Local Mobile Image Thumbnail SERPS – It’s All About Context

Last December we started seeing thumbnails in the mobile local organic results. What was obviously a test then became more visible over the summer and starting last month, became widely visible.

It is a mobile only feature that made me and several clients curious. How was it triggered? Why & when does it show?

Why it matters?

These images create significant eye candy in the organic local mobile results. I have not yet seen click through rate studies but I have to think that having an image will serve an organic result well in terms of increasing click through rates. Even when these images are lower on the page.

How I tested

After struggling with viewing these on my phone,
I created a desktop test environment that included Chrome and a mobile browser emulator that allowed me to look at mobile, desktop and source for the page in a side by side way.

It’s all about file name and image alt tags, NOT

When I started this project in late summer, I assumed that image file names and image alt tags would play a big role in Google’s use of these images in search.

That turned out to not be true. In fact those factors were the least correlated with whether an image showed of all the factors I did look at.

Out of my sample of 20 only 4 sites were using meaningful file names AND a relevant image tag.

Clearly alt tags and file names had such a low correlation with whether the image showed, that it forced me to look further afield for stronger correlations. While these more technical features might impact the result they were not a clear and consistent driver.

I would even suggest that the low incidence of these image attributes across the web is what lead Google to start looking at alternative ways to understand images on the page.

What is it about? Context

While I did notice early on was that context seemed to be significantly more important than image name and alt tag. So I increased my examination of contextual signals to find better correlations.

I looked at which image Google used, its position on the page, image relationship to the main body copy and the relationship of the search query to the page Title Tag and H1 tags.

What I found

  • Google is ignoring top of page images like logos, images in navigation and most carousels when choosing which image to show in the mobile SERPS.
  • The image that was used was most likely to be the first image in the main body copy of the site. On most of the pages there were multiple images embedded in the main content on the page beyond the first one.
  • 19 of the 20 images that showed up in the search results were above the fold on the web page.
  • While generally it was true that Google picked the first image in the body, in two of the 20 instances when there was a row of images, the image picked was the last of a row of images.
  • On mobile search results that showed the image there was a near 100% correlation  between the page Title Tag and the search query. In 15 of the 20 cases there was a H1 tag that closely matched the query as well.
  • I don’t think that it is the Title or H1 tags per se that is causing the image to appear, but I do believe that when the overall context of the page matches the search query and there was an eligible image, then Google is likely to show the image.

Most of my searches that did show the image in the search results were higher frequency head terms.  The pages are more  likely to be optimized for the search phrase and the concept.

I hypothesized that if these context clues of Title Tag and H1 were critical then there would be many fewer images on very long tail local queries.

That in fact, turned out to the be case. Searchng for “ob-gyn in Santa Monica” would return images while a search for “female ob-gyn Santa Monica” or “best female ob-gyn” would consistently not surface images. This was generally true across many long tail searches that I tried.

Google’s New Image Search Algo seems to be the driving force

This all makes sense given Google’s recent announcements about their Image search algo.

Cyrus Shepard summarized the above in a tweet to say:

I had come to the same conclusion several weeks ago and it was nice to have confirmation: relevance of the page is a driving force behind the images being shown in the local mobile search results.

Some Tips if you are trying to control what appears in the local mobile search results

For sure:

  • Make the image the first image in the main content area and make it central to the page content
  • Make sure that the page is topically relevant to your targeted search query with good architecture including title Tags & H1 tags.

Some possibilities that might have an impact:

  • I am not sure if Google is using machine learning to understand the image content but they might be so it doesn’t hurt from a user and long term Googly perspective to make the image contextually appropriate to the target phrases of the page.
  • While alt tags and file titles do not seem to drive these results, they couldn’t hurt and might allow Google to show different images to show for different search results. That is TBD.

Some style thoughts

  • Either center weight the content of the image so that the important things exist in the middle of the image or make the image square. Otherwise Google will crop the image with unintended consequences.
  • Make sure that the image scales down to small sizes well. Google will display the image at slightly more than 100 pixels wide. If the image is too complicated or shot too far away it will not scale down well.
  • Make sure that the image is one that you really want to highlight. When I saw this image of the empty desk for the lawyer, it made me laugh and my first thought was: “If he is not at his desk working, he might not be willing to work for me”.

There May be More than meets the eye*

In the new world of SEO,  it would appear that technical tweaks like image alt tags and file names are not as important as the context of the page. But the new image search algo is but a small part of much bigger changes that are occurring in search.

These results are mobile only and we are likely seeing more of them now that mobile first indexing has really taken off.

As Cindy Krum is wont to say it’s more entity first indexing than mobile first indexing and with this new tech Google is looking to understand not just the people, places and things of the orignial Knowledge Graph. Google is now trying to understand a “topic layer” of the graph…

“We’ve taken our existing Knowledge Graph—which understands connections between people, places, things and facts about them—and added a new layer, called the Topic Layer, engineered to deeply understand a topic space and how interests can develop over time as familiarity and expertise grow.

The Topic Layer is built by analyzing all the content that exists on the web for a given topic and develops hundreds and thousands of subtopics. For these subtopics, we can identify the most relevant articles and videos—the ones that have shown themselves to be evergreen and continually useful, as well as fresh content on the topic. We then look at patterns to understand how these subtopics relate to each other, so we can more intelligently surface the type of content you might want to explore next.”

Obviously Local sits at the bottom of the funnel of the customer journey. In local we have long seen the impact of the Knowledge Graph and how it impacted results.

But now we are just starting to see the beginnings of how these relationships and new ones identified by Google will impact organic results as well.

From where I sit, images is just the first of many changes in organic results as Google learns more and more about the virtual world through its lens of entities and topics.

* for an extended conversation about these bigger changes watch Joel Headley at 7:10 of this video

Please consider leaving a comment as your input will help me (& everyone else) better understand and learn about local.
Local Mobile Image Thumbnail SERPS - It’s All About Context by

10 thoughts on “Local Mobile Image Thumbnail SERPS – It’s All About Context”

  1. Any insights about image captions? They are sort of a cross between a technical element and actual content.

    1. @yan
      Given the manual nature of this and the lack of testing, I was only able to see the minimum things that Google needs to actually show images. Obviously its not very much.

      As to what would give a webmaster more control of which image shows for which search, that would require testing. I have seen that image alt tag can help Google pick from amongst images. But I have no idea whether a caption would do so as well. It certainly couldn’t hurt.

  2. Mike,
    This is a fantastic report! I did very similar research 2 weeks ago on a e-commerce head term and had (not as many) the exact same conclusions looking only at the mobile versions of the pages. I also found a correlation that for an image to be displayed the image had be full width in the mobile view. In my examples the E-commerce category pages that had 2 column tables with text and an image did not have an image snippet.

  3. wow I would of agreed with you on file name and alt text being a driving factor but there you have it context folks. Great summary Mike appreciate your effort in sharing these tips.

  4. @shane
    The best hyposthhesis is one that can be easily disproved.

    That being said I assume, like noted above, that alt tags and file names might give the webmaster/seo some small measure of control over which image shows.

  5. I was recently looking at this for a client for a specific query where other sites were displaying images and his was not, and something one might expect to find in these cases is Schema.org markup used for the images… right?
    Wrong. I don’t recall seeing it in any of the instances. Good thing that markup is being put to good use 😀

  6. @Kerry
    I think Google is looking for more generally available signals..alt tags, schema etc are so little used that Google has come up with a broader solution.

    Were you able to figure out what you needed to change?

    1. @Mike, I think you are right. In that instance, there was no imagery on the home page except several large banner-like background images. I suggested adding a specific image that would be more thumbnail-friendly, but it hasn’t been done yet.

      I now have another client requesting the same thing, and he already has a couple images that seem good enough to display that aren’t, and yet his competitor has one that seems of a lower quality. Go figure. More research to continue…

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