I love image link building as a tactic for acquiring great quality natural inbound links.
Ultimately, the whole thing is about creating images for people to use on their websites, distributing them under Creative Commons licensing and then claiming inbound links in the form of the relevant attribution.
It can land you some really decent links like these:
Image Link Building Examples
It’s not the only way to do it, of course. But it’s my personal approach. But if you fancy trying your hand at it, here’s my step by step approach.
- Research and Relevance: What Images Should I Produce?
- Acquiring or Producing Images At Various Budget Levels
- Hosting and Licensing Your Images
- Optimising and Distributing Images
- Tracking Image Usage
- Chasing Appropriate Attribution
1. Research and Relevance: What Images Should I Produce?
Deciding upon the right images to use in this process is critical. You have to make sure of 2 things:
- Demand: People will want your images and will therefore use them
- Relevance: They’re going to be used in a context relevant to your website
Let’s address relevance first.
You have a degree of control over this by carefully deciding what you release images of. If you’re a local business looking to generate leads in Manchester, then being featured on sites or pages about Manchester is relevant. People are hardly likely to use a photo of Manchester when they’re talking about Barbados, are they? So by releasing photos of Manchester, we can be confident that the context of the content around our attribution is likely to relate in some way to Manchester.
If your website is a little more corporate, let’s say, it won’t be as simple as local images FTW. But if you run a finance site, you could offer people alternatives to the over staged money related stock photographs they buy from big stock photo sites.
You’ll know from experience that trying to find a not-cheesy-free-to-use photograph to illustrate a blog post on a guide to debt management, for example, isn’t easy. So you could supply the photos.
Ultimately, ask yourself the context in which photos are likely to be used and whether that context is relevant.
It’s not particularly easy finding out how many people search specifically for images of a certain thing. Unfortunately. But there are tools that can act as a guide and inspiration in the process.
While the Keyword Planner doesn’t allow you to segment search volume by search type (image, web etc), Google Trends does.
When you filter by images only and scroll down, you get a ton of related queries:
That can give you some inspiration for other queries as well and you can repeat your Trends search with similar queries.
The output of this, for me, is usually a list of ideas of things/places it’s worth having photos of. I then move on and find out whether people are actually looking for photos of these things.
For any type of SEO activity requiring keyword research, I’m quite the fan of KWfinder.com. It’s an easy way to validate the levels of interest in the thing/concept you’re thinking about photographing. For example, if you’re thinking about producing a bank of images around Los Gigantes in Tenerife, you’ll want to know how much demand there is and any specific things relating to this area that people are looking for.
You’ll also be given some related queries that might be useful.
Within your Search Console’s Search Analytics data, you can filter queries to show just those that resulted in impressions in image search, as shown below:
This will only show data about queries that have resulted in your site showing up – so by no means a complete picture. But it will highlight any opportunities hidden on your site.
Look at impressions as an indication as to how many searches there might be over a given period (rather than being focussed on clicks – CTR can be affected by too many variables within images).
If you have one of the old Flickr pro accounts, you’ll get statistics about searches on Flickr itself driving traffic to your photos on a daily basis:
If you already have a bank of images (whether they’ve been used for link building or not) that data can give you an indication as to the demand for similar images.
Shutterstock Related Searches
Shutterstock sells stock photography. And each time you make a search on the site, you’re presented with a subtle list of related terms above the image listings:
These can provide some inspiration for other possible images too.
What’s Already Being Used?
- Run a Google search for the biggest query in your industry. Let’s say “loans,” for the purpose of this example. That will return the following (cheesy) selection of images:
2. Run a Google Reverse Image search for the first one (or few) results. In this case, we’ll see this:
That’s over 1,000 results.
Scroll though and look at instances of the image being used. If it’s being used that often, then regardless of whether you’re lacking search volume data, you can assume a demand there.
What You Need Here
Ultimately, using the above tools, you need to cobble together some ideas for images there’s a demand for relevant to your niche.
So you might decide something like:
- I want people to write about me in the context of Milton Keynes, so I’ll take a selection of images of landmarks around Milton Keynes
- Thousands of websites use the same overdone image of a loan approval stamp. I can create a free, less cheesy alternative to get me seen in the context of loans
- I want to be written about in the context of home improvements. Thousands of people search for “how to put wallpaper up,” each month. I’ll create a free visual how to
- I want to feature in content about divorce. Hundreds of websites are using the same handful of bad Creative Commons images of divorce. I want to create an image that ranks in image search for these and act as an alternative to it
In other words, by this point, you need a loose idea of what images would be relevant and useful for you to create.
2. Acquiring or Producing Images at Various Budget Levels
I’m a firm believer that any type of image can land you links, whether it’s:
- Landscape photography
- Stock style photography
- Typography based images
Hopefully, following your research, you’ll have an idea as to what sort of imagery you want to produce or acquire.
The next job is doing so.
I took some of my most successful link acquiring photographs out of an office window with an iPhone.
I’m not saying the only way to win is to take photos out of a window on your iPhone. I’m saying you do not need professional grade equipment, or even professional standard photography to create an image that will build links.
Of course, if you want to create stock style photography, the quality of the photography (and other key things like lighting and composure) will matter more than if you’re taking an amateur photo of a landmark.
There are various ways you can do this at various budget levels. Here are some ideas:
- For less than £100, you can set up your own product style photography area in the office. You’ll need a light tent and some lights as a minimum. And that doesn’t have to cost you the Earth. You could have the lights and tent at well under £100. You can then make a call as to whether you use a smartphone camera or you invest in a DSLR (you can get them from under £200). Personally, I went and got myself a Nikon D3200, which currently retails at just over £300.
- Hire freelance photographers (nail your paperwork down to ensure you take full ownership of images). You could even use students who just have an eye for a great photo! Advertise through universities or check out the usual freelancing sites. Whenever we’ve done image banks of overseas landmarks, we’ve used people who live in the area (not always photographers) and we’ve been able to get full banks of images for less than £50 in some cases.
- Images don’t have to be photos. Rates vary hugely, but you can use the freelancing websites to hire illustrators to create a bank of images for you.
3. Hosting and Licensing Images
Your next step is to decide where you’re going to host your images and the license under which you will release them.
Both of these have really straightforward answers in the process I use:
There are a few reasons for these choices.
- Typically ranks well in image search
- Handles licensing for you nicely and simply
- Has a large ready made audience there for you
- Is global – people and publications everywhere recognise it
- Sets out clear attribution guidance for people using images
- Users can search specifically for Creative Commons licenses using the filters in Google Image search, therefore increasing the likelihood of yours being found
- Creative Commons has its own widely used search engine
I have tried image link acquisition with self hosted images and using a couple of other platforms (albeit brief experiments rather than anything extensive) and keep reverting back to Flickr because of the sheer simplicity and audience size.
4. Optimising and Distributing
Optimising and distributing your images is ultimately about making sure they get found. There are 2 ways in which your images can be found if you’re hosting on Flickr:
- Through Flickr’s own internal search
- Through a Google Image search
Users can also make Creative Commons specific searches on both of these via the Creative Commons Search Engine:
So your images ranking well in either Flickr or Google for a common search will result in views.
The bank of images I find getting used most often is a bank of Manchester City Centre views, where I typically rank well in image search for queries that are suggestive of the user looking for images specifically:
Nobody wants to read about the sunset, do they? Surely people just want to see images, which goes a long way to explaining the many thousands of views these images get.
Getting them Ranking
This is basically on page SEO. When using Flickr as your host, my step by step is:
- Save files with a relevant filename (e.g. “Manchester Northern Quarter Sunset”)
- Create a keyword rich title for the album that will contain your bank of images on a similar theme
- Create a good description with relevant keywords for the album (e.g. “Manchester City Centre views from a skyscraper,” or “Free Creative Commons Stock photography related to finance”)
- Include “Creative Commons,” within the text on title and description where possible
- Upload images
- Ensure every single image has a unique, keyword relevant title
- Ensure each image has a unique, keyword relevant description
- Include a request within the description for users to credit you by linking to the appropriate website
- Make use of tags
- Add the better images to relevant groups to get them seen
- Add one or two to relevant Reddit channels, (either photography specific or even location specific if it’s a photo of a place) again to get them seen initially. This is with a view to clocking up views early on, which will influence “thumbs up,” and in turn your Flickr ranking
You can see an example of the title, description and tags etc on the image I have that ranks first for “Manchester City Centre Sunset,” at https://www.flickr.com/photos/staceycav/8561009843/in/album-72157633008889696/.
Note: I have photos with ten times the views of this one. But this is the one that has landed a handful of really great links.
Another that has done really well is this one.
Super Important: Make sure your license is set to Creative Commons. You can actually change your default license under the Flickr settings so all images upload under this license straight away.
Also important: I’m not challenging with these photos for rankings for the broad term, “Manchester.” It’s too generic and too tough to compete quickly enough. So consider medium-ish tail variants for quicker traction and usage.
5. Tracking Image Usage
The next step is track people using your images. There are several ways to do this:
Manual Google Reverse Image Search
Through images.google.com, you can look up any image either by uploading it or pasting its URL in the search field and you can find sites using this image.
Pros: Free! Easy to use.
Cons: Manual. One image at a time. Not scalable.
A tool I love is https://www.pixsy.com/. These guys make their money by helping photographers whose images are being used without permission to claim appropriate compensation. Of course, that does not apply for this tactic. For the time being, the searches themselves are free. Though this could change in the future.
Pros: Free for image checks. Scalable.
Cons: A manual reverse image search typically uncovers more image usages than Pixsy does. But I think Pixsy has the most comprehensive results of any tool I’ve tried.
TinEye Alerts is another tool that will track usage and notify you. This is commonly used, I believe, for people to enforce copyright etc and get images taken down, but can very easily be used to track usage to claim attribution.
Pros: Reliable. Scalable.
Cons: Starting at $300/month, it is more expensive than other solutions on the market
Moz Fresh Web Explorer
Moz Fresh Web Explorer is part of the Moz Pro Suite. While it doesn’t have specific functionality to track images, what you can do is set certain alerts with certain rules. For example, you can be alerted if someone mentions your brand, “Creative Commons,” and does not include a link.
Pros: Near real time alerts straight to your inbox
In image link building, tracking usage is one of the biggest parts of the process. Do get a solution in place. If you’re starting small (with just a single bank of images, for example) and need to prove the concept before investing budget, then you really can start by doing monthly manual checks.
I typically find it takes a couple of months to start seeing usage instances. Don’t despair if there is nothing on day 1!
It’s also worth noting that from a bank of 50 images, you might find that 5 or 6 get all the love and lots of them are rarely seen. This is, in part, a numbers game too.
People Will Ignore Your Attribution Instructions
An annoying fact: even if you use your description to explicitly explain where you would like users to link to, most of them won’t. It’s just a fact you have to accept about image link building.
They’re not being rude. Most of them won’t even see your description and will assume, as the license suggests, they can link to Flickr as the source.
I looked at attribution data from thousands of usage instances of photos I’ve been involved in distributing:
- 3% attributed correctly with the appropriate link the first time
- 30% attributed by linking to Flickr
- 23% mentioned Creative Commons, Flickr and/or the image owner, but included no link
- 44% did not attempt to credit
Possibly the most manual task in this whole process is chasing for attribution!
Some tips before you start:
- Make it a regular scheduled activity (we do it twice a month and it is in some of the team’s task list)
- Use tools like Boomerang to remind you to chase up
My process for this:
- Gather a list of email addresses from the website using your images
- Write an email that includes a link to the image and the attribution instructions on Flickr, importantly, a big thank you to the website for using your image and a polite request to update the attribution accordingly. Be nice 🙂
- Set reminders to chase up
Ultimately, accept that some people will never get back to you. Look at the positives:
- If they’re linking to Flickr, it will be helping your image to show up in search
And if they’re not linking at all – well, you could pursue it. But I’ve always considered this a lot of time investment for nothing really.
Measure and Refine!
Work out which images are working for you and use the data to learn and refine your process.
Email me! My email address is in the footer of the site and I’m always happy to chat about image link building or wider SEO tactics and approaches.