Saturday, June 6, 2009

Search Engines Can't Read Your Mind Or Your Images

As genealogists and family historians, we blog hoping to make online connections. Connections to family, friends, and other researchers. When those connections occur it is most often attributable to the use of search engines.

Much of the valuable information contained on our blogs and websites involves photographs. Photographs of people (our ancestors), places (cemeteries and tombstones), and things (documents).

Are you getting the most contact potential from the photographs that you post? Have you optimized your images for search engines?

At this time, search engines can only "read" text. Any information that you think is important for a search engine to find must be text. Wouldn't you agree all our content is important?

In the examples listed above, many of the images we use contain graphical text (this means text that is itself an image or part of an image). Search engines can't read the text embedded in our images. If you want search engines to understand your content, it must be textual.

Below is a perfect example often used by the genealogical community; a photograph of a tombstone. The textual information contained on this tombstone is an image, not text that can be read by a search engine. If you simply placed this image on your blog or website you'd probably be wondering why no one has found you. The answer is, search engines can't read this image.

So how do we optimize this photograph to be found by family, friends and other researchers through the use of search engines?

tombstone of Jacob W. Huffman, Civil War veteran, Co. B, 93 Illinois Infantry, Fall City WA Cemetery

Start by telling your readers and the search engines as much as you can about the image. I use four methods:

1. Naming Your Image: Give your images detailed, informative file names.

A properly constructed file name can give a search engine clues about the subject matter of the image. Make your file name a good description of the image.

Let's look at our example image. Had I named it IMG_0031.JPG, the default name from my digital camera, it would have offered no clues as to the photograph's content.

Not Good:

‹img src="" alt=""/›

Helpful hint: Preferred image formatting - jpg; Search engines see .gif as a graphic rather than a photo.


‹img src="" alt="" /›


‹ img src="" alt="tombstone of Jacob W. Huffman, Civil War veteran, Co. B, 93 Illinois Infantry, Fall City WA Cemetery" /›

2. Add descriptive information to the alt tag (as above).

The alt text of an image contains a brief description of that image. Be specific, as if you were describing the image to someone who has their images turned off or is blind.

‹ img src="" alt="tombstone of Jacob W. Huffman, Civil War veteran, Co. B, 93 Illinois Infantry, Fall City WA Cemetery" /›

In the Best Example above descriptive information has been added to the alt tag. Google instructions say descriptions in excess of twenty words are probably excessive.

When posting articles with photographs in Blogger, the alt tag can be found in the Edit Html window. When you up load a photograph, this is how the information looks in the Edit Html window (alt tag in bold):

‹ a onblur="try {parent.deselectBloggerImageGracefully();} catch(e) {}" href=""›‹img style="margin: 0px auto 10px; display: block; text-align: center; cursor: pointer; width: 350px; height: 400px;" src="" alt="Your descriptive information goes here" id="BLOGGER_PHOTO_ID_5344408786427896274" border="0" /›‹/a›

Avoid just a list of keywords:

‹ img src="" alt="tombstone, graveyard, headstone, burial plot, cemetery, churchyard, burial ground, necropolis, memorial park, memorial garden, potter's field, God's acre, monument, headstone, stone, gravestone" /›

Don’t just stuff your alt tag with keywords. Filling alt tags with nothing but keywords may cause your site to be read as spam by search engines. Instead, create useful, information-rich content that uses keywords appropriately and in context.

3. Caption that image!

I try to always caption an image. In the case of tombstones and small documents I repeat the information in bold underneath the image. There are css methods of captioning a photograph which are beyond the scope of this article. I have had success with placing the information in bold directly under the photograph.

tombstone of Jacob W. Huffman, Civil War veteran, Co. B, 93 Illinois Infantry, Fall City WA Cemetery
Jacob W. Huffman
93 Illinois Infantry
Co. B.
Civil War Veteran
4. Insert a footnote!

Yes, that old black magic that is the footnote. Use footnotes, they are all text and can be read by search engines; plus they are "best practices" for genealogists and family historians.

Footnote for this digital photograph:

Huffman, Jacob W. Tombstone. Digital Photograph. 2009. Privately held by the footnoteMaven, Preston, WA. 2009.


Now go back and look at the images you've posted. Could you have done a better job of search engine optimization?


Blogger Becky Thompson said...

Thank you! I have everything to learn on this topic so will print out your article and keep it handy! I appreciate your simple explanation and examples. Thanks again!

June 6, 2009 at 8:15 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Hi Becky:

I wish I understood it all. I'm just learning and sharing.

Thanks for letting me know you found it beneficial.


June 6, 2009 at 9:18 PM  
Blogger Sheri Fenley said...

fM - this is very useful information. I am with Becky on this, I have printed it out and added to my ever-growing notebook full of blogging instructions, hints and tips. Thanks!

June 6, 2009 at 9:35 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

You are most welcome, Sista!

I am so glad this has been helpful.

Now aren't you up past your bed time?


June 6, 2009 at 10:07 PM  
Blogger Mary said...

This is brilliant! Thank you fM for taking the time to inform the rest of us. Like Becky, I will be keeping this one handy!

June 7, 2009 at 5:44 AM  
Blogger Diana Ritchie said...

Thanks so much for this great explanation. Sometimes when I read things meant as advice they are along the lines of, “You really should be doing X.” Well, if I understood how to do X I probably WOULD be doing it! I need the step-by-step instructions that you have here and I also love to be told WHY something is important. I’ve learned so much from reading your blog – thought it was past time I told you that!!

June 7, 2009 at 7:02 AM  
Blogger Judith Richards Shubert said...

fM ~ I've found this article very helpful! Thanks for the easy instructions and explanation of why we need to do a better job so search engines can find our photos. Like the others, I'll be printing this one out.

June 7, 2009 at 8:01 AM  
Blogger Judith Richards Shubert said...

I meant to ask you, fM ~ I noticed you used dashes in your file names "...jacob-huffman-tombstone-....." I have been just putting in a space "....jacob huffman tombstone ...." ~ is there a reason for the dashes? Do the spaces make it difficult for search engines, too?

June 7, 2009 at 8:05 AM  
Blogger Evelyn Yvonne Theriault said...

In Wordpress Blogs, you use the "Edit Image Title" to name your image, and the "Edit Image Caption" for the text that will show.
My experience is that Google takes a lot longer to index my images than my text, so that my blog post will show up within the hour whereas the accompanying image can take weeks.
That said, I have a lot of daily traffic coming to my site through the Image Search Engines, and once the images are in the Google Image Search they stay put!
Evelyn in Montreal

June 7, 2009 at 8:31 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


So glad this was helpful. Sharing the information we find is very important to the genealogical community.



Your observation is exactly the problem I find with most explanations. I personally need the steps and the "put it here" instructions. I write this the way I need to be told.

I can't tell you how pleased I am that you've learned from me. Sometimes you post and don't know if anyone is listening.

Thank you!


June 7, 2009 at 9:09 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


From my research I found it universally stressed that file names must not include spaces. There appear to be two reasons:

To a search engine a dash in a file name is treated as a space. A blank or an actual space is not treated as a space in the computer's language. By placing a dash in the file name you have told the search engine to parse (read separately) the name of the file. (Distinct portions of the file name should be separated by hyphens.)

So my file name jacob-huffman-tombstone.jpg is read by the search engine as jacob huffman tombstone. Now not being an expert, I can only guess that a search engine would read jacob huffman tombstone.jpg as jacobhuffmantombstone or as jacob only. Neither of these would prove very helpful for people trying to find you.

I used to use underscores instead of dashes, but have stopped because I discovered underscores are treated as a character and not a space, and therefore the words in my file name would not be parsed (read separately) by the search engines if they were to try to read them, resulting in jacobhuffmantombstone which no one would ever use as a search term.

And the second reason was that there are many instances where using a space in a file name can cause programs to misbehave. Automatic processing becomes more difficult when spaces are involved. I assume, rightly or wrongly, this includes search engines.

This is what the research has shown me, Judith. I hope that helps.


June 7, 2009 at 9:11 AM  
Blogger Judith Richards Shubert said...

Absolutely, fM. I had no idea. I will from now on use the dash in naming my files. Thanks so much. You might need to include your explanation in another post! ;p)

June 7, 2009 at 9:16 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


Thanks for the WordPress information. Are you able to add keywords in the alt tag as well?

I posted my article yesterday evening and did a search experiment last night. A Huffman Jacob Tombstone search in Google images delivered my image from this post last night.

I hope this was the result of optimizing for search engines. I haven't always done it this way in the past but I will do it correctly from this day forward.


June 7, 2009 at 9:32 AM  
Blogger Tamura Jones said...


Your advice to always use alt tags is rock solid.
You do indeed do so in support of of textual search engines, but search engines are not the only reason for adding these tags.
You also do it for visitors. Always providing brief descriptions for images an accessibility issue.
The alt attribute should be some text that provides basic information to someone who cannot see the image or someone who has turned image loading of in their browser.

The problem with the JPG format is that it achieves best compression by sacrificing lots of image detail.
The results are particularly ugly for images containing text, such as scanned newspapers.
The best bitmap image format to use, both for genealogy and web sites, is PNG.
The PNG format offers good compression without sacrificing details and is the official web standard for bitmap images.
A fun and useful feature of PNG is that it allows partly transparent images, which is great for overlaying outlines on group photos etcetera.

The upcoming HTML 5 standard should solve the where-do-I-put-my-caption issue by offering a caption tag.
Meanwhile, text close to photograph is good, but making sure that all the key words are in the alt tag remains best.
BTW, it may interest you that HTML 5 is likely to offer something in support of footnotes ;-)

Now, I have to take issue with your statement that search engines will only find text, but you will be happy I that I do so.
It is true of textual search engines, but there are several types of visual search engines.
I did a overview of these last year: Visual Search Engines

I really like TinEye.
Their search index size is still a bit small, but the results it does return are impressive.
Do try it out. It is very easy to use. Once you've installed the add-on it is just a matter of right-clicking the image you want to search for.
Once you experience that TinEye recognises scaled, cropped, skewed and many otherwise modified pictures, you will be hooked.


June 7, 2009 at 10:39 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


Thank you so much for your very knowledgeable comments.

Yes, Genealogists, this is an accessibility issue as well. Tamura, you are so correct.

PNG is the very best format for images, I'm just so set in my ways I'm still uploading jpgs. I use PNG when I expressly want transparency.

I am so hoping there is something in HTML 5 for footnotes, although I realize it may take some time for it to be accepted by all browsers. That would be fantastic!

And please, take exception, I want to learn all I can. I'm going to read your Visual Search Engines article and will try out TinEye.

I am a photograph sort of woman after all.

Again, thank you so much for sharing your expertise.


June 7, 2009 at 1:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great tips in your post. Like everyone else, I will be printing a copy to keep on hand. Lots of information here and in the follow up comments.

June 8, 2009 at 3:26 AM  
Anonymous The Family Curator said...

fM, Thank you for the informative and clear instructions on adding image tags AND for sparking this helpful discussion.

I have been trying to add metadata for some time, but have found it to be a cumbersome process on Windows XP. Lately I have had good results with Adobe Lightroom2 and/or Photoshop Elements 7. I like to use XnView for fast retrieval and organizing folders, and the tags made with the Adobe programs are easily used and/or modified there as well.

June 8, 2009 at 7:28 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

This is such a great post. I always tell myself that I'm going to do this, but then I run out of time! [sigh] Also, I have "Puckerbrushed" you on my blog:


June 9, 2009 at 4:27 PM  
Blogger CarolinaDreamz said...

I love this post. I'm going to link to it, in a sidebar, of my Family History blog. The blog is in transition from Blogger to WordPress, at the moment. (

I thought I would bring it to your attention, tho, that your comments are default set to "NOFOLLOW" meaning that search engines are not giving your commenter's any juice.

Its very easy to go into the layout HTML, expand, by checking the box, and remove (delete) the rel='nofollow' (Please backup your file, first, in case you need to go back, for any reason. It will save you millions of worked hours, if there is any mistake. Personal lesson learned.)

More explicit directions are found here:

Its just as important to give link love, as it is to have Google find your photos.

~Heidi (

June 17, 2009 at 10:57 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


Thanks for the information and the link! I'm glad you found this helpful.

I'd like to give back to those who comment, but . . .

The NOFOLLOW removal procedure you indicate applies to the New Blogger styled layouts only. I am using the Classic template, which has no similar instructions at this time.

When there is a fix, I will be on the amen row.


June 17, 2009 at 11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great template! Thanx for sharing it with us
I like it! Simple and pretty More templates easy to download

September 16, 2009 at 1:39 AM  

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