The Grey Matters: Image Titles

Matters of real consequence need hard and fast rules: at iStockphoto, 'real consequence' means how images are created, uploaded, organized, bought, and sold, as well as how community members use (and behave while using) the site.

But just as in a real community, iStock has unwritten rules, generally accepted practices, codes of ethics (which tend to be learned by doing) and a whole other set of rather vague community dos and don'ts which members pick up as they hang around the place.

We're here to shed some light on the grey areas, one at a time. The topics covered here aren't gospel, but hopefully you'll get a better understanding of why we do the things we do. This week's topic: Image Titles.

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Image Titles

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(Disclaimer: Before you throw your coffee mug through the computer screen: this is not the introduction of a new iStock policy. You will not be required to move back through your portfolio disunambiguretitleappraisating each and every file. Best Match does not have anything to do with image titles. Everything is going to be all right.)

Strictly speaking, the titles you give your images have no real bearing on what happens to them here at iStock. Image titles are not included in a file's keywords, and as such have absolutely nothing to do with its search results. Our only real rule is that contributors do not try and fool the alphabetical Title sort option by resorting to Yellow Pages tactics: no AAA Loaf of Bread, in other words. You may use numerals when they have something to do with the subject (like '45 Calibre Bullet) but not to move yourself up the alphabet ('123 Vector Silhouette').

Beyond that, you're on your own. We don't even spell check your titles through the Controlled Vocabulary, so you're free to screw up however you want. Right now you probably fall into one of three standard titling attitudes:

Accuracy Never Hurt Anybody: You strive constantly to ensure that the few words which go into your title field sum up the soul of your image. You are concise, you stick to the facts. Your black and white photograph of a toaster oven on a counter is called Toaster Oven on Counter Top (Black and White). Your vector map of Antarctica is called Vector Map of Antarctica. You do not fool around.

The Man Can't Hold Me Down: Everywhere you turn, the powers that be try to limit your creativity with rules, rules, and more rules. So you will exploit any rule-free text field you come across to the fullest limit of your unconfined artistic spirit. Every one of your images expresses an ineffable truth and the title is the key to seeing its elusive heart. Your masterpiece (a black and white photograph of a toaster oven on a counter top) is called Everything That Can Be, Will Be. Your vector map of Antarctica is called The Last Empty Space. You compose masterful Haikus while waiting for your images to be approved.

I Do Not H@cking Care: It doesn't matter what the titles are, does it? There's only so many minutes in a day, you want me to waste them thinking about words? Your images are all called Still Life, Model, Landscape, and, often, Image. You stopped reading this article after the fourth paragraph.

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Do Titles Matter?

[/color] So why is it even worth wasting time and typing over a discussion of image titles if they don't really matter at all anyway? Well, they matter a little bit.

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Search Engines

[/color] The URL attached to each of your images includes the title — in fact, it's one of the first things that appears in there. This doesn't matter in any way to iStock's search engine, but it does to Google. Here at iStock we put a lot of effort into Search Engine Optimization. There's a whole lot of care that goes into ensuring every time your great aunt Ida turns on the computer and searches for a Stock Picture of Anything, iStock images are among the first things she finds.

When your great aunt Ida looks for a picture in Google, she is probably looking for something specific: a tea kettle, a golden retriever, maybe even a map of Antarctica. Google isn't going to find your images keywords, but it will find the title, so if you've got a simple, accurate title that describes your subject, you are more likely to appear directly in an initial Google search.

So if I go back and retitle every single one of my images Sexy Corporate Business Christmas Handshake, I'll show up in every single Google search from now on, right? No, Google doesn't work that way. They pick the best of a whole string of similar results and discard the rest. So 'spamming' your titles isn't going to push your portfolio straight to the top. But more specific image titles give your images a better chance of appearing in Google searches, and will mean that iStock in general turns up more often. The cumulative effect of a more accurately titled collection will be better Google indexing across the board, which means more traffic and more sales.

If you need to title your images artistically to avoid going crazy, we won't ban your IP address. The important rule is still with regards to fooling with the alphabetical 'sort by title' option. The Inspection team will reject images with titles that look suspiciously like towing company names or pizza delivery services. But we do feel that it's a good practice to base your image titles on a simple summary of the image's content, in order to best maximize our external search engine performance.

Image Credits

Single Cherry Tomato by jerryhat