How can you optimize your keywording?

Photographers, photo agencies, image researchers are all linked through information. Information about the images. Information describing the images. Keywording is key to sell, retrieve, find or manage photos, whether on sales platforms, in internal databases or elsewhere. Properly assigned keywords enable a photographer to communicate with the potential customer. The quality of keywording to a large extent defines the value of the images, as images which cannot be found logically have no value at all.

There seem to be endless possibilities to optimize your own keywording. Which optimizations though make sense? Take into consideration the platforms you will publish your images to, as these all come with certain functions which influence the way you (should) keyword. This becomes especially clear if you need to decide which keyword-variants should be added. Should you use singulars only, or add plurals as well? How about synonyms, declensions and word combinations (expressions)? Which ones add value and which are obsolete?


All the information you put together is meant to help the image researcher find the proper assets. Who is searching for “three kids” should be presented with a nice selection of children in a group of three. However, if the word “kid” or “kids” is not available, and you only can search for “child” or “children”, the results returned might be zero. How to optimize this scenario? There are 2 options: Either by better keywording you have to add plurals and synonyms, or the search engine has some intelligent features and includes a synonyms database which is used during searching. As a rule of thumb: The less intelligence the search engine has, the more keywords should be added (and vice versa).

Experience shows that many image researchers only use few keywords to search with. If that search does not return results, it is quickly interpreted that no images are available – and people leave your website for other options. But probably you have the right images, and the researcher or client only struggles with wrong or insufficient keywords. People search differently. Good keywording acknowledges the different ways people search. To add synonyms can be a solution (add “kid” as a synonym to “child”).

Not every keywording software allows to add plurals or synonyms. KIM Keywording works with a hierarchical keyword structure in which every position in the hierarchy has fields for singulars, plurals as well as synonyms.

Platform and image users

If you process images for several platforms you will see that these platforms frequently require different keywording approaches. Optimizing keywords for a specific platform can immediately increase sales or improve search results. Harmonizing keywording is a key to optimize search results. To do so you need to know what the requirements for each platform are.

Specialized archives or internal databases often need specific keywords to match the focus, topic or industry. There even can be phrases which have no use outside a company, but are essential within the company (for example: corporate wording, shooting references, the names of marketing campaigns, etc.). For these situations and to optimize keywording you need knowledge about the special words and phrases.

Criteria for exclusion

Keywording needs several components for a sound approach: An analysis of technical options, the differentiation in keywords used and so-called criteria for exclusion. Criteria for exclusion are words used to exclude certain images. A word like “nobody” (synonym: “noone”) can be used to find images which have no people in it. This is a helpful word to exclude certain images from your search, which would be difficult to achieve otherwise.

A criterion for exclusion also can be a category. Let’s say you want a team image, but not in a business setting, you would search for “team” and the exclusion criterion would be “business”. The search results would then show you images of teams, but leave out all the business style images. To add categories (general keywords) to your keywording greatly improves the image searchers ability to limit search results to his needs. If and how it is possible to exclude keywords from a search is different from website to website. As a keyworder you should prepare for it.

Benefits of general keywords

To summarize our findings so far: A keywording optimization can be achieved by a well-differentiated set of keywords, which include descriptive and precise keywords (boy, keychain, beach house, running…) along with more general phrases (people, architecture, business, sport…). More general keywords greatly improve the quality of keywording as they help to narrow down search results. To use a software with a hierarchical keyword structure let’s you add both types of keywords –entire strings– to your images.

Conceptional keywording

Apart from the description of the image content there are also conceptional keywords. “Retirement” or “health” are abstract keywords of this category. “Success”, “Network”, “Team” are more of these. Some conceptional keywords are easy to assign to certain images, while others are more difficult (though frequently the difficult ones are the important ones!).

Generally speaking the adding of conceptional keywords to images is tricky. It is not about what you see, but about how you interpret images. The interpretation of images though can change over time. A word like “modern” can be outdated in a few years. Conceptional keywords need a strategy, not just for the keywording itself, but also for maintenance over the years.

These thoughts are not complete and always must be evaluated against the background of your situation and needs. The following questions might help to get an evaluation started.

Evaluate the optimization

  • How intelligent is the search engine on your platform? Is there a database integrated which can cover declensions, synonyms, plurals and other linguistic specialties?
  • If you have some database included in your search engine: Which type of database and logic is used and can these databases be edited?
  • Do you need to add singulars, pluras, synonyms?
  • Do you have any internal phrases you need to include in your keywording (corporate wording, project names, etc.)
  • How long is the time span the images will be available for search? What is the best approach to make it work for that time span?
  • Do you have a keywording software which can cover your needs?