Keywording and Broccoli, Part Two

By Randy G. Taylor

In part one, 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).

Common Mistakes

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 specific space.

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 meanings.

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.

Avoid Mistakes

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 searches.

Top Do's

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, dinner, dining)

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 group?)

CONCEPT? What single, dominant concept or emotion could this image likely be used to convey? (ie., teamwork, success, safety, love, fun, etc.)

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS? Will someone want to buy this picture purely because the subject is fat, thin, exotic, feminine, hot, cool, etc?

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, still life)

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 sometimes.

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 airplane.

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 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, 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 … even if doing it yourself. And, of course, be sure that your investment returns to you the key asset - the keywords.

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 and provides the software that runs and 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/ All rights reserved. "Stock Media" is a registered trademark of Stock Media Corporation.

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