The Importance of Keywording: If clients can’t find your image, they certainly can’t buy it

© pariwatlp, Laures

4167875 © pariwatlp 3752908 © Laures

The business of being a stock photographer requires contributors to wear many different hats. Creating images that are both conceptually and technically sound with best-selling potential is no small task.  However, the duty of keywording and captioning those images effectively is just as important.

This point cannot be stressed enough. If clients can’t find your image through a targeted, descriptive keyword search, they will not be able to buy a license for it. This part of your workflow is every bit as important as image creation, and should not be treated as an afterthought. If you want to market your own work effectively within a large collection, keywording is one of the most powerful tools you can employ.


© orsonsurf, domencolja

3840997 © orsonsurf 884537 © domencolja

Although Crestock contributors hail from all across the globe, our website only supports American English language keywords and captions. By including characters, accents, or punctuation from other languages or alphabets, your images will be rejected by our systems due to “keywording concerns”. To avoid the frustration of having to resubmit images for this reason, please check your spelling at the upload stage.

The English language is full of exceptions and pitfalls. Beware of homophones, which are words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently. “Carrots” are vegetables, while “carats” describe the size of a diamond, for example. If you apply the wrong keywords and our editors do not catch your mistake, your images will be omitted from search results – or appear in the wrong ones. This will frustrate clients and negatively impact your sales.

Location, Location, Location!!!

© LoopAll, tawng

1367436 © LoopAll 884912 © tawng

For travel and scenic images, there is a school of thought that claims you can increase sales by excluding location information. That is bad advice. In the “age of information”, few end users would risk using an image of a generic beach to promote tourism in Barbados without confirmation that this is the true location. Of course you can also include conceptual keywords so your image comes up under “vacation”, “beach”, or “paradise”. But omitting locations, or even worse: adding multiple locations that are not accurate, is bad for your business.

Don’t overlook the obvious

© pressmaster, ElinaManninen

1044066 © pressmaster 4332122 © ElinaManninen

Keywording is a tedious manual process, so there is plenty of room for human error. This is especially true when you are keywording large batches of images one by one, or trying to cut and paste multiple keywords to a series of related images.

Before you get ahead of yourself with overly conceptual keywords, make sure you cover the basics first. When keywording an image of a puzzle, for example, it’s certainly advantageous to add conceptual keywords such as “innovation”, “game”, and “solution”. But if you forget to add the basic keyword “puzzle”, your images won’t be seen by clients who are searching for the very thing you photographed. This may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often we receive submissions at Crestock where images are missing basic descriptive terms.

“Child/ parent” keywords are important too. This does not refer to images of happy families, but rather words that are closely related to each other without being synonyms. An example of this would be adding the keywords “flower” and “plant” to an image of a “poppy”.

Compound words present another potential area for confusion because not all microstock sites handle them in the same way. For example, if you search “candycane” on Crestock’s website you get a return of 71 images, but if you enter “candy” and “cane”, you get a return of 949 images. When in doubt, it is advisable to add compound words such as “snowflake”, but also the separate terms “snow” and “flake”.

Sometimes less is more

Modern interior of living room with black chandelier © vicnt at

2856237 © vicnt

According to Crestock’s “Frequently Asked Questions”, each uploaded image must have at least 10 keywords but no more than 50. Just because the system will accept 50 keywords does not mean you should try to stretch your keywords in order to reach that threshold. When keywording an image, ask yourself two questions:

  1. What is the image OF?
  2. What is the images ABOUT?

For example, the above image depicts a modern living room with a large a chandelier. Start by describing the elements of that room that are prominent and relevant. Keywords that describe “what the image is” would include “living room”, “livingroom”, “room”, “chair”, “table”, “chandelier”, “furniture”, and “wallpaper”. Keywords that describe “what the image is about” could include “modern” and “interior design”. There is a tiny vase of flowers sitting on a table, but do not add “vase” and “flowers” as keywords because this is not what the image is of, or what it is about. Clients looking for images of flowers will not want to see images of a modern living room in their search results unless the flowers are prominent.

Plurals: It is not necessary to add plural forms of keywords. Crestock’s search function manages plural forms for you.

Articles and prepositions: DO NOT include articles or prepositions such as “the”, “in”, “on”, “a”, “and”, “this”, or “but”. They are unnecessary and only add clutter – no one is ever going to do an image search for the word “the”.

Photograph/image: DO NOT include the keywords “photograph” or “image” to describe the format of your image. These words should be reserved for describing the content of an image – i.e. if there is a prominent photograph hanging on the wall in your image, then “photograph” would be an appropriate keyword in this case.

Horizontal/vertical: It is not necessary to include the words “horizontal” or “vertical” to describe image orientation because the Crestock website determines this based on image dimensions and orientation.

Be sure to include the main words of your captions/ descriptions in your keywords as well. Website search algorithms are always changing, so you can’t rely on captions being a searchable field. To play it safe, make sure you include those main words in both places.

Keyword Spamming

Adding as many targeted, appropriate keywords as is reasonable is the best way to market your images within a microstock collection. This is not to be confused with “keyword spamming” which is the practice of deliberately attaching incorrect keywords to an image in an effort to increase its appearance in search results. This is done as a deliberate attempt to manipulate search algorithms – and it’s a bad practice.   Expanding your keywords to include inappropriate terms in an attempt to make your images appear at the top of more search results will do nothing but annoy buyers.

If someone is looking for an image of a puppy, they are not going to buy an image of a tomato instead simply because it pops up in their search results – and you will surely alienate the customer in the process.

Most microstock agencies have systems in place to filter images containing keyword spam from getting into the collection. Instead of trying to beat the system through the use of keywords, your best chance at driving sales is to produce a steady flow of high quality images paired with a clear, concise, and appropriate list of keywords. Quality images that are easy to find will sell themselves.

Don’t compete against yourself

© iko, gemenacom

313720 © iko 3385209 © gemenacom

The other practice we frequently see at Crestock is the resubmission of similar (and sometimes identical) images to those already on file, but with different keywords applied. This does not go unnoticed. Instead of expending energy re-keywording old images and filling your collection with tons of similars, a better use of time would be shooting new material and diversifying your collection.

Clients only need to see a concise visual representation of a shoot to determine whether or not the images meet their needs. By having variety and depth of subject matter in your image offering, you increase your chances of appealing to many clients. Keep in mind the cost incurred by your agency to edit and re-edit duplicate submissions. Not only does it take up valuable editing resources, but it also causes clients to go elsewhere to purchase their stock images.

Although the best strategy for success as a microstock contributor requires the juggling of several elements, you can still keep it very simple. The first step is to produce quality photography or illustration that has been executed with attention to detail. The next step is to edit the work down considerably and weed out those images that have technical problems such as lack of focus or “off moments”. Once you have reduced the number of similars so only the best representation of the shoot is left, the task of keywording those images is much less demanding. Moreover, by keeping your keyword lists concise and targeted you are also maximizing the likelihood of your images actually reaching a buyer’s shopping cart.

Allison Hobbs

Allison Hobbs has over 12 years of experience in the stock photography business as both an Editor and Art Director. She has considerable experience producing, casting, styling and art directing large budget stock shoots locally and abroad. Allison also has a Bachelor of Applied Arts degree in still photography from Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto (1998) and is a talented photographer. She contributes to several microstock agencies in her spare time – so she understands a photographer’s perspective very well.

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