Updated: May 6, 2022
As Google’s search is becoming more visual, image optimization is becoming more and more important.
Image thumbnails appearing in organic search results impact click-through, build anticipation and may transform the user’s expectation of what the target URL is about.
Here’s how to optimize thumbnails to increase your Google organic click-through and improve on-page engagement:
Why Do Thumbnails Matter for Organic Visibility?
Google Mobile Search
Google is now showing an increasing number of thumbnails within mobile search result pages.
Images are well-known for attracting an eye and stealing clicks. This means that your visual assets may directly impact your organic click-through.
Since Google pretty much owns the search industry with 90% of market share and mobile devices send more than half of global traffic (Source of both the numbers: Industry Statistics by Oberlo), organic mobile click-through has to be taken really seriously:
With mobile SERPs (search engine result pages) becoming more visual and fast adoption of mobile devices globally (with website speed becoming a ranking factor), creating optimized image thumbnails has become key to building traffic from Google.
It is a good idea to set up some sort of monitoring to get alerted when your important SERPs have added new images or become more visual. Visualping is a great tool to see these up: Just copy-paste Google search URL, set tracking to a mobile device and choose your frequency:
The tool also has a Google Chrome extension to make tracking easier.
How to optimize YouTube thumbnails
YouTube video thumbnails let viewers see a quick snapshot of your video as they’re browsing YouTube. According to Youtube itself, the overwhelming majority (90%) of the best-performing videos on YouTube have custom thumbnails so they do impact video success.
YouTube Academy calls video thumbnails “billboards to help viewers decide to watch your videos”. Obviously, thumbnails help boost video discoverability and click-through.
YouTube thumbnails show up in different sizes across different platform sections, including suggested and related videos, Youtube search and Google’s organic results.
Here are a few examples of different sizes YouTube thumbnails can show up…
Youtube suggested videos:
Google search (video carousel):
Video and image thumbnails dominating SERPs:
Both video and image thumbnails in Google’s mobile organic search:
1. Create Clear Images that Look Good as Thumbnails
Take specific image recommendations into account
How to optimize thumbnails for Google SERPs:
I couldn’t find any solid research into this but from browsing dozens of SERPs, all of the organic thumbnails were square.
The optimized image must not follow the aspect ratio (Google will resize the image to make it square). But you may up with a messy thumbnail with essential parts of it lost:
(Keep your featured image square or make sure it still makes sense if made square)
How to optimize thumbnails for Youtube:
Youtube has very specific video thumbnail requirements:
- 16:9 aspect ratio
- Optimal resolution of 1280×720 (the minimum width of 640 pixels).
- Image formats: JPG, GIF, or PNG.
- Under the 2MB limit.
Venngage’s Youtube Banner maker offers a huge variety of Youtube templates to choose from:
Make sure the image content represents the query
Unless thumbnails deliver on their promise, they may send negative signals to Google and Youtube (as people will click but won’t stay to view/read).
Both Google and Youtube use engagement as ranking factors, so irrelevant image thumbnails may hurt your organic visibility on both the platforms.
On the other hand, making sure your images clearly convey the key information on the target URL sets the right expectations and may improve both the click-through and on-page engagement.
Therefore carefully designing an image that represents the target URL content and matches the search query is very important.
For example, if the target query has “numbers”, an image should feature numbers too: Powerful!
On the other hand, experimenting with seasonal trends and moods can be a great way to attract clicks. This optimized thumbnail is a perfect example of a visual asset that creates anticipation instead of taking a boring (and well-expected) movie-style approach:
Avoid too many details. Clarity and minimalism are key
You cannot influence how Google (or Youtube) displays your image. Most Google thumbnails I came across were quite blurred, regardless of the original image quality and dimensions:
But you can ensure your image looks good in different sizes (and even when blurred):
Clear image examples that clearly convey the target URL content and sets the right expectations as well.
Again, Venngage offers a variety of minimal templates to create a clear thumbnail image:
Make images informative
There’s a fine balance between making minimal images while making them informative, yet it can be done. Here’s a pretty solid example of an optimized thumbnail image that is both detailed enough to inform, yet still clear and minimal:
It is a good idea to add your brand name to those images as a watermark.
Use consistent branding
Visual content is a powerful brand builder, especially when used correctly. Consistent image branding can help you build brand recognizability through Google’s organic search. Basically:
- Use a consistent color palette
- Include your logo (or any other recognizable brand element)
Using Venngage brand kit for all your visual marketing efforts will help you ensure any visual assets your team produces will follow your established style and establish a brand’s cross-channel recognizability.
2. Help Google Choose the Right Image
Now all the above efforts may be in vain if Google fails to pick the right image to include in your page search listing or chooses to include no image at all.
There are no confirmed guidelines from Google that would help us get the right image thumbnail to appear in Google’s SERPs but:
- Following the fundamental image SEO recommendations helps. There are WordPress plugins that will make this step easier for you.
- Using these recommendations may help too
Beyond that, there are two advanced steps that are likely to help.
Match your image immediate context to the query (and search intent)
Google is paying more and more attention to search intent, i.e. what their users intent to find when typing those queries in the search box. Search intent is becoming the most important ranking factor out there. This impacts all Google optimization areas, including image optimization.
To ensure Google knows which image to feature within a search snippet:
- Include a meaningful image title (not just alt text). Here’s a quick tutorial on how to use image alt text and title and why we need both.
- Add a detailed image caption that would do the best job matching the search intent.
To create a well-optimized image caption that would match Google’s (and its users’) expectations, use Text Optimizer which is a semantic analysis tool that analyzes your target query and suggests how to optimize your content to include closely related and underlying concepts:
Pick 5-10 of these suggested concepts to create the most effective image captions!
Use Schema to markup the right image
Google has joined the Schema project because it needed help identifying and extracting the most essential elements from web pages. These days using Schema is the best way to point Google to the most fitting image:
- Article schema: Use these guidelines to specify the featured image
- Product schema: Use these guidelines to specify the main product image thumbnail
- Video schema: Use these guidelines to specify the video thumbnail
Furthermore, for more niche and specific content, you can use the following types:
- Recipe schema: There are plugins helping implement it
- For listicles, you can use carousel markup
- For event organizers, you can generate prettier search snippets using Event schema
- Image and video thumbnails have a direct impact on your site organic search visibility and click-through
- To create a successful thumbnail, make sure it is clear (to look good when resized or blurred) and conveys the content in the most effective way. This will help build anticipation (hence attract clicks) and sets the right expectations (hence prevent people from leaving right away)
- To make sure Google picks the right thumbnail to feature, use fundamental SEO practices, surround your image with the best-matching context and use structured markup.