Video Deep Dive: What Drives Local Mobile SERP Images?
Mike Blumenthal


This is our Deep Dive Into Local from October 15, 2018. In our Deep Dive series, we take a closer look at one thing in local that caught our attention and deserves a longer discussion.

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Mike: Hi, welcome to Deep Dive in Local. Just before we get started I want to remind people that are listening to us as a podcast, you can see the video of this and read the transcription at the Local U blog. We appreciate however you want to listen to it, and we appreciate any and all feedback we get. Sometimes sitting here recording, Mary and I don’t know who’s listening, why they’re listening or what they find interesting, so we really would love emails. I’m Mary why don’t you give them your email.


Mike: Feel free to reach out to us, we would love to hear from you. What kind of topics you’d like to hear and who you might like us to interview in the world of local search. If you’ve got a topic yourself that you think we haven’t spoken of, send it to Mary’s email and she’ll take a look, and maybe can tell the show as well. So this week we’re going to be talking about a local mobile search. The fact that Google is now showing images in the local mobile organic results below the pack. So this is a trend that we first spotted last December. It took way off in the end of July, took off further in August and September. Where now many, many searches show an image on mobile only next to the organic results, and we think, Mary and I, who both look at Google as your homepage as a reflection of how you show up elsewhere on Google, that these images are a strong conversion signal. That it may attract people away from the pack, so if you’re showing in organic but not local may give you an advantage, and so I was curious about what I could learn about why these images were showing. Mary, do you have any observations about this results?

Mary: Well, the first observation I have is that this kind of went in tandem with Google updating their image algo, and they announced that just about a week ago, I think maybe two weeks ago, and they are talking about page authority now being important, and image placement on a page now being more important. And I, for me…

Mike: And topical relevance being important, right, which is this new area of the knowledge panel. So.

Mary: Right. And I think that with…I think this shows that the fact that it’s happening in mobile shows us that really, this really is a mobile-first index and that there’s a lot of SEOs and a lot of businesses that are still not looking at mobile often enough. And you really need to be doing that because things are very, very different on mobile. And I think that this also kind of plays up the idea that images are easier for people than text on a mobile phone. And that’s why Google wants to try to make them a little bit more important in the algorithm.

Mike: Right. So, , when I first started this research early last summer, I was discouraged by the fact that none of…I first thought, “Well, I’m sure these images are showing up because of meta information I manage, alt tags or file names and shockingly few websites that were showing an image were using those attributes. It was also frustrating because it was hard to develop a test environment then because I was on my phone on the desktop. So I ended up developing a desktop test environment, so I could…in Chrome, there’s a developer’s tool you can use or there’s a couple of Chrome extensions you can use, that allow you to see a mobile search result on different phone formats in one window. And then you can look at the desk, you can click on the search results, open up the desktop view of that same site, and then look at the code inspection to see how people, what they’re doing with the image, if anything. The first obvious thing I found was that , maybe 20% of sites had used alt tags or meaningful file names. So clearly, Google wasn’t using that as a primary driver.

Now in speaking to other people, few folks said to me, that our eCommerce sites where there’s a lot of images they were seeing that all tags were having an impact in terms of which image Google chose. But when I started looking at it after, when I discovered that , meta information was irrelevant, I then started looking at things like the position of the image on the page, the relationship of the image to the headers and the carousels, the relationship of the image and the H1 tags and the title tags of the page, right? So before Google announced that this was about topical relevance, I started looking at those factors and found that the single biggest correlation to the image showing was whether the title, the title tag was close to the query. So we’re talking about topical relevance here, the title tag being so it’s not, , clear…it’s not causation necessarily. But clearly, if there’s a title tag that relates to the query, the title tag is a very good proxy for the topical content of the page. So there’s a very strong correlation between title tag and the query, and where the image showed.

And not as strong, but very strong also between the H1 headline and the query. So again, the architecture of the page seemed to be the biggest determinant of whether these images would show.

Mary: So do you think that…I mean, there was a time when SEOs were really wild about optimizing images and did a lot of it because we thought it had some effect. Then we saw it didn’t have that much of an effect and I think people kind of stopped doing it. Now, you’ll see a lot of websites where there’s not one optimized image on the website. And I think it’s worth putting image alt tags and good image title tags, maybe even captions on images to give Google more clues. Because I think that they may have moved to the page title because they couldn’t get enough images with the information that they were trying to extract.

Mike: I think that’s true. And I think it relates to this other finding that typically I found that the first image on the page that wasn’t in a banner and a header wasn’t in the menus, and it wasn’t in a carousel, the first image that was in the body copy was the one that was used. But I think if you’re going to have a page with more than one image, and you’re going to have a page that speaks to several topics, perhaps even related topics, like let’s say it’s wedding photography, and you do photography, and you do maternal photography and wedding photography, and your ranking for both, then I think in that context, alt tags and captions would then be likely that the alternative images would show. So I think you can get multiple images to show per page if you are using those. So I think they’re valuable in the sense of providing topical relevance to the page and relate to the possible queries.

I think also from a handicapped point of view, disability access point of view, absolutely critical. I’ve talked to a couple people who’ve recently been sued for not being in compliance with federal requirements. So the site should say disability accessible, and image tags are absolutely critical there to do that. So there’s multiple benefits.

Mary: And I think that if you have an image heavy industry, let’s say landscapers or remodelers or pool builders or hot tub people, the thing that people really want to see are the pictures, that’s what’s going to make that sale for you. And so often you just see pages and pages of images that all they say on them is photo gallery and the title tag. And I think that if you start thinking about those photo gallery pages more like category pages, and give images captions, and then link off to individual pages about more long tail terms that you really like to rank for, that you could…

Mike: Using text anchor links.

Mary: Yes.

Mike: Amazing how many sites that go to that are using text anchor links still.

Mary: Yes. So, I think that you can really boost your appearance in a lot of image-heavy searches by concentrating on optimizing for this new algorithm, and for what we’re kind of thinking, is the old algorithm. Still using image alt tags, image titles, and captions. I think captions are just critical, even for usability. I hate looking at this page of beautiful pictures and then I look at it and it’s like, “Well, what is that that I’m looking at?”

Mike: So a couple thoughts I have just in closing, just some tips that I put together as part of this article. I wrote research that Google focuses more heavily on the first image of the page, the first image of the content of the page. So you want to be sure that you aren’t relying just on carousels, or just on menu images, that you do have content-driven images, and that it’s central to the page content. And make sure that the page is topically relevant to your targeted search query with good site architecture, title tags, H1 tags, good inbound links across your site as well.

I do think, as we pointed out, that I don’t think Google is yet using machine learning in terms of analyzing the relationship of the image to the query, but I am seeing in local where the profile image is changing based on the query or Google appears to be trying to do that. So I do think they will be doing that in the future. So obviously, it makes sense to have a topic-related image. And I think that while alt tags and file titles don’t drive the result, I think they can add, as you said, topical relevance benefit to the page, and as I pointed out, accessibility. And I think you need to realize that on mobile, when people do see your website that these images, you have to think about the aspect ratio on the content of the images because they’re going to be showing in a mobile environment, and Google is going to crop them arbitrarily to a square, about 110 by 110 pixels in the search results, depends on the phone and stuff, but very small.

So a couple things about that is if you have a horizontal image and a lot of the content is outside the center, it’s going to get weirdly cropped and not look good. Secondly, if your image is a distant image with a lot of busy detail in there, that’s not going to look good. So you want to be sure to have center-weighted images that are bold in construct to close-ups and obvious what they are just to deal with that issue pointed out, as you can see what the stuff is. And that’s particularly a problem at 100 by 100 pixels on a phone. So you have to be really conscious of how those first most prominent images have to be thought through. And then finally, I saw one searches on this and it made me laugh, right. It was some lawyer search, I can’t remember what it was, maybe bankruptcy lawyers or something, and there was empty desk in the search results. I’m thinking, okay, the first thing is results look spammy because it was like, Detroit, Michigan, bankruptcy attorneys, right. And result looked spammy but the image looked like yeah, this guy’s not even at his desk. I don’t want this guy working for me. So you want to be context sensitive I guess. So anyway, those are my tips.

And as we pointed out at the beginning, there’s probably more here than meets the eye. I think as Cindy Krum often says that mobile-first indexing is very much about entity-first indexing. We know that topics are very critical to Google as part of this and that images are going to be used to highlight this topical relevance. So I think this is, again, another arrow shot across the bow, telling people that we’re moving rapidly towards entity search, and that you need to think through its implications of people getting and forming their impressions of you totally on Google and making that decision on Google. So with that, anything to add?

Mary: Well, one thing that occurs to me is a lot of times we encourage clients to put symbols of trust on their website, voted best lawyer in Las Vegas or certified by something, and you might consider testing some of those images as the main image on the page since that is I think it’s a very concise way to…

Mike: And you would want to pick one image, not put them in a banner, and you’d want to make sure it’s sort of square formatted, high on the page in the content portion of the page. I think it’d be an interesting test. I think I agree that that could have conversion benefits as would a nice…and here’s a context for a good looking logo as well, or just a picture, a close-up picture of your staff or if you’re in the jewelry business. And this is true on every page. This isn’t just your homepage, this is product pages, service pages, about us pages that are likely to show up in the search results. So this goes beyond Google as your homepage showing up. It goes to almost every page on your site. You need to think through the relationship of this primary image of the page to the page and to your success.

Mary: Right. And what do you think about stock images? Do you think…

Mike: That’s me gagging.

Mary: Well, do you think they can tell which images are stock images?

Mike: I don’t think they can, and I also think that consumers look at them, and say, “Oh, I saw that person on somebody else’s site.” I see stock images as a quick way…Speaking of which, and I’ll have to reference this URL. Like there’s a new company that was formed that whole, it’s a marketplace to put people who need custom business images together with photographers who are willing to shoot them at a reasonable cost. So I think that there is a now, I just saw, I just said this tool with Aaron Weiche, the CEO of Gather Up, because it’s a concern of mine about our Gather Up website, that it uses documentaries, and we’ve tried to hire photographers and they’re crazy expensive, but this is sort of manages the creative process and matches up buyers and photographers to create something beyond stock images. So I see there are tools developing in that marketplace that are worth looking at.

Mary: Do what the name of that tool is?

Mike: I can look it up. I don’t know what it is off the top of my head.

Mary: I don’t know anything off the top of my head.

Mike: So if you give me…If you talk while I’m looking it up.

Mary: Okay. So I think that it’s time for us to all wake up about images because we’ve kind of not thought about them much for so long. And now this can, if you kind of concentrate on the new requirements of this image algo, I think that you can really benefit from it. And one of the things that they stated was that page authority really matters. So if you have a page that is really ranking well, and you’ve got some kind of related image that might also be ranking, an image search. If you combine those together, you might have a like a real powerhouse page that will show up with a photo that you want it to show up with in mobile search.

Mike: Okay. So this article I saw in Apple News, and it’s called Catalog, It was founded by an ex-Googler. So No, it’s not, it’s So I would take a look at it and see. I was going to actually include it next week’s Local, but anyways.

Mary: So, I just want to give you a little anecdotal story, because sometimes small businesses, it’s like pulling teeth trying to get photos from them. And Carrie and I have a fairly new client who is an HVAC company, and we asked for, , we told them long, long ago that we were going to need photos, and we never got any. And we kept poking them and poking them, and finally, the company owner bribed one of his employees with $200, and we ended up with 300 photos in a week. So, , that’s another thing you can do, is get your people to get photos for you, and they’re not all going to be great winners, but some of them are going to be usable on the website.

Mike: Which Photoshop more of them? I mean, you can crop a head out here or a product out there, even if the shots too busy in total, Photoshop can drive a lot of value out of those same images, I agree. So.

Mary: And another thing that I want to mention about this algo…

Mike: One more thing, in the beginning sound like Steve Jobs here.

Mary: Oh, okay. Well, or Colombo. They also said they are looking at prioritizing images from fresher content. So I think that’s something to keep in mind also. That may be just switching photos around or replacing old photos might give you a little bit of a bump.

Mike: All right, well, there you have it. There’s our research and some suggestions for you on the increasingly important role of images, particularly in mobile but across everything you do. So thank you for joining our Deep Dive. We will speak to you soon. Thanks again.

Mary: Thanks, Mike.

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