regardless of how irrelevant those images might be
to the needs of the client. To better understand this, one must wear
the hat of the photo buyer while keywording. Ask yourself, "Would
I be happy to see this picture while searching for my intended
results? Is this image completely dominated by the subject, emotion or
concept that I seek?" Honest answers will encourage a good
keyworder to exclude irrelevant words.
Sex sells. That's true. But, it also attracts certain portions of the
general public to a database who have no intention at all of buying
pictures. This eats up expensive bandwidth and dilutes the speed and
resources available for real buyers. It robs photographers by
diverting resources to service unproductive consumption. So, it is
highly recommended that one carefully consider keywords of images that
It is strongly suggested to never use slang words that describe human
body parts. So, words like "tits" have no place in a stock
photo database, at least none that are commercially viable. Even the
word "breast" is highly questionable, except perhaps in a
medical context like a breast exam. Always look for less salient
alternatives, like "nude" instead of "naked" for
fine art photographers.
Think Like The Client
Researchers come in three flavors: "Beeline shoppers" who
know exactly what they're after and don't want to waste time getting
it. "Browsers" who know the subject, but want lots of
selection from which to choose. And the "clueless" who are
really just looking for ideas. Most buyers are "browsers".
The best clients are "beeline shoppers". And the clueless
are important for future sales.
It is up to the keyworder to tag each image intelligently to help
clients find what they want. Clients who fill their needs easily and
fast are likely to buy. If they don't, they may not come back to the
web site for a long time.
Remember also that clients often use very simple words to search.
Unfortunately, you don't know exactly which simple words they will
use. Region of language (ie, English vs. American) makes a difference,
for example. Other factors might include their upbringing. education,
personal experiences, job training, age and hobbies. Dat's a lot o'
variables! Thinking like the client while keywording will help to weed
out the wrong options.
Don't miss out on search hits by leaving out variations of words or
phrases that could be used to find this specific image. You should add
variations that are likely to be searched, provided that they all mean
exactly the same thing. In editorial, a caption might include
"President Bush". But, if a person searches for "George
W. Bush", the image will not be found. Consider keywording such
an image as "President Bush", "President George
Bush", "President George W. Bush", "George
Bush", and "George W. Bush". You can never be certain
of which combination will be used to find the image.
For advertising markets, you should add synonyms, variations of a
primary keyword that have the same meaning. (But be sure not to dilute
sales by having too many meanings per picture.) So, if you have an
image of two people talking together, and this interactive talking is
the dominant theme of the image, then you should add not just the
obvious, like "talk", "talks" and
"talking", but also add keywords like "chat",
"chatting", "converse", "conversing",
"discuss", "discussing", "discussion",
"discussions", "speak" and "speaking".
In addition to literal words, remember the concepts.
"communicating" and "communicate" would likely
also be appropriate for a picture of people talking.
There is plenty to ponder here, enough to get you thinking about
keywording. This lays out the groundwork to begin an on-going,
And finally, always remember that keywording is unbelievably
subjective. Don't get into fights with your spouse or coworkers over
which words to use. There is no one right answer.
In the material above, we covered general aspects to plan and prepare for the
keywording process. Here, we will get into some specifics about
exactly how to pick words to include (or exclude).
Mistakes in keywording usually boil down to not thinking like a
picture buyer. So, it's worth repeating -- you MUST ask yourself if
you were the researcher, would you be happy to see this image if
searching for that particular keyword. That's what counts - customer
satisfaction that leads to a sale.
Forgetting to say if the image is vertical or horizontal is probably
the most common mistake. Editors and designers often look to fill a
Remember to include the category. If it's a sports photos, add
"sport" and "sports".
Some photographers confuse keywording with self-promotion. A still
life shot of a bread box might have in its caption "John Doe
Photo Studio, Intercourse, Pennsylvania". Imagine how frustrated
and upset the picture buyer will be who get shots of bread boxes when
they are stressed and on deadline, looking instead for pictures of
female deer, photo studios, Pennsylvania or ... well, you get the
picture, even if the client doesn't.
In the very early days when shifting marketing to digital, The Stock
Connection had to stop including the name of photographer Andrew Child
when they realized that client searches for "child"; brought
up Andrew's images, regardless of subject. The same would happen, in
general, if a person mentioned in the caption is named "Dawn";
or "Forest"; or other names with alternative real world
Another mistake is trying to use reverse psychology. A burning
building should not be keyworded "fire safety". A homeless
person is not about "job security". Strip mining is not
"conservation". A person smoking is not "health
choices". It's true that, in times of recession, negative ads
appear that make the audience fearful to not buy the product of the
advertiser. But, you should let the art buyer make that decision. It
really turns off clients to see lots of negative subjects when
searching for positive concepts. And positive outsells negative at
least a hundred to one (except in hard news).
Using words with double meanings is another common mistake. It often
happens that the person keywording uses a word that has a secondary
meaning without thinking about the search results that will occur. An
example of this might be a caption that reads, "Man working in a
home environment". At first glance, it seems innocuous enough.
But, the word "environment"; will pull up this home office
scene for researchers who might be searching for environmental
pictures like the Exxon Valdez or pollution. There are many common
mistakes to be avoided in keywording.
Say if it's a vertical or horizontal
Avoid words with double, confusing or conflicting meanings
Don't use mixed metaphors
Avoid adding words of things not visible in the picture
Don't include insignificant objects or details, even if pictured
Don't dilute the image with irrelevant words
Don't use slang for body parts
Don't state the location of studio shoots
Don't put your name, city and company in the caption
Don't include where it was shot unless significant
Don't use reverse psychology
Don't guess if you don't know
The Worst I've Ever Seen
Many examples spring to mind of bad keywording. My favorite is a
search for "apple"; that shows a field filled with orange
pumpkins. Closer examination reveals a caption that speaks of a
pumpkin patch, across the street from an apple stand. Of course, the
apple stand is not in the photo and is completely irrelevant.
The New York times had a beauty recently. Although perhaps technically
correct, this is the type of caption that later will drive researchers
nuts. The image showed a cat sitting on a table, looking at a cooking
pot, while a man looked at the cat. The caption reads, "Would be
great with tuna. Pickle the cat eyes the duck - or the sausage or the
pork - in Mark Bittman's slow-cooker cassoulet". Imagine what
commercial clients would think in getting that image in a search
result for any of those words. Although having clever captions may
work for one day's edition, it usually undermines later archival
Do value your time
Do keyword once, and well
Do use Keyword Compiler
Do have the image visible while keywording & captioning
Do understand the search engine for which you're keywording
Do know your target market before keywording
Do keyword for the dominant subject, concept or emotion
Do avoid secondary or tertiary concepts
Do be precise and accurate
Do abbreviate and expand on abbreviations
Do use multiple variations of words with the same meaning
Do duplicate keywording to similar records to save time
Do think like a picture buyer
Do add regional variations
Do always have someone else edit your keywording
Do keep copies of all your keywording
Do pluralize words
Do identify editorial subjects accurately and in detail
Do remember to include the simple stuff
Do anticipate words you'll want for marketing reasons
Do pay for expertise
And, please, DO spell check
Focus on What Matters
It cannot be stressed enough that one needs to focus on the words that
are significant to the image and leave out the rest. Convey a variety
of words that illustrate the dominant subject, emotion and concept to
enable clients to find the image. Picture buyers will be seeking an
image that fills one specific need. Ask yourself questions as you
keyword that put you in the mindset of the buyer. Only include what is
dominant or totally relevant to the image. Here are some questions
that should prompt inclusion of possible keywords:
WHO? Is the name of the person pictured important enough that
clients will seek out pictures of this individual? If so, include the
name in a variety of forms. (Remember the President Bush example?)
Don't include names of models or subjects who are not celebrities or
not significant to the sale of the image.
WHAT? Will someone want to buy a picture of this specific
activity or object for editorial or commercial purposes in a few
years? (ie, rowing, biking, talking, typing ... or a canoe, bicycle,
cell phone or typewriter.) If so, include the activity or object.
WHERE? Is the location significant? Will someone seek out this
image because of its location? If so, include it.
WHY? Is the reason behind the event or photo significant? (A
found photo of O.J. Simpson wearing black gloves before the murder
trial is significant, but meaningless if the photo was taken after the
trial. If the glove don't fit, you must acquit.)
WHEN? Is the date significant enough that clients will want an
image of the subject on this particular day? (There are millions of
photos of Presidential press conferences. The one taken on the day
that the President declares war has historical significance because of
its date. Others do not.)
GRAMMATICAL VARIATIONS? Include
different forms and tenses for the same thing. (Dine, dines, dined,
AGE? What is the age of the subject? (Will a textbook publisher
be seeking pictures of teenagers for a target market, for example? Or,
will the maker of an arthritis drug be looking for a specific age
CONCEPT? What single, dominant concept or emotion could this
image likely be used to convey? (ie., teamwork, success, safety, love,
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS? Will someone want to buy this picture
purely because the subject is fat, thin, exotic, feminine, hot, cool,
CATEGORIES? Here's an easy one to overlook. If this image were
in a filing cabinet instead of online, under what category would it be
filed? (ie., agriculture, architecture, biology, fashion, lifestyle,
COLOR? Is there an unmistakable color that dominates the image?
If not, don't mention any colors at all.
EVENT? Holidays and key life events are relevant. Advertisers
(and the researchers who fill their needs) look for images that
represent specific life events because people buy products at those
happy times. Birth, graduation, weddings, retirement - they all
inspire the purchase of things like baby carriages, watches, crock
pots and travel. If the event is significant, mention it.
LOCATION? Sometimes, it might be significant that the image was
taken in the Antarctic vs. the Arctic or at a school vs. a business.
If so, include the location.
MOOD/EMOTIONS? This is the $64 question for advertising use.
What (if any) is the dominant emotion of this image? What product is
going to be sold based on this emotion? (Safety sells Volvos. Fun
sells Carnival Cruise Lines. Comedy sells products in England. And,
sex sells just about everything.)
NEGATIVE SUBJECTS? Although seen in headlines daily, negative
doesn't sell. Death, destruction, defeat, despair. It's a rare day
that commercial picture buyers seek out these subjects. (Sometimes,
during recessions, there is a trend towards negative adds ... don't
get fired because you bought our competitor's product. But, 99
pictures out of 100 sold, except in breaking news, are positive.)
ORIENTATION/EFFECTS? Vertical or horizontal? Landscape or
underwater? Close-up detail or scenic?
QUANTITY? One? Two? A Couple? Many? Quantity can be important
REGION? Knowing that this is a specific island in the Bahamas
will likely reduce stock sales for ad use, but could be important for
editorial stories on the Bahamas. (You don't necessarily have to
include a region.)
THINGS? Don't include everything you see in the picture. But,
if something is essential or dominant, mention it. Bicyclists ride
bicycles. Drivers drive cars. Passengers are probably in an
LIGHT/TIME/SEASON/WEATHER? Call this miscellaneous if you want.
IF it is dominant to the image, include things like spring or summer,
foggy or sunny, day or night, early or late.
And, at the risk of stating the obvious, do remember to include the
obvious. A photo of a couple should include "man"; and
"woman";. A German Sheppard is also a "dog";. A
telecommunication device is probably a "phone";. Don't
overlook the simple stuff.
Think Ahead To Marketing
You can help market your images by guiding clients from your personal
web site to an e-commerce site that displays your images and brand.
This is done with URL links that specify search parameters within the
link. (Eventually, all sites will offer this powerful marketing
ability which was first offered by StockMedia.net in 2000.)
Anticipate the groupings in which you'll want to display your images,
and keyword accordingly. For example, you might want to add words that
indicate shooting style (such as "light painting" or
"washed out pastels" or "shift focus"), the
intended use (such as "covers"; or "horizontal
spreads") or even specific markets (like "travel
brochures", "medical billboards" or "conservation
posters"). Build the relationship between the client and YOUR web
site. Then, from your own site, guide picture buyers to your strongest
subjects by grouping them with similar concepts and formats in the
search results that appear at your preferred e-commerce database. To
do this, you must add the marketing phrases now that you expect to use
later. But be careful! Don't add words that are likely to be found by
normal research. Choose uncommon phrases for groupings, perhaps even
alphanumeric sequences. The goal here is to enable you to link to
specific images, not for others to find those images by searching
these particular phrases.
Pay for Expertise
Keywording should be done by the most experienced person on staff. It
requires a mix of skills that is rare - the eyes of a photographer,
the mindset of a picture buyer, and the perspective of a historian.
There may not be anyone readily available to you who possesses this
combination of experience and ability. Or, you may be too busy
yourself creating imagery to invest your time in what is essentially
marketing. You may want to outsource the task of keywording.
Several agencies offer keywording, either as part of the submission
price or as a value added service, such as Creative Eye/Mira,
Workbook, The Stock Connection, Keywords To Go and StockMedia.net, to
name a few. Consider the value of your time invested. Will you make
more money today by shooting or by keywording? Sometimes the cost is a
la carte and easily calculated. Sometimes, it's hidden in a total
charge. Regardless, you can expect the real cost of keywording to be
about $3.00 to $6.00 per image even if doing it yourself. And, of
course, be sure that your investment returns to you the key asset -
Most important of all, keyword once! Do it well the first time, and
archive your results.
About the Author: Randy Taylor is CEO of Stock Media Corporation which
runs the image marketing channel StockMedia.net and provides the
software that runs mira.com and solusimages.com. He was previously the
VP of the Press Division of Liaison Agency (a Getty Images company)
and contract photographer for the Black Star and Sygma. He started his
career as a staff photographer for the Associated Press in Paris,
France in 1977.
Copyright 2003 Randy G. Taylor/StockMedia.net. All rights reserved.
"Stock Media"; is a registered trademark of Stock Media
Randy G. Taylor can be contacted at Stock Media Corporation, 1123
Broadway, Suite 1006, New York, NY 10010, or by e-mail to: email@example.com
For more information on Keywording check out "Effective Keywording" that is Story 445 by Cheryl Pickerell DiFrank.