10 Myths of Keywording, and Why They're Busted

If some people are to be believed, Neil Armstrong never walked on the moon, 911 was the work of the US Government and Elvis is still alive. The world is awash with myths, and so it is with keywording.


We thought we'd generate a little debate by coming up with our own list of keywording myths and then busting them:

1. The more keywords you have the better.

Having more keywords can be useful. There is a calculator which shows that more comprehensive keywording increases your changes of having your images found exponentially. But this benefit accrues only to a point before you are guilty of creating keyword spam - masses of keywords of little or no relevance to the image/video . The trick is knowing what words to put in and what to leave out, which is best left to professional keyworders.

2. Having the best search software is the most important thing to make my website/archive easy to search

Good search software is great, but it won't make up for poor keywording. Putting too much reliance on fancy software and ignoring keywording is like going fishing with a fancy rod, but the wrong bait.

3. It doesn't matter if keyworders are working in a second language.

Any language, especially English, has nuances and subtleties which can be missed by non-native speakers. Keywording the obvious literal stuff may work okay, but once you get into concepts, historical events, celebrities or anything else requiring cultural knowledge the non-native speaker can quickly come unstuck. Ask yourself this, would you want someone keywording your images for the French market if all they had was high school French?

4. Getting photographers to do their own keywording is a great way to save money.

Photographers are great people, daring, artistic, creative, you name it. But keyworders they're not. Apart from the odd gifted individual, our experience of photographers' keywording is that it ranges from fair to apalling. More importantly, no two photographers keyword the same way, so the chance of getting any consistency in the database is negligible. We know of one company whose photogrpahers spelled the name Nicky Hilton six different ways.

5. Doing keywording inhouse is cheaper and easier then outsourcing.

It is rare that managers work out the true cost of inhouse keywording. Most focus on the hourly rate, but don't count overheads, the cost of training and recruiting, nor the money lost when keyworders don't have much to do and dawdle through their day.

6. Celebrity images don't need keywording because people just search using the name of the celebrity.

Once upon a time that would have been true, but as the number of images of celebrities skyrockets, only the tiniest of photo libraries could seriously adhere to this philosophy. When you search for "Britney Spears" and 20,000 records come up (true story) what are you going to do without keywords to narrow the search? Sadly many celebrity photo libraries make it rather hard for people to enter keywords or even find the search window, prefering to deal with the problem by limiting the results to say the most recent 1,000 images. What a pity the image the client wanted was image 1,001.

7. Spending money on keywording is something you do once you have the sales to pay for it.

This falls into the category of necessity dressed up as virtue. Many companies just don't have the cash to improve the keywording standards of their libraries and have to live with it. The obvious point is that if money was spent on keywording to improve sales in the first place the chances of being strapped for cash would be reduced. The same arguments are used to justify cutting back on advertising when times are tough. That doesn't work either.

8. No one complains about our poor keywording so we don't have a problem.

Possibly, but no complaints simply means no complaints. It's just as likely your clients have long since given up on your site and are buying from your competitors. Having a reputation for searchability is hard won and easily lost. Try searching your site and see if it's easy or difficult, then you might view the lack of complaints in a whole new light.

9. Getting sales staff or my secretary to do keywording during their down time is a good way to save money.

Money will be saved all right, but by the people who don't buy images from you. Getting untrained staff to keyword is a complete waste of their time and the resulting poor keywording will almost certainly harm sales. You'd be much better off getting the staff to do more or what they're actually good at.

10. In the celebrity business getting keywording isn't important because people only want the very latest images.

No doubt the latest images tend to sell best, but as Chris Anderson points out in his book The Long Tail, all those archive sales can add up to be even more than the earnings from the latest hits. To access those old images you need something a bit better than a cryptic caption or a three word headline. Unfortunately it is easy to be enthralled with the new images and forget the cold hard business logic of running a photo library which means putting as many images as practicable to work for you. You don't have to keyword every image in the archive, but ignoring it completely means your archive is more of a liability than an asset.