Keywording Photographic Images for Online Stock Agencies


Understanding how to correctly keyword the images you have uploaded at an online photo stock agency is critical to making sales. In this article I look at keywording stock photography, and give tips and hints that will help you get those pictures under the eyes of photo buyer.

(For more straightforward articles on photography and keywording, see here).

When I started investigating the search engines of online photo stock agencies, I realized that everything I knew about keywording was twisted in this niche, and that many hard-learnt search engine optimization rules did not apply. Online photographic stock agencies use their search engines in special ways and it is not too hard to optimize your keywords to reap handsome rewards.


Why Should I Bother Keywording My Images?

You are a busy photographer - you don’t have time for this. Why should you bother keywording all those images? The answer is simple. If there are two similar photographs, the one with more relevant keywords is more likely—much more likely—to be found by a photo buyer than the one with a few, bad-chosen keywords. Good keywording helps sell your images.

Without too much difficulty, the number of keywords that you can associate with a single image at the major stock sites numbers in the hundreds (more on this later). Let's suppose you have a picture that currently has 50 keywords associated with it, and that we increase the number of keywords to 200.


How you would benefit:

  • Average keywords per image now = 50
  • Achievable keywords per image = 200
  • Improvement in search terms matched = eyeballs on photos = 300%

And that is just for single-word matches from the search engine (i.e., the searcher types "railway", and sees all the pictures with the "railway" keyword). Things become even more impressive when you consider two- and three-word matches (the searcher types "railway station" or "escalator railway station").

For example, I added new keywords to one of my friend's images of an escalator at Liverpool Street Station:





Unique keywords:




Single-word queries matched




Two-word queries matched




Three-word queries matched




If a potential buyer comes to the web site and types in one word at random, my friend's photo would now be nearly five times as likely to be seen in the search results. If the buyer types three words at random, the chances of my friend's photo coming up have increased twenty-two thousand percent!


Have a go with the Straightforward Keyword Combinations Calculator and be amazed what a difference a few more keywords can make.

Click here for the Straightforward Keyword Combinations Calculator


image search engines don't index content

Unlike most search engines, those at stock photography don't index content. Instead they index the keywords, captions, descriptions, and names that you associate with the image. This is different from most modern web page search engines that you might be familiar with, such a Google and Alta Vista. Increasingly, for those search engines, what you have written in your hidden keyword tags is of less importance than the actual content of your page. But in the specialized search engines that you find at the web sites of many photographic stock agencies, the opposite is true. The content, that is the actual photograph itself, is of no importance at all—it is what you say about it that counts! And how badly we say it! 


Know Your Online Agent(s)

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There are a lot of stock agencies on the web. They range from older, established agencies who have gone digital, with varying degrees of success, through slick new upstarts who are quickly building vast libraries of stock photography, to simple home-brewed sites being run off the kid's computer in the back bedroom. Almost anyone can set up their own web sites these days, but if you are serious about selling your work and do not want to be bothered with building your own web site, you are probably putting your photos up at one of the more established agencies. Perhaps with the local agent you have been with for many years.

Most of the big name agencies now have web-based catalogues and online ordering systems. But how can you tell which ones are doing well and which ones are turkeys? If you visit, you can find out the popularity of a particular web site. Here are some of the online stock agencies, along with their current rank, most popular first:





Getty Images 1,537
Corbis 4,988
Alamy 18,971
Photosource 429,551
The Stock Solution 614,185

Thus, according to the traffic statistics collected by Alexa, Getty Images is today the world's 1,537th most popular web siteir.


Understand How your Agency's Site Works

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Take a look at the information your agent publishes on the web site about how their web site's search engine works. Usually you will find this information under the heading "Search Tips". If you are able to log into your agent's site as a photographer you may be able to find detailed information about the search service and how it works with keywords. It is worth spending some time on this task, as you may need to adjust your keywording strategy to fit your agent's search engine.

For example, most search systems have a front-end which shows results to people searching the site, and a back-end which periodically trawls through the whole site looking for new images and changes to the keywords of existing images. Often the back-end takes several hours or even days to complete its task, and until it has done so any changes you make to keywords will not show up at the front-end. You may need to wait several days for change to take effect.


Which Fields are Searched?

Depending on how your agent has configured the search engine, different fields will be indexed by the search engine. When I investigated at one site, I found the following fields were indexed (size and "potential" in brackets):

  • Caption  (128 characters, say 15 words)
  • Keywords  (856 characters, say 100 words)
  • Description  (3000 characters, say 500 words)
  • Photographer's Name
  • Categories  (100 category names)
  • Attributes  (10 words)

The site's search engine indexed all these fields equally. That means that a word in the keyword field had just as much importance as the same word in the description field. Every word carried an equal weighting, and duplicate words were disregarded.


What Keywords to Use

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So what keywords should you use? First of all, spend some time giving your photo a decent caption. Some search engines rank certain fields higher than others, and the image's caption is perhaps its most important field, so it's a great place to start. Work from the specific to the general:

"Commuters and shoppers on escalator, Liverpool Street railway station, London, UK"

That's nine good keywords already! Check later that this title looks OK when it comes up at the web site in search engine results, and on the photo's main page. Sometimes if you make it too long it can distort the layout of the page and annoy the buyer.

The words in the caption provide a good starting point from which to find more keywords. "Commuters" and "shoppers" for example lead one to "people", "workers", and "travellers". "Railway" leads to "trains", "railroad", "mainline", and so on. You can use these new keywords in other fields, like the description.


Photo Synonyms

Many searchers find search engines awkward to use and are not sure what to type in. Make sure you include the following terms in your keywords so that you will not miss out if the searcher types something dumb like "boat picture":

pic, picture, photograph, photo, image



Include the numbers of objects, people etc. that can be seen in the photograph:

one, two, three…, single, double... group, crowd, many

This will help you match search queries like "two boats" and "crowd of commuters". In some stock agency search engines your photo of two boats may not come up at all for a user searching on "two boats" if you forgot to put the word "two" in your keywords, caption, etc.


Learn the frequently searched keywords

Do you know the top five keywords used in searches for food?

pizza, coffee, chicken, fish, wine


How about for cars?

ferrari, porsche, bmw, jaguar, corvette


Or simply for "things"?

body, car, auto, moon, weather


This type of information is easy to find on the web if you know where to look. (Hint: try using Google!)


Common words

Common conjunctions and prepositions like "and", "to", "a", "of" and "the" are not usually indexed by stock search agency engines so don't bother to put them in your keyword strings (although you should of course use them in descriptions and captions so that they read correctly).

But other common words are not ignored. Make sure to use common words that describe how your image looks, for example its general colour (blue, red, pale, faded) and the relative position of objects (above, below, under…). Use the description field to get in as many of these qualities as possible. What you are trying to do here is match searches like "red key above old lock". Most engines consider the common word "above" to be a valid search term, so let's hope you remembered to include it somewhere!

Capitalize when necessary

Most engines ignore capital letters, but some may not. Make sure that proper names of people, places and things are capitalized where appropriate: "Tower Bridge, London".



Try to pluralize your keywords: "boats" is better than "boat". Why? It is because the first term will match both "boat" and "boats", whereas the second term matches on only "boats". (see also Stemming below.)


Nonsense, French and Fronch

Any word can be indexed by a search engine, including nonsense.

Foreign words also work. If you have a picture of a boat taken in Italy, include "barca" and "nave" in your keywords. Be aware however that foreign characters are sometimes not indexed. Avoid them.

Spelling errors are also worth including if they are very common. But don't bother with "botes", "bowts", or "boatz" .


“S” is sometimes indexed

Strangely, some engines index the letter “s” as a real word. Consider including it in your keyword string. Example: "s, dog, man, fleas" matches the searches "dog’s", "man’s", and "flea’s."


Include a description

Use the description field to add more words and add a certain randomness to your offering. In addition to the keyword and caption fields, most sites encourage you to include a short description of the photo. It is very important that you include a description if its content is indexed by the search engine.

A simple description like "This is a picture I took late in the evening on a stormy night. The two men walking their dogs are standing in front of a sex shop" will match searches for "evening dogs", "walking men" and even "stormy sex"!

You agent has given you a description box so that you can describe your photo: use it wisely and all sorts of keyword combinations will work. This is not "spamming" its just serendipity.


Avoid spamming the search engine

"Spamming" is when you include the same word over and over again in your keywords in the hope that it will improve your ranking in the search results. Generally, repetition doesn't work, and even when it does it is not as effective as employing a broad range of words in your captions and keywords. Most engines at stock agencies seem to ignore repeated words, so you are just wasting space that could be used for other keywords.



Furthermore, many search engines use "stemming" when they make searches, so that words like "boat" also match "boats". If your keyword string includes "boat, boats, red boat, sailing boats, boat-hook and "Southern boat club" you could already be approaching the engine's "spam limit" without even realizing it.

Having your photo down-listed for spamming is definitely something to avoid!


Assign Categories to all images

Many stock agencies allow you to classify your photo by selecting appropriate categories ("travel", "nature", business" and so on. Sometimes there are hundreds of categories available for each image. Select as many as you can, but make sure that they have at least some relevance to your image.


get back links

Getting other people to link to your images from outside of the agency's site is a one way to increase your rankings on search engines beyond the agency sites.


(This article is one in an occasional series for hobby and professional photographers. If you would like to learn about scanning photographs, slides, film, and negatives, take a few moments to read our article Scanning Photos.)






Average: 2.5 (109 votes)

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Thanks for tips and advice.

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