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Keywording for Success

We had the honor to be invited to speak about keywording at this year’s Microstock Expo. We discovered some very interesting facts. We also learnt a lot about the parameters that websites like display regarding wordpress hosting services. Read on to learn how to better keyword and what themes have the potential to make you money.

The importance of keywords

The importance of keywords is an often debated topic. One thing is for sure: keywords are the only reliable way to connect buyers to your stock files. As of today, every agency offers keyword search as the main tool to find images, video and illustrations. And that won’t change anytime soon. So you must keyword your assets properly. It’s like a gambling game at 666 casino, the better you are at matching, the more chance you have of winning.

But much more interesting is what keywords lead to success and which ones don’t. Is it possible to deduce the relevance of keywords from public information ? Can we deduce the themes that generate sales?

We decided to find out and get answers to these questions:

  • What keywords bring most sales?
  • What themes have potential to make money?
  • What niche themes are undersupplied but often searched for?
  • What are bad keywords?

Our method of analysis

For our analysis we collected public keyword information directly from iStock’s website. Each file page displays its keywords and an approximate download count. Our data comprises:

  • 250,000 files (photos, video and illustrations)
  • 29,000 keywords and their order within files
  • We focused on files with at least 5 sales (approx. 100,000 files)

The decisive aspect of our analysis is based on the order of keywords on iStock’s pages. We know from various iStock statements that the order of the keyword is directly linked with their relevance to the image. Here are two important quotes from iStock:

“Once buyer behaviour starts making some terms more relevant than others, you’ll see the order change” — Ethan Myerson (iStock keyword admin), Mar 2, 2010

“The strength of a keyword within a file is determined by actions taken on a file after that keyword is searched on” — Chris McBurney, a.k.a “Lobo” (iStock admin), Feb 15, 2013

“as newer files have actions performed on them the keyword weight of the more relevant keywords will increase” — Contributor Newsletter, Aug 29, 2013

We conclude that the top keywords displayed on an image are those leading to sales. The more often a keyword appears in the top positions on a file, the more often that keyword has gained relevancy with respect to others. The top keywords can be understood as defining customer demand.

We analysed iStock data because they provide the information publicly, but we can safely assume that the results of our analysis are applicable to all stock agencies.

The Keyword “Conversion Rate”

We define the keyword conversion rate as the probability of a keyword leading to a sale. We calculate it as follows:

Keyword Conversion Rate


Number of files where keyword is in top 4

divided by

Number of  all files with keyword

Conversion Rate “Women”

For example, we have 15,814 images where “Women” is in the top 4. In total we have 48,416 images with the keyword “Women”.

Therefore, the keyword “Women” has a conversion rate of 33% (15,814/48,416 = 0,33). It is a keyword which receives a lot of customer actions, therefore it has a high chance of leading to a sale.

Conversion Rate “Caucasian”

Another example: we have 232 images where “Caucasian” is in the top 4. In total we have 48,513 images with the keyword “Caucasian”.

Therefore, the keyword “Caucasian” has a conversion rate of 0,004%. This is a keyword with very little customer action, it is a very poor keyword.

Demand vs. Supply

By calculating the conversion rate of all the keywords and using a scatter plot we are able to visualize demand vs. supply.

  • Vertical Axis: Demand as defined by the keyword’s conversion rate.
  • Horizontal Axis: Supply defined by the number of files with a specific keyword.

Opportunity to make money

The scatter plot allows us to see clearly where the potential to make money is. You want keywords which do not have much supply, but have very high conversion rates.

High Potential Themes

The top 20 high potential keywords give us clues as to what themes you should focus on to increase your revenue. There are various ways to interpret this data, but we conclude from these keywords that you must focus on the following themes:

Group of People

Senior Adult
Group of People

Computer Icon

Family / Mother
Hispanic Ethnicity

Student / Teenager
Multi Ethnic Group

Niche Keywords

The scatter plot also allows us to identify niche themes. Those are themes with little supply but with high conversion rates. If you produce good images in this area you will attract a lot of buyer attention!

Niche Themes

By reading the above list of niche keywords it becomes clear that sports is a big topic: bicycle, cycling, jogging, running, gym and yoga. These sports are either endurance sports or fitness. When combined with the keywords Healthcare and Seniors which we found in the high potential keywords, we conclude that it isn’t competitive sports which matters, but integrating sports in people’s lives to be healthy.

With today’s aging population, obesity problems and bad diets, buyers search for images which help people improve their health and lifestyles. You must produce work on how people practice sports to remain healthy and you will hit a very lucrative market!

Christmas might seem obvious, but you should notice that it is the only seasonal theme which made it to the top of our lists. What is most interesting is that combining “Christmas” and “Snow” will bring you the highest conversion rates. So next time you produce christmas images, make sure you have some with snow!




Spa Treatment


Bad Keywords

Just as we have identified high potential and niche themes, the scatter plot can also tell us what keywords are bad keywords. These are the keywords which have a high supply but very low conversion rates. Buyers are not searching for these keywords but contributors keep using them.

Since we do not know how agencies value bad keywords, it is difficult to recommend whether you should use these or not. In any case, you should know that buyers do not search for these keywords since they have very low conversion rates. We suspect that these keywords might even have negative relevancy points when you use them on your files.

You might be surprised by these keywords. Did you expect them? Many of these keywords describe terms which are obvious for photographers, but certainly not for buyers. No one searches for an image of a “female”. People search for “women”, as we saw in our first charts, but not for “female”. At least not in the context of humans.

Similarly, buyers do not search for “male”. Even “caucasian” might surprise you. It is one of the most used keywords on our list, however it’s conversion rate is basically 0%! Caucasian is a very North American term and not widespread outside America. Buyers enter ethnic keywords when they are looking for something specific, that is why “African Descent”, “Multi Ethnic” and “Latin American” are such good words, whereas “Caucasian” is not.

Our data tells us that “Portrait” is a bad keyword, however “Human Face” is very strong. How can that be? We believe “Portrait” is a very abstract term which can apply to any part of the body or any species. More importantly, it is a term mainly used by photographers but not the widespread public. Buyers who want a human face, search for “Human Face”!

The remaining bad keywords all suffer from the same problem. They are too generic and used so often by photographers that searching for them simply does not help buyers.


It has been a lot of fun running through all the data and finding out what themes have high potential, which ones are niche and which keywords are bad. Ignore this information at your own risk!

To help you achieve your own conclusions you can download our raw keyword data. We have included all keywords which have a conversion rate of at least 1%. If the keyword is not on the list, then it has less than 0% or we do not have enough data to determine a reliable conversion rate:

Download the Keyword Conversion Rates

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