Get the picture – keywording in context

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Image: Clemency Wright

Successful keywording is measured by the efficiency and efficacy of the user experience. There are a number of factors to consider when developing a reliable and relevant keywording methodology:

  • Relevance and Accuracy;
  • Consistency;
  • Usability;
  • Equity, Diversity & Inclusion; and
  • Accessibility.

The way we search and the keywords we use reflect the way we think, our cultural values, belief systems and our relationship with technology. It is an ever-changing landscape. Everything from how we work, the way we spend or leisure time, how we raise our families, to the way retail brands promote and sell products online shifts with technological advances. The popularity of social media and user-generated content allows brands to connect with target audiences by presenting themselves in an 'authentic' light.

But this requires attention not only to the way content is produced and styled, but also to the way visual content is labelled, stored and retrieved.

Keywording fundamentals

When working with creative imagery, there are two main types of Keywords: attributes and concepts. Attributes are words used to describe the physical or stylistic elements of what can be seen in an image, and concepts are words used to convey the meaning or emotional context behind an image.

Both are equally important to optimising the search experience. One without the other can lead to content being missed even though an image might provide the perfect solution to a very specific query.

Attributes can include descriptive terms about people (age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, relationship, occupation, activity, emotion, expression, clothing, distinguishing features etc.) Attributes are likely to account for around 80 per cent of the keywords attached to a creative image for search optimisation. These must be accurate and relevant, in other words, they must not be ambiguous, tenuous or too subjective. I like to call these types of keywords 'non-negotiable'. They are what they are.

Concepts on the other hand pose more of a challenge. The way individuals respond differently to the same image can lead to confusion and uncertainty during the Keywording process. Concepts cover broad themes such as 'wellbeing', 'innovation', 'sustainability' or 'mentoring'. These are not easily classified; they are implied through a combination of style, setting, model type, and any number of visual motifs. 

Concepts are naturally more subjective but they must still be 'true' to the telling of the story. Relevant and accurate concepts will be those that most users agree on, that are typically recognised within the collective consciousness. They’re slightly more negotiable than attributes.

Added to this is the increasing responsibility we have within the creative content sector to ensure the content itself, and the way we search for it, is as accessible as possible to as many users as possible, regardless of their background, knowledge or experience. This is why search based organisations continually review and adapt their messaging, update their visuals, and revise Keywords on websites and blogs.

Keywording tools and techniques

Keywording takes many forms. Some images have no keywords, some have too many. The only thing worse than having no keywords is having the wrong keywords. But how do you know what to add and what not to add?

Keywording typically involves adding keywords to images, videos, illustrations or any other asset type within some sort of search system, database or Digital Asset Management system. Alternatively, photographers, videographers and designers may use IPTC metadata fields embedded within the file itself to capture keywords (and this can be performed in a number of tools such as Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One etc.)

Some of the above systems and software allow users to create lists and templates for the keywords most often required, creating greater efficiency and improved consistency. 

There are also plenty of situations where Keywords are applied ad-hoc with no template or structure, resulting in inconsistent keywording and varying degrees of search relevance. This is typically seen when keywording in a flat-format. Terms are not related in any way, and simply listed in a string (as is often the case in an Excel spreadsheet with all Keywords in one cell.)

The benefits of structured keywords is that it allows for easier, faster Keywording and more relevant and efficient search. In a keyword hierarchy (or controlled vocabulary) organisations can define and organise keywords relevant to their users and content, creating broad 'parent' terms (e.g. Mode of Transport) at the top, and related sub-categories (such as 'Water Transport') beneath. A hierarchy can drill as deeply as required depending on the needs of the specific users. Being able to pinpoint results for 'submarines' or more specifically 'ballistic submarines' is made possible through implementing a controlled vocabulary.

As a keyworder, your main task is to 'input' keywords to help people find content. As a customer, your main concern is that the keywords you enter bring back relevant and accurate results. Understanding the language and search queries of your users is therefore essential to creating a successful search experience.

User-focused search language

The best way to approach keywording is to find out how users search, what terms they use, and what their expectations are. This can be achieved through questionnaires, polls and interviews. Shadowing users is a great way to observe their search behaviour; are they using the keyword search box, if so, are they using single words or multiple words and phrases? Are they navigating to content through filters and drop-down menus? Are they combining filters with keywords, do they search 'within results', can they use Boolean operators to exclude keywords (e.g. “City” NOT “traffic”)? During this process, record any problems to do with keywords that don’t work. Do certain words get zero hits? Do some search queries throw up irrelevant or inaccurate results? 

This type of research helps organisations identify opportunities to improve current search functionality, as well as implement new search strategies. User-testing and responding to user feedback is absolutely essential if you want people to buy-in to your content management system, leverage the value of your content, and save time and money by reducing or eradicating ineffective searching.

Beyond the basics: futureproof keywording 

If content is not keyworded, then it can’t be found.

If content is poorly keyworded, or keyworded using demeaning or derogatory terms, then the impact can be even more negative. Whilst basic keywords can be relatively easy to apply, and simple to define, this is not always the case for creative imagery that is conceptual in nature. Particularly in images where people are concerned.

Take, for example, a technology retailer targeting Gen Z customers. Imagery needs to resonate and communicate the needs and aspirations of that age group, reflecting their lifestyle and values, and even their attitudes to politics and social issues.

Creative agencies invest huge sums of money into researching and producing relevant content as a way to attract their ideal customer, gain more trust, and sell more products. Not only this, but our experience with brands, and the way we define ourselves, is forever changing. As we become more active and vocal online, we see new words, phrases and hashtags enter the urban dictionary, and brands are paying close attention to how they ‘label’ their customers. 

The trend for advocacy and campaigning on social media platforms does not seem to be waning, if anything it is gaining momentum. Thinking about the future consumer, the way life will look and the way we will relate to brands, impacts heavily on content creation and Keywording.

Equity, diversity and inclusion, and accessibility

As we’ve seen, brands rely heavily on endorsement and trust. The images they publish and the language they use communicates much more that what is seen on the surface. Consumers are quick to judge, and not afraid to call out organisations claiming to be ethical, socially good or purpose-led if this is not reflected in their core culture. 

There is plenty of overlap between EDIA but applied to the creative sector, let’s focus on:

Equity – increasing involvement and participation of people from all abilities, backgrounds and communities within the content-making process (photographers, videographers, stylists, post production, casting, agents etc);

Diversity – as above, but also, equitably representing people with differing abilities from all communities, societies and regions equitably within the content (models);

Inclusion – ensuring equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded, marginalised groups and those with differing abilities (this is bolstered through organisational governance and policy making); and

Accessibility – the UK Government define this as people being able to 'do what they need to do in a similar amount of time and effort as someone that does not have a disability'. In the digital space, this can mean providing Alternative Text for users relying on speech readers to tell them what an image or video depicts. It can also refer to redressing the 'digital divide' facing people from under privileged economic backgrounds where computer access and internet capabilities are either compromised or absent altogether.

Conclusion: keywording our way to a better place

I believe that content has the power to do good, and we have a responsibility to manage it with integrity. Labelling people within content plays a huge part in this. We are living, working and learning increasingly online. Data is the fuel we use to navigate information, and our GPS is the internet. Much work is being done by the World Wide Web Consortium to promote EDIA compliance, but the internet remains largely a self-authored and self-curated resource. This requires individuals to take responsibility for the data they create and the way it is assigned to content.