Keywording tips for the major stock agencies - Part II + Expert

March 19, 2024

In this Part II - we’ve enlisted the help of a stock photography / videography keywording expert, Clemency Wright. 

In Part I of this keywording series we took a close-look at the following topics to help you streamline the workflow and improve your chances to sell your media content, including images, vectors, and video:

- Why accurate keywords are important;

- How to select relevant & accurate keywords; and

- Microstock Keywording Online tools to help you select relevant keywords.

In this Part II we take a deeper dive into the murky world of keywording and provide you with three real-life examples. To do just that we’ve enlisted the help of a stock photography / videography keywording expert, Clemency Wright

Clemency will answer some burning questions about good keywording practices and provide three examples of effective keywording, which we trust will be useful to get you well on your way to maximizing your earnings. Let’s jump right in!

Choosing accurate keywords in a competitive market

Question: Clemency, great to have you with us! Let’s begin with assessing the competition. What is your take on the following approach of keywording images? I can choose all the right keywords for my image that depicts let’s say a generic business meeting, but it won't help, since the competition is incredible for this type of search. For instance, there are already 14 million business-related images on Shutterstock. My only chance to gain good rankings is to include lower-traffic, less competitive keywords. Which types of words should we be aiming for?


Answer from Clemency: I don’t agree that this is the best approach, based on the fact that if the image is really about “Business”, then this keyword definitely needs to be added, otherwise people searching specifically for business imagery will not find your content!

However, that does not mean you stop there. Explore opportunities for associated Keywords that are equally likely to be used when searching for Business imagery. These could include the location of the business, the activity, the type of people involved, or the theme / concept conveyed. As you’ve mentioned, with 14 million business images, customers are likely to use other Keywords to narrow down their search results and home-in on specific visuals. 

Consider adding Keywords such as “new normal”, “entrepreneur”, “mentor”, “community” or “innovation”. You can help customers define the look and feel of the image, save them time, and improve the chances of you ranking higher than photographers relying on generic keywords alone.

Optimize conceptual keywords that other photographers are either not applying or are not aware of. Business is notoriously saturated, but it can be broken down conceptually, so make sure you are updating your vocabulary to include current, relevant keywords to describe modern-day Business.

The importance of titles for search engine rankings

Question: A lot of contributors genuinely believe that this is probably the most important part and try to make them as descriptive (and as long) as possible. How relevant, if at all, are titles/descriptions in the search engine rankings?

Answer from Clemency: This depends on whether the library’s search engine searches the captions or not, for example:\


Recommended keywording approach related to titles

Adobe Stock

Include relevant words in Titles as these provide additional weight to the search relevance ranking


Captions form part of the Mandatory metadata, and without a Caption your content will not be searchable. Captions on Alamy do help with search relevancy although the primary weighting is on Supertags

Getty / iStock

Titles are not searchable however they are helpful for customers when choosing the right image


Titles are not searchable however they are helpful for customers when choosing the right image

Remember, to improve general search engine optimization, it’s advisable to add good Captions (and Keywords) because Captions are indexed in Google’s image search engine.


Long-tail keywords vs. regular keywords


Question: There has been a discussion about the usage of long-tail keywords vs. regular ones. If you’re unfamiliar with these concepts, short-tail keywords are much more general search queries consisting of one or two words, while long-tail keywords consist of three to five or even more words. In the context of microstock search algorithms - are there any advantages or disadvantages of using long-tail keywords as opposed to sticking to regular ones. For example, 'capitol, building, Havana' as opposed to a single keyword phrase 'Capitol building of Havana’?

Answer from Clemency: “As you probably know this depends on the particular agency. They all operate different search technology, and keywords are parsed (linked) and ranked differently. Getty is the exception; due to their internal Controlled Vocabulary (CV), the keywords you add are automatically matched to relevant terms in the CV. The benefit is, you can add long-tail keywords and the search engine immediately understands without having to guess whether they’ll work or not.

Adobe Stock

Adobe Stock keywording guidelines advise against using long-tail or ‘compound’ keywords. In fact, if keywords are submitted this way, they are likely to be broken into individual terms. This is not an issue for terms like ‘black cat’. Even if you add ‘black’ and ‘cat’ keywords separately, both are true, and there’s a very high chance that when a user just searches using the keyword ‘black’ or ‘cat’, images of black cats coming up will fit their expectations. 

However, a term like ‘cricket bat’ might cause problems for people searching when separated. If you add ‘cricket’ and ‘bat’ separately, both words have a very different meaning when they are used in combination. In this scenario, customers searching for a picture of a ‘cricket’ (animal) or ‘bat’ (animal, sports equipment) may see cricket bats in the search page results.


Adobe Stock does have a keyword thesaurus behind the scenes; however, the list of keywords is not made available. Keywording can therefore feel a little uncertain. Nonetheless here are some tips:

• Single keywords yield more predictable results so be sure to use one-word terms where these are available;

• In cases where you need to use multiple terms per keyword, try to anticipate the impact of each of these being queried as an individual term. Terms that will still work when separated include things like “oak+tree”, “teenage+boy”, “candid portrait”. Terms that will not work very well when separated include things like “fountain+pen”, “beach+ball”, “pencil+skirt”. Bottom line - if possible, go with a single Keyword!

• Run searches on the website to see what happens when you search for the compound keyword versus the keywords separately. You’ll notice that Adobe’s predictive search helps you to define your meaning, allowing you to select from a list of typically / highly searched for long-tail terms:

As a suggestion, if you have the space available, add both the single terms AND the compound term (e.g., add “black” and “cat” AND “black cat”.) 

On a final note, Adobe operates a relevance ranking system, meaning the order of your keywords matters. The top ten Keywords are ranked higher than the remaining Keywords, with the first 5 in your list being the most important. 

Given the above guidance, if you need to add a highly relevant Keyword that is long-tail, then I’d advise entering this as single terms in the top ten, and entering it in the long-tail form in the remaining space. 


Alamy does not employ a Controlled Vocabulary, so this platform is slightly more flexible when using long-tail keywords. In fact, it can be a real advantage to add keywords in a Natural Language format. Alamy allows you to be quite specific and detailed with your Keywords. Keywords are entered in a free-text field and separated by commas so it is really up to you how you use this.

Free-text keywording is particularly useful for travel photographers, where it is indeed preferable to write place names as one Keyword, for example “United States of America” or “Kuala Lumpur”.

Photographers can also add multiple term Keywords when describing people, objects, activities, and concepts. For instance, “single parent”, “pine wardrobe”, “playing tennis” or “active seniors” would all be acceptable keywords on Alamy.

As with Adobe, Alamy searches for the highest-ranking keywords first. Images are ranked using “Supertags” and you are allowed to assign a maximum of ten Supertags per image. Make sure to add terms that customers are most likely to search for to find the particular image in your Supertags. But do not stuff your Supertags with variations of that term, otherwise you risk being missed by customers searching for other important keywords.

For example, let’s say you are keywording this image of a deck chair on Brighton Beach in southern England:


You would absolutely want to have “deck chair” and “Brighton Beach” as Supertags. The beach is recognizable since a famous pier burned down some 20 years ago and is visible on the frame. You might also be thinking that customers sometimes search for “deckchair” and “deck chair”. But rather than taking up two more Supertags, it is best to use that space for other significant keywords such as “England”, “UK”, “seaside”, “coast”, “nobody”, “empty”, “vacation”, “pier” and “travel”.


Shutterstock adopts a similar search process to Adobe. As mentioned, where possible, assign single Keywords. 

Parallels between Google Search and Microstock searches

Question: Are there any parallels between stock companies' search algorithms and the algorithms that Google employs to rank websites? Are they basically the same or employ completely different ranking criteria?  

Answer from Clemency: Google ranks websites on many criteria, including keywords in the site copy, Alternative Text (in the HTML) for images and video, authoritative backlinks, domain age, uniqueness of the content, frequency of updates, and that is not even coming close to the real list of ranking criteria.

Stock agencies operate different algorithms. As we’ve seen, they might rank Keywords in the order they appear on an asset. Or, there may be no ranking whatsoever.  Stock agencies also use algorithms to order their Search Page Results for marketing purposes. They might wish to promote a certain photographer or showcase a specific theme or concept, and it is not clear when or how they do this.

Remember that no matter how the agency sets its algorithms, it depends on Metadata and Keywords. And the same is true for Google. Whether you are uploading to your own portfolio website, or one of the stock agency sites, you’ll need to attach relevant Keywords to fuel the search engine and deliver relevant search page results.

Some libraries prioritize images that have sold the most, images most recently uploaded, photographers they have decided are more “popular”, or work from more diverse communities to promote inclusion. 

Regardless, it is keywords that lead customers to content. The more people click on your thumbnail, the more popular your content will appear, and the algorithm will favor this within the search page results.

Number of keywords to use

Question: Most agencies give contributors an option to provide up to 50 keywords. Is it best to use as many keywords as the limit allows? Would there be any circumstances that an image can have as many as 50 keywords. In addition, on average how many keywords should an image have (I know it depends but if you take all the images and a ballpark figure)?

Answer from Clemency: Some agencies limit the number to 50, others don’t have a limit, and some (like Adobe) prefer 10-25 keywords. I think the reason for this is to do with their system/search engine. I advise photographers to go with the agency’s guidelines, but don’t feel obliged to “stuff” keywords. Only add what is relevant and not what is irrelevant. 

With regards to the average number, for lifestyle, it seems to be around 30-40. Specialist content can be higher. Sites with no controlled vocabulary backing-up the search engine require the greatest number of keywords (see the Alamy keywording example) because they don’t support synonyms or hierarchical keywords. 

A site like Getty will require the fewest number of keywords due to their synonym back-up and controlled vocabulary, where hierarchical terms are automatically applied at the keywording stage. Adding one keyword can mean it becomes searchable under multiple terms. For instance, adding “blood orange” will mean the image is automatically searchable under orange fruit, citrus fruit, fruit, and food.

In summary:


Recommended keywording approach summary

Adobe Stock

10-25 keywords. For lifestyle - 30-40. Specialist content can be higher.


Up to 50.

Getty / iStock

Getty will require the fewest number of keywords due to their synonym back-up and controlled vocabulary, where hierarchical terms are automatically applied at the keywording stage.


Up to 50.

Real-world keywording examples

Question: Now that we have got the theory out of the way, let’s take existing images and let’s see how Clemency would keyword them, considering all that was said above! Let’s start with the image that was accepted on Alamy and is available online. How would you re-keyword the item to increase its chances to be sold?

Answer from Clemency: For Alamy and Shutterstock I’m happy to provide the following proposed keywords / titles:


Airline steward working for Tap Airlines wearing facemask serving passengers


Tap Airlines, airline, airline steward, air steward, serving, serve, service, facemask, safety, aeroplane, transport, travel, man, one person, male, adult, cabin crew, aeroplane cabin, airplane, plane, air transport, transportation, airplane cabin, plane cabin, passenger plane, flight, flying, face mask, face-mask, face covering, pandemic, covid 19, coronavirus, wearing, holding, protection, protective, gloves, transport interior, care, new normal, reliability, candid, real people, authentic, selective focus, differential focus

The first ten keywords should be provided as Alamy Supertags and will be prioritized by Adobe Search engines as well.

I didn’t consider these keywords for Adobe Stock since they do not accept unreleased images and it’s unlikely that you would be able to obtain a model release from this gentleman.

Question: Let’s take another example with a different subject. Please provide keywords and the title. (Image can be viewed online here)




Old State House, Boston, Massachusetts, USA


Alamy keywords:

nobody, outdoors, outside, day, city, urban, united states of america, us, the old state house, town house, state house, public building, museum, old, traditional, architectural, historical, famous, local landmark, travel destination, tourist destination, old and new, modern, contrasts, low angle, skyscraper, bell tower, 18th century, colour, color, horizontal

Alamy supertags:

old state house, boston, massachusetts, usa, building, exterior, architecture, historic, landmark, travel

Shutterstock And Adobe keywords (same title):

old state house, boston, massachusetts, usa, building, exterior, architecture, historic, landmark, travel, nobody, outdoors, outside, day, city, urban, united states of america, us, the old state house, town house, state house, public building, museum, old, traditional, architectural, historical, famous, local landmark, travel destination, tourist destination, old and new, modern, contrasts, low angle, skyscraper, bell tower, 18th century

The first ten keywords are strategically placed to be prioritized by Adobe Stock

Let’s continue with footage as an example. Let us know what keywords would work for this video.



Man depositing cash in bank machine


man, depositing, paying in, cash, banknote, cash machine, bank, finance, money, euros, one person, male, adult, cropped, part of, arm, hand, paying-in, pay in, bank note, machine, cash point, cashpoint, cash-point, atm, atm machine, automated teller machine, wearing, leather jacket, holding, euro notes, euro banknotes, inserting, wealth, convenience, convenient, technology, technological, using, close up, closeup, close-up, unrecognizable person, real time, realtime, 10 seconds or greater

Top ten to use for Adobe:

man, deposit, pay, cash, banknote, machine, bank, finance, money, euros

Gaining advantage – advice summary

Question: Thanks for the inputs, Clemency. And last but not least - what would be your general advice on how to gain an advantage over the competition with the use of keywords? 

Answer from Clemency: It’s been a pleasure, as always. Please see below a quick check-list on good keywording practices:

• pay attention to trends;

• submit fresh, relevant content for today’s market;

• research your distribution platform;

• work to the agency’s guidelines;

• optimize the metadata fields;

• pay attention to any word limits;

• check if the agency has relevancy ranking and keyword in line with their


• add basic Keywords and layer up to include enhanced terms;

• apply concepts where relevant;

• write clear and consistent captions;

• add keywords that are relevant and accurate, and do this consistently.


Keywording, when done correctly, adds commercial value to the assets you submit, gives you a chance to stand out from your competitors and allows you to achieve better rankings. As stated in the previous keywording article, if you are serious about turning your photography passion into income, keywording is an important part of your journey.

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