Future Facing SEO: Why It Will Pay Off to SEO Your Offline Brand Materials

Future-facing SEO is a (potentially) sporadic blog series that goes beyond what we know about SEO and the latest industry developments, and looks forward…into the future! We’ll speculate on what new things SEOs will have to tackle in the future and how we can take steps today to proactively optimize. That said, get ready to hop on the bandwagon, before the wagon is even built! Oh yeah!

The Background Story

A couple of weeks ago, I had just wrapped up presenting an SEO strategy to one of our awesome SwellPath clients and spent the last handful of minutes chatting. During our conversation, he commented on the thoroughness of the strategy I’d just presented and proceeded to ask, “So, do you just think about search engine optimization all the time.” I gave him the honest answer without hesitation, “Totally!” I confessed that my brain is processing SEO-related content on a nearly non-stop basis; I spend all day thinking about SEO but I also find myself pondering the greater challenges and mysteries of the craft on my commute, at home, on my way to the gym, and occasionally when I’m trying to fall asleep. I may have a problem (you tell me), but I don’t view that as a bad thing. The topic of search (how search engine algorithms work, how crawlers scour the web, and how to we can optimize websites to leverage what we know about the former) is an insanely interesting topic. The search engines and the web itself are constantly changing, so there’s always more to think about.

You know you want these guys at your next party.

Google and ImagesSo back to my client, I told him that, yes, “I think about SEO all the time”. I then proceeded to tell him a story about an experience I’d had a few days prior. I was on my way back from the gym to the office when I saw a van that belonged to another SwellPath client. As with most company delivery vehicles, it had the company’s logo and, as you see fairly often, a list of their specialties. I noticed when I saw it that “those weren’t the same keywords we were optimizing for. Also, they didn’t have their primary URL printed with their other contact info.” I then went off on an interesting tangent. I explained that someday in the near-future, the content of your offline brand materials like billboards, flyers, building signage, and even what’s printed on the side of your delivery trucks is going to impact your SEO. Sound crazy? Well listen to this.

An SEO rule of thumb is “don’t ever put important text in images; make sure it’s HTML”. Why is this a rule? Because search engine spiders can’t parse the text from images. Sure, image crawlers are getting pretty good and can identify similar images and even nudity based on color patterns and tones, but they can’t yet (in any reliable and scalable way) “read” text in images. Google, please update me if you’ve made the leap without letting me know, but last time I checked “the Google crawler doesn’t recognize text contained in images“. However, Google is damn smart and it’s only a matter of time before they begin to reliably crawl text that’s contained within indexed images.

What Will the Future Hold

Let’s say that in three years, Google rolls out a new image spider that crawls text in images. Google can then incorporate that text and the keywords used within it into its algorithm. That means that images on your site that have text in them can now contribute to keyword-relevancy. <sarcasm>It also means you can forget about ever taking the trouble to use text-based headings or alt tags because you hate people who rely on screen readers (you should be ashamed).</sarcasm>But it also means much more than that. Think about all the imagery Google has access to that it can now parse text from:

  • Google Images
  • Images on Yelp, Foursquare, etc.
  • Google Streetview Imagery
  • Pinterest, Flickr, Panoramio, and other “image sharing” sites.
  • Google Earth Images
  • and a lot more
Cloon. Offline Image SEO.
Cloon. Offline Image SEO.

Let’s say someone checks in at your business on Foursquareand uploads of picture of your van out front – Google crawls the text from that image and adds it to the index. Say you put up a billboard downtown and the Google Streetview cars cruise by the following week and sends their images to back to HQ – Google crawls the text from that image and adds it to the index. Say that someone takes a picture of their friend wearing your branded t-shirt and pins it onto Pinterest – Google crawls the text from that image and adds it to the index. Do you get where I’m going with this? Once they have all this new data, Google can throw it into the mix when determining your website’s (and brand’s) relevancy for specific searches. A URL on a billboard that is contained within an image can now factor into the your site’s search authority just like a backlink from a website. This is perfectly inline with Google’s goals – they don’t want to just bring you the web; they want to bring you the world. As soon as Google (or another engine) perfects the technology to parse text from images, everything is fair game: online and offline.

How to Optimize Offline Imagery for Maximum SEO Value

Let’s assume that I’m not just an overly-enthusiastic SEO and I end up being right. That means in a few years we’re going to have to start thinking about brining offline branding materials inline with our SEO strategy. Before we dive into how to start optimizing real-world text to support your SEO, let’s think about how Google is going to use that text in ranking. In 2012, we know that having a link to your website surrounded by relevant keywords is great for SEO because search engines will collect that data and use it as a relevancy indicator and authority signal. Text parsed from images will be treated much the same way. Here are a few points:

  • Images won’t have HTML links where there’s user-friendly anchor text that masks a very technical link to a URL.
  • “Linking” to your website in the real world is going to consist of having your website URL spelled out.
  • Relevancy for that URL is going to be determined by the keywords that surround it.

That’s what we need to take into account when optimizing offline imagery for search. So building from there, here is the 1, 2, 3 of offline brand material SEO.

  1. Try to always include your URL in your branding materials (use common sense, this probably doesn’t apply to clothing unless your brand name is your URL). Also, make sure the URL is spelled correctly.
  2. Obviously, you’ve performed keyword research and have a keyword strategy for your website. Make sure that your marketing materials use appropriate keywords that align with your strategy. It probably makes sense to target the same keywords that are targeted on your homepage.
  3. Consider using a font that has appropriate contrast and is easy to read from a distance.

Consider the Geekstravaganza truck above (first image in this post).

  1. It should really have the URL on it: (the domain is available, FYI).
  2. The keywords that we’re using for the website’s homepage are “Graduation Parties” and “Bachelor Parties”, not “End of School Parties” and “Single Dude Parties” (which have no search volume, BTW). The keywords on the van should align with the onsite SEO strategy.
  3. A hasty stencil job is definitely not going to be the easiest thing for the image crawler to parse. Choose a more legible font and get your text put on professionally.

That’s just an example, but these 1, 2, 3s of offline branding material SEO are easily applied to anything else. Remember though, we still have a handful of years ahead of us before this is something we need to worry about, so don’t break the bank this next month reprinting all your pamphlets, ordering new giveaway pens, and repainting your fleet. Engage in website SEO on an ongoing basis and as you produce new offline branding materials, think about consulting your SEO, or referencing your strategy, and follow the 1, 2, 3s above. You just might end up massively ahead of the game with your competition left in the dust.

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Mike Arnesen

Mike Arnesen - Director of Analytics & Optimization

A diehard SEO and web analytics geek, Mike is the Director of Analytics & Optimization at SwellPath. He is also a board member at SEMpdx. Mike's fascination for search experience optimization, structured data and semantic markup, and web technology knows no bounds. Beyond geeking out with SEO and analytics, Mike is also a prolific blogger, speaker (MozCon, SemTechBiz, SEMpdx, SMX, State of Search Conference, etc.), and company culture advocate. When not in the office, Mike is spending time with his wife, enjoying the outdoors, or keeping up with inbound marketing news via mobile; most of the time, it's all three simultaneously.

Watch Mike talk about his role and life at SwellPath

12 Responses to “Future Facing SEO: Why It Will Pay Off to SEO Your Offline Brand Materials”

  1. Weekly Digest | Mike Arnesen

    […] put out a pretty fun blog post at SwellPath last week called “Future Facing SEO: Why It Will Pay Off to SEO Your Offline Brand Materials“. I had a great time going off on a tangent related to how Google will be using imagery in […]


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