There are various types of metadata that are embedded by default into many image file formats, especially the file formats that come out of cameras like JPG and RAW files. If you’re posting photos to your website, you might be wondering whether including that metadata might actually help your site’s SEO or the visibility of your images in Google image search.
Various writers have speculated that it does help. Others have argued that it doesn’t. I can’t claim to be able to settle it definitively, but it’s worth revisiting what Google themselves have said on the topic.
Trying to get straight answers out of Google on what is and isn’t factored in by their search ranking algorithms is often hard. This case is no different. The secret sauce that goes into Google’s search ranking algorithms is immensely complicated, top-secret, and constantly changing. So trying to get a straight and conclusive answer to questions like this is always tough.
The most direct answer I know of is several years old now. In 2014, Matt Cutts, who at the time was head of Google’s webspam team, had this to say about the specific question of whether Google uses EXIF metadata as a ranking factor:
Here’s a transcript:
Today’s question comes from Christian [Oliveira], in Madrid, who asks: “Does Google use EXIF data from pictures as a ranking factor?”
The short answer is: we did a blog post in, I think, April of 2012, where we talked about it, and we did say that we reserved the right to use EXIF or another sort of metadata that we find about an image in order to help people find information. And at least in the version of image search as it existed back then, when you clicked on an image, we would sometimes show the information from EXIF data in the right-hand sidebar.
So it is something that Google is able to parse out, and I think we do reserve the right to use it in ranking.
So if you’re taking pictures, I would go ahead and embed that sort of information, if it’s available within your camera, because, you know, if somebody wants to eventually search for camera types or focal lengths or dates or something like that, it can be possibly a useful source of information. So I’d go ahead and include it if it’s already there. I wouldn’t worry about adding it if it’s not there. But we do reserve the right to use it as, potentially, a ranking factor.
In September 2017, John Mueller, also from Google, was asked on Twitter whether there had been any update since Cutts’s answer. Mueller’s response, in full, was: “This is still the same as before.” Which is kind of helpful . . . I guess.
So, as often happens with Google’s answers, it’s a firm maybe. They clearly have the ability to scan that information and have used it for display purposes in the past, but whether they use that information to help determine search rankings isn’t clear.
By the way, the 2012 blog post that he referred to is this one: 1000 Words About Images. Metadata is only one small piece of that post, and there’s enough else in there to make it worth reading even several years later.
Other Image Metadata
Aside from camera and lens types, a logical field for Google to look at is the embedded time and date, which can be useful for Google’s image search filter. For various reasons, the file creation date might be less reliable than the embedded EXIF date, especially for derived copies used on the web.
But if we take the same logic, in many cases, the IPTC metadata would often be more useful for search ranking than the EXIF metadata. That’s because it’s more likely to include information such as location1, relevant keywords, and, ideally, descriptive information in the form of captions and titles. There’s also the potential for a much richer understanding of what the image is.
The catch, of course, is that it would be pretty easy to game the system in much the same way that the old-school keywords HTML tags were abused.2
To Keep or Not to Keep Image Metadata
So Matt Cutts basically said to leave the EXIF metadata if it’s already there. That’s easy enough to do, but there’s a situation where you might decide that it’s the wrong course to take. And that’s if you’re looking to optimize your image files for the web.
Many of the image optimization apps and services take a two-pronged approach to squeeze as much redundant information out of the files as possible.
The first prong is to work on the file’s data that makes up the visible image. They can reduce the tonal range, consolidate similar pixels, and reduce some of the detail. If you use lossless compression, that will have no impact on the quality of the visible image. If you use lossy compression, it might have some perceptible effect on the image quality.
The second prong is to strip out the image’s metadata. That includes EXIF, IPTC, and colorspace chunks. So when you’re optimizing your images, you’ll have to decide if you want to keep that metadata in the file on the chance it offers SEO benefit, either now or in the future, or strip it out to milk the most possible speed from your site. Some image optimization services let you choose whether to strip the metadata; some don’t. In practice, the portion of the file size taken up by metadata is quite small with larger images, but it can make a big difference, proportionally, for smaller images.
I’ve chosen to strip out the metadata when I optimize my images for the web. And while I can’t point to any data to support it, I’m personally not convinced that the metadata is offering any significant SEO right now–at least, not enough to override the benefits of better-optimized images. I use a lot of images on my sites, making them the area where there’s the most opportunity to reduce my site loading times significantly.
But it’s very much a judgment call. Until Google says explicitly one way or the other whether EXIF and IPTC metadata factors into search rankings, we’re all left to make our best guess.
How to Display EXIF Metadata in WordPress’s Media Library
I’ve posted a snippet separately that provides a quick way to display some key EXIF metadata in WordPress’s Media Library. You can find it here.
- GPS coordinates can be included in EXIF metadata, but most cameras don’t record that directly. Photos from smartphones are much more likely to include granular location information, which is not always a good thing in terms of privacy. ↩
- EXIF metadata can also be manipulated, but it’s often more difficult for average users to do so. ↩