An UpBuild client recently asked why the image in Google featured snippets are often provided by a different website than the one from which the text content is taken. This has been the case for quite some time now and it’s fair to say that while a page may provide the most useful answer, the same page might not convey the most useful visual.
There is a system in place for images; we just (as is the case with most things Google does) don’t know exactly what it is, and it appears to be different than the one for text. SEOs talk a lot about how to structure text for featured snippets – I wanted to see if we can definitively learn how to get an image included in featured snippets too.
How Featured Snippet Images Work
John Mueller stated on Twitter in August 2018 that “sometimes there are really useful images from one site, and great snippets from another”, nudging all those with “awesome images” in the direction of Google Image best practices, which makes sense.
However, when interacting with (i.e. clicking on) a featured snippet image, presently you are kept within Google’s ecosystem and taken to an expanded version of the image under Google Image Search results.
While I can understand the thought process of sending the user to a more image-centric page with more images to choose from, this doesn’t feel like the optimal user experience. I don’t think that the intent for someone searching on Google.com (i.e. not Image Search), and interacting with a featured snippet image always wants to be taken to an image search. Take the query “best time of year to buy a car” for example. There is no reason for me to want to see an enlarged version of this image:
So, Why Optimize for Featured Snippet Images?
Since clicking on a featured snippet image currently takes users to Google Image Search and not the originating site, is it even worth optimizing images to appear in featured snippets? Let’s take a look.
Since 2012 it seems that Google has really picked up the pace in displaying enriched Search results beyond ten simple blue links. To name just a few:
- 2012 – Knowledge Graph
- 2013 – Answer Boxes
- 2015 – Upcoming Events
- 2016 – Google Posts
- 2016 – Rich Cards
- 2017 – Google Job Listings
- 2019 – FAQ and How-To
In 2016, Getty Images filed an antitrust complaint against Google in the European Union claiming that Google Image Search was harming the company, as it was providing the ability to download high-resolution images directly without paying and this overtly promoted piracy:
Two years later, in mid-February 2018, following a licensing agreement with Getty Images, Google removed the “View Image” button from Image Search, which gave prominence to the “Visit” button, sending the searcher directly to the source page.
This wasn’t only a victory for Getty, but for websites in general. The screenshot below is a great example of the direct traffic impact from this change had on an UpBuild client. Once the ‘View Image’ button was removed, they began to see hundreds of clicks daily from their images that were already ranking well in Google Image Search:
Jump ahead one year to May 2019, Google has now announced an upcoming feature for Image Search on mobile that would provide searchers the option to “swipe up to navigate” to the AMP article associated with the image:
In January 2019, John Mueller stated that “images are (once again) gaining importance overall on the web” and Gary Ilyes, in response, said on Twitter that the main reason for this upcoming AMP feature was because they can see that publishers are missing out on traffic, and that it would be nice to fix:
Google has increasingly demonstrated that they are less a Search Engine and more a “Task Completion Engine”. At any point, Google could begin experimenting or simply announce a decision to bypass the Google Image Search step altogether and take searchers directly to the source page if it does, in fact, prove to be more valuable to the search experience. To me, this indicates that the featured snippet image clicking through directly to the source URL might not be too far off, and therefore worth pursuing.
Evaluating Featured Snippet Images
Let’s take a look at the images on two pages earning the featured snippet for the query “best new laptops” to see how they compare.
Here we can see that techradar.com is primarily featured in the text portion of the snippet, but thewirecutter.com has locked in placement for the image. Both of these pages are on the first page of web results, and the image shown in the snippet is the first in Google Image results, after Sponsored results.
Simply ranking first in Google Images for the search term will not guarantee your image is included in the snippet, but ranking an image for a search term that generates a snippet is important for eligibility.
Let’s dive a little deeper and see what these two pages are doing differently.
Wirecutter.com (Snippet Image)
The featured snippet image is high-quality and displayed prominently at the top of the page. The HTML for the image is contained within a <header> tag that also holds the <h1> heading “The Best Laptops”. These two elements contained together in such close proximity could be helping Google understand the context of the image.
Let’s break down the code being used for the image on the page:
<img src=“https://cdn.thewirecutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/whichlaptop-top-2×1-lowres1024-1355.jpg” data-src=”https://cdn.thewirecutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/whichlaptop-top-2×1-lowres1024-1355.jpg” data-srcset=”https://cdn.thewirecutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/whichlaptop-top-2×1-lowres1024-1355.jpg 1024w, https://cdn.thewirecutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/whichlaptop-top-2×1-lowres1024-1355-600×300.jpg 600w, https://cdn.thewirecutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/whichlaptop-top-2×1-lowres1024-1355-320×160.jpg 320w” data-sizes=”(min-width: 1024px) 1024px,(min-width: 480px) 600px,320px” alt=”The Best Laptops” class=”dd0604b2 ec7e9b0f” itemprop=”image” role=”presentation” sizes=“(min-width: 1024px) 1024px,(min-width: 480px) 600px,320px” srcset=“https://cdn.thewirecutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/whichlaptop-top-2×1-lowres1024-1355.jpg 1024w, https://cdn.thewirecutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/whichlaptop-top-2×1-lowres1024-1355-600×300.jpg 600w, https://cdn.thewirecutter.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/whichlaptop-top-2×1-lowres1024-1355-320×160.jpg 320w”>
The file name is not as descriptive as it could be. The alt= attribute reads “The Best Laptops” which fits well with our target query (best new laptops).
The page is also using the srcset= attribute. Using srcset= is a common approach to specifying different versions of the same image for different screen sizes. However, some browsers and crawlers do not understand these attributes and Google recommends that you always specify a fallback URL via the src= attribute, which WireCutter also have in place here.
With Google’s heavy focus on mobile, I think including srcset= and src= are a very important part of image accessibility. Here is Google’s example of this best practice:
The page is using Article structured data, implemented with in-line JSON-LD. The image URL is included under both the image and thumbnailUrl properties.
The page also contains markup for datePublished and dateModified:
The query “best new laptops” yields many pages targeting “2019”, as you’d expect. With that in mind, the dateModified markup could be an additional factor to take into consideration for this particular query, considering that the topic that has a high focus on freshness. It is worth noting here that WordPress does assign the date to image URLs by default (check out the image URLs in the block of code from Wirecutter above: /2018/05/). So even though you may update an article with newer information, the images might be considered outdated. I can’t say for certain how much of a factor this might be in general, but for particular search queries where freshness is more important, I wouldn’t rule it out.
TechRadar (No Snippet Image)
While the TechRadar page may provide the most eligible text-based answer for the snippet, they fall short with obtaining the featured image.
Although the image is of high quality, it does contain text. Google Images best practices state that you should avoid embedding text in images, especially important text elements like page headings and menu items because not all users can access them. Additionally, page translation tools won’t work on images, which presents an accessibility concern.
While I think this is generally true, there are instances where showing text in an image is useful. Take search queries such as, “how to write a check” or “how to add text to a gif in photoshop” for example. Both of which generate snippets with text in the featured images.
Let’s take a closer look at their HTML:
<div class=”box” itemprop=”image” itemscope=”” itemtype=”https://schema.org/ImageObject“><img src=“https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/nD6tJpUCYsefTD42LtcPUZ-320-80.jpg” alt=“null” class=” block-image-ads” onerror=”this.parentNode.replaceChild(window.missingImage(),this)” srcset=“https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/nD6tJpUCYsefTD42LtcPUZ-320-80.jpg 320w, https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/nD6tJpUCYsefTD42LtcPUZ-480-80.jpg 480w, https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/nD6tJpUCYsefTD42LtcPUZ-650-80.jpg 650w, https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/nD6tJpUCYsefTD42LtcPUZ-970-80.jpg 970w” sizes=“auto” data-original-mos=”https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/nD6tJpUCYsefTD42LtcPUZ.jpg” data-pin-media=”https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/nD6tJpUCYsefTD42LtcPUZ.jpg”><meta itemprop=”url” content=”https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/nD6tJpUCYsefTD42LtcPUZ.jpg”><meta itemprop=”height” content=”600″><meta itemprop=”width” content=”338″></div>
There are quite a few differences when comparing the two pages, and it’s quite clear to see that standard image optimization best practices have not been implemented:
- The alt attribute reads “null”.
- The srcset= sizes are set to “auto”, not specifically declared.
- The image filename is not descriptive: https://cdn.mos.cms.futurecdn.net/nD6tJpUCYsefTD42LtcPUZ-320-80.jpg
- The largest image available is only 970px wide. Although there doesn’t appear to be any requirement in Google’s Web Fundamentals documentation, I would recommend ensuring an image that is at least 1024px wide for larger screen sizes.
- The page is using in-line NewsArticle markup; however, dateModified is not being provided:
- The image is marked up twice using ImageObject. This could be confusing for Google to understand which image is more important and should be the main focus for the markup.
Techradar also has an ad above the page content, which probably isn’t helping matters.
Overall, it’s quite clear to see the differences between the two pages, and understandable from a technical standpoint why the image from Wirecutter.com has been selected. However, putting technical aside, where does the ‘useful’ aspect come into effect?
Optimizing Your Content For Relevance
Google generally generates snippets from sites on the first page of Search results. It is possible, however, to have an image included without ranking on the first page.
For example, take the query “infrared light”:
The source for this image is on the second page of web Search results but appears first in Google Images. They are not using any structured data, the page is not responsive, there is no srcset= to be found, and the image is of low quality. So why is this being chosen to represent the snippet image?
Despite the lack of image optimization, when comparing the page content and the image to the results that precede it, contextually, the image and the text content together provide the best summary of infrared light. Notably, you’ll see that in the suggested queries ‘electromagnetic spectrum’ is showcasing a near identical image.
Let’s take a look at the suggestion for the search query “best way to whiten teeth at home”. As you can see below, the featured snippet displays someone placing charcoal onto a toothbrush:
Interestingly enough, the first suggested search term on Google Images is “charcoal”. The featured image was nowhere near the top of Google Images, and you can see for yourself that none of the results are doing a great job of displaying charcoal in a simple, demonstrative manner that the snippet wants to display.
I think that this is a good example of Google wanting to provide the searcher with the most helpful image, and where a contextual relevance factor might supersede a technical one.
The key takeaway here is to make sure that you leverage the suggested search terms under Google Images to make sure that your text content and target image reflect them accordingly. This is a great insight into understanding full intent behind the query and how you can optimize your content to help address that.
Applying Best Practices
In combination with suggested search optimization, you’ll want to make sure that your images are also applying image optimization best practices.
I highly recommend reading through Google’s documentation, which does a fantastic job of summarizing image optimization for Search. Without reiterating Google’s coverage of the fundamentals, I do think for the sake of brevity we can categorize them under the scope of four key categories with featured snippets in mind.
Place the image you want to be featured in the snippet at the top of the page, and near relevant text. Keeping the image prominent on the page not only demonstrates its importance but can help to keep it closer to the H1 heading, which should be targeting relevant keywords, increasing the association between the two.
The image filename can give Google clues about the subject matter of the image. Use clear, concise filenames that match the image, with words separated by a hyphen (e.g. “large-red-balloon.jpg”).
If you are using WordPress and would like to exclude the date from your uploaded content URLs, simply uncheck the “Organize my uploads into month and year-based folders” option from Dashboard → Settings → Media. Once you do this, all of your uploads will be added under the general “wp-content/uploads” folder.’
The alt attribute allows you to specify the text to display any time the image isn’t available, such as when the image fails to load, is crawled by a search engine, or is encountered by a screen reader. Google uses alt text along with computer vision algorithms and the contents of the page to understand the subject matter of the image. This means that you don’t need to provide every possible related keyword in order to describe the image. Simply use a short, description to convey the same concept as the image, in the same context:
Bad (keyword stuffing):
<img src=”puppy.jpg” alt=”puppy dog baby dog pup pups puppies doggies pups litter puppies dog retriever labrador wolfhound setter pointer puppy jack russell terrier puppies dog food cheap dogfood puppy food“/>
<img src=”puppy.jpg” alt=”Dalmatian puppy playing fetch“/>
Image title= Attribute
Although it has been speculated that the image title attribute does not factor into Google’s algorithm. It was once proven that Google had, in fact, crawled and indexed the content within the title attribute tag of an image. While I don’t think this is absolutely necessary, it couldn’t hurt to include the same text description as the alt attribute in a title attribute to cover your bases.
Optimized Page Titles, Meta Descriptions, and Text Content
Google Images automatically generates a title and snippet to best explain each result and how it relates to the user query. They extract this information from the page title, meta description and from text content on the page itself.
Leverage semantic markup
The image property is found in many markup types, but I would recommend using it under the Article schema type (provided the page in question is an article). Not only is it one of the main schema types that Google provides documentation for. It also provides additional context for Google to understand the page with the articleBody and mainEntityOfPage properties.
To make it clearer for Google, I’d recommend making sure the image that you want to be featured is the only image URL being used in the image and thumbnailUrl property. In other words, avoid using semantic markup for multiple images on the page, so that Google isn’t sure which one to use.
In general, your images should be compressed, delivered fast and responsive for all device types and sizes. Make sure that you use the srcset= and a fallback URL via the src= attribute. To ensure maximum accessibility, keep text in HTML and not embedded in the image itself.
You should make sure that you are applying the latest image optimization and responsive image techniques to provide a high-quality and fast user experience.
Use an Image Sitemap
Create informative and high-quality content
Google considers the page content quality when ranking images. Good text content is just as important as visual content for Google Images; it provides context.
Use original, high-quality and relevant images
This may be obvious, but sharper images are more appealing to users than blurry, unclear images. High-quality images in the Search results thumbnail will increase the likelihood of drawing the click.
Google recently announced its High-Resolution Opt-In Program where you’ll be able to provide Google with a high-resolution image via semantic markup. Based on the screenshot below it appears that once you’ve opted-in to the program you’ll be able to assign a license property to the ImageObject schema:
In regard to featured snippet images, make sure that the image you use is the best visual representation for the page topic, keeping the target query in mind. If the page is about “how to draw a cat”, then choose an image that demonstrates a person drawing a cat. Not an image of a real cat.
Track Your Image Performance
Once you’ve optimized your images, you will want to keep track of their performance. Tools like SEMRush provide great insight specifically for featured snippets that your website is associated with. You can also use free tools like Google Search Console and Google Analytics to understand how people are finding your content via images.
How To Track Images in Google Search Console:
- Open up Google Search Console for your website.
- Click on the Performance tab.
- Then change the Search type from Web to Image.
How To Track Images in Google Analytics:
- Open up Google Analytics for your website.
- Click Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium
- Then simply search for “google images / organic”.
Once you’ve uncovered search terms that your images are appearing for in Image Search, it’s time to begin looking at the technical and contextual opportunities available.
Toggle between Web Search and Image Search, comparing the suggested search terms against the image being featured in the snippet. Then look at your page that is ranking for the query to see what you can do to optimize both your text content and images.