Capel on Keywording - Alamy Sheds Light on its Keywording Philosophy

Alamy Images' Head of Content, Alan Capel, gives some insights into the business of keywording and how Alamy structures its metadata.

Keywording, keywording...just how mind-blowingly, soul destroying an activity can this be?  This is what I usually hear when I talk to Photographers about keywording.

Many of these photographers remember the days when all they had to worry about was getting the right shot and getting the slides off to the library.  Words associated with images was the responsibility of the agency. You could help by captioning the images but that would probably stretch to the location of the shoot and cursory description of the content.  I often had to work with a landscape, a rough idea of where the photographer had been and an awful lot of travel guides to try to correctly describe the image in hand.   I still amaze people by recognizing obscure monuments from around the world, my friends think I’m such a well travelled person but the experiences  were 100% vicarious.



As we all know, times have changed and in tandem with the brave new world of digital imagery came the need for comprehensive and insightful keywording.

It used to be all about the image but now it’s all about the image and the ability to describe and contextualize it.

Some photographers abdicate this responsibility to keywording companies,  others choose to do it themselves. As one gnarled veteran photographer told me, “yes I do my own keywording but I have to buy a bottle of gin to get me through it!”  I’d imagine his keywording starts off quite relevant and then probably ventures into the realms of surreal and ends up downright obscure!  So I’m not advocating alcoholic assistance but help is at hand.

a number of keywording companies offer specialist keywording services whereby they will keyword your images for you. You do need to provide basic caption info but they will do the rest.   They will not only cover the literal aspect of your image - is it daylight, is there a tree in it?  But also what emotions and concepts does the image evoke?  These are fundamentals that are vital if you are looking to catch the eye of the creative image buyer.

Other companies have developed keywording software where you can continue to do the work yourself but semantic networks and hierarchical keyword structures lighten the mental load. In the long run they are probably cheaper than the gin option and certainly better for your general well being.

At Alamy www.alamy.com we have an ever-growing, diverse collection and it very quickly became clear that just having a single keyword field meant was not going to be sustainable. It was no help to customers when a search for ‘dog’ returned a dog head shot found on the same page as an image in which the dog is miles away, obscured in the background.

I’d long been an advocate of having something called ‘super keywords’.  I could usually look at an image and sum up its principle relevant search terms in a matter of a few words. The rest was padding, albeit often important padding to further contextualize the image.

So at Alamy we introduced three fields .  The essential keywords field is only 50 characters long and this is where you put your crown jewels in terms of the key words.  The most important terms go in here. If the image shouts ‘freedom’ make sure it’s an essential keyword.  If the image is of a couple arguing it’s about ‘relationships’,’arguments’ and ‘stress’ and it’s probably very little about the colour of the model’s hair or the fact that they are sitting in a garden. That’s why keywords are key words.

We then have two further tiers.  The main keywords field gives you 300 characters to play with and you can usually exhaust the most relevant terms by using this field.  Finally there is the comprehensive keywords field which you may well use if you are generating synonyms of your preferred terms. Remember, even though a hierarchical tree with a semantic network of synonyms ‘tells’ you that ‘autonomy’ means the same as ‘freedom’ which of these two words will a searcher use when looking for images to promote adventure holidays? Cue booming voice… “experience the autonomy with Adventurehols..” I don’t think so.  So please check any auto-keywording for relevancy.

If the word the customer is searching for is in your essential keywords field you will appear higher up the search results than images where the words appear in either the main or the comprehensive fields.  This is supposing all other factors are equal.  On Alamy the performance of your images over time also has an impact, plus some other factors that I’m afraid have to remain a mystery.  One important fact is that if your images come up for searches and are ignore by buyers - maybe the dog is too far in the distance - well that will be detrimental to your success on the long run. So on Alamy bad keywording not only disappoints the customer,  in time it will have a negative impact on the photographers’ fortunes too.  It is essential to get it right.

So keywording is essential, and on Alamy the essential keywords field is exactly that..essential.  It’s the way in which you can promote the primary reasons why you took the image and hopefully the primary reasons why it will be bought,

Good Luck, keep off the gin and learn to love words as much as the images themselves (well almost as much).