There have been several articles I've seen in the past year that recommend adding embedded information to the images on your website in order to enhance your SEO (Search Engine Optimization)., These include "The Definitive Guide to SEO for Images: 6 Steps to Image-Ranking Success" by Stephen Chapman, and "How To Add Embedded Meta Data To Your Images For Relevant Image Search" from NateBal, (as well as 10 SEO image tips for photographers from a year ago) and more recently, How to SEO Your Images with Metadata by Radarroy. While the idea certainly has merit — and I'm all for encouraging the practice of added embedded metadata to increase findability and protect intellectual property — there is one hitch to what they propose. That hitch is that while it is possible for automated search bots to be configured to read the embedded photo metadata embedded in digital images, there is no evidence to suggest that the search engines are currently doing this; nor is there any evidence that it will help with the SEO for your images or your website — at least not without some additional work.
In July of 2011 Petapixel noted that Google Adds EXIF Data to Image Search though this only seems to be info gathered at the time the image was captured, and isn't used in any rating or ranking of images — and as noted, is only being used within the Google Image search area (note that this doesn't include IPTC metadata, which is what most of the articles above instruct you to add to your images).
That doesn't mean that embedding metadata is not a good practice. It's just at this point in time that it has little value for Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
of Photo Metadata
Embedded Metadata in Online Images
It is possible to read metadata that is contained in images on the web. There are online services — like the one built by Jeffery Friedl that leverages Phil Harvey's ExifTool — which can show you all sorts of information in your image files, including GPS. However, from the tests I've conducted, there is no evidence that the various embedded metadata schemas (IPTC, XMP, and Exif) are used by the major search engines (ie Google, Bing, and Yahoo). It is possible that they may be reading this information, but so far there is no reason to assume that it is being used, even if it is part of their algorithm.
I've added a unique ID string to the image above so that it can be used as a test. This 23 character string contains a unique letter and number combo that does not result in any "hits" on the Google, Bing, or Yahoo search engines (or Google's image search). Use the online tool mentioned above, or download and inspect the metadata using your favorite tool. The string is located in both the caption and the Job Identifier/Transmission Reference field.
Update November 19, 2011: This web page was spidered by the Google search engine (first cached on November 23, 2010). If Google is reading embedded photo metadata stored as IPTC-IIM or XMP, presumably you should be able to do a search on the 23 character string mentioned above and find this page. At this point in time, that is not the case.
When I talked with Marc Pawliger (who was then the Engineering Director for Digital Imaging at Adobe, responsible for Photoshop and Photoshop Elements engineering) at the Photo Plus Expo in October 2004, he remarked that Adobe had met with the Google engineers several times trying to persuade them to use the new XMP metadata format. If I recall correctly, his take was that the Google engineers were reluctant to use embedded photo metadata (like XMP) because the information was not easily readable by others, and they assumed that many web developers might "game" the image metadata, like they were (and still are) with the HTML meta tag elements.
Reason to Embed Metadata in Digital Images
The real reason to take the time to embed photo metadata — especially copyright and contact info — is that it provides a "trail of breadcrumbs" for tracking down the source of an image. Placing a credit line, or other ownership information below an image on a web page is all well and good. However, as soon as someone "right-clicks & downloads" that contextual information surrounding the image on the page is gone and lost forever.
Having metadata such as the Copyright and Credit fields in IPTC, or the Creator Contact Info, and Image Supplier fields in IPTC Core and IPTC Extension, makes it fairly easy to know where an image came from.
Metadata To the Search Engines
Another reason to take the time to add embedded photo metadata is that there are applications you can use for creating image galleries for the web which can leverage embedded photo metadata and "expose" it to the search engines. For instance, you can create image galleries with Expression Media, Adobe Bridge or Lightroom and have captions or other metadata shown below the image (this may require choosing specific web photo gallery templates, or customizing them to your needs). We do know that this "exposed" information can be read on a page is indeed indexed by Google and other search engines, and can then be used in ranking pages for specific searches. In addition, services like PhotoShelter and LicenseStream use a similar approach to make the photo metadata for the images you place into your account on their services "search engine friendly." In these instances the web server leverages your photo metadata to add text content to the page, and to do so automatically and with no further effort on your part.
Online services such as Flickr automatically read some of the embedded metadata fields and place that information into text on the web page that surrounds the image. If you do a search on a portion of the "Description" field in the image above, like "Three year old African American boy yells with joy on beach during vacation" you'll find a link to a version of that image that was uploaded to Flickr in conjunction with the promotion for an international Photo Festival that I spoke at in September of 2011. Since this text was part of the HTML, the search engine spiders did index that caption, and made it easy to find the image.
Image filenames are important, though it's important to keep in mind that the first thing many people do who download images is to change it to something that they find meaningful. Thus it may be useful to also embed the filename of the image into the metadata. There are a number of applications that can do this automatically. See http://www.controlledvocabulary.com/imagedatabases/filename2title.html for details.
Metadata is Fragile
However, the most distressing issue at present with using embedded metadata for images online is its fragility. At present over half of the various social media or photo sharing sites either remove all embedded metadata on upload, or remove it from images that are processed to intermediate preview and thumbnail images. For details on that issue, see the Controlled Vocabulary Survey regarding the Preservation of Photo Metadata by Social Media Websites.
Users need to test and verify their online services to ensure that metadata is preserved. If not, they need to ask their services why they are not preserving their photo metadata. After all, it will matter little whether or not search engines take advantage of embedded metadata, if this information is removed from images before they can be spidered by the search engines.
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Many thanks to John Beardsworth for feedback on this article.
Initial posting: November 19, 2010, updated, November 19, 2011