We are witnessing a mass migration from written communication to visual communication on social media platforms. Pictures and videos are no longer sidekicks to tweets and posts. That shift means that marketers must rethink their approach to search engine optimization (SEO).

Today, over a billion images are shared daily, and when people communicate with pictures, they don't use many words. For example, 75% of posts to Tumblr are image posts, and 90% of those posts contain no text or hashtags.

However, the strategy of SEO, born from the rise of Google, has relied on the written word. Brands try to appear on the page-one search results for keywords, not key images and videos.

That approach to SEO must evolve.

How Marketers Must Change Their SEO Practices

The rise of visual content means people frequently search for products and services with an image in mind. Moreover, the words people use become more specific and context-dependent when they are created in response to a visual stimulus. For instance, a blender shown in a restaurant kitchen will generate different keywords from the same blender shown in a family kitchen.

So, in a world where images drive product descriptions—and therefore drive keyword choices—what do marketers need to change about their SEO practices?

1. Evolve from physical characteristics to use cases

There is a difference between describing the physical characteristics of a product and describing how it is used.

Consider a simple example from outdoor fashion: I could say, "This coat is water-resistant, breathable, has lots of pockets, and includes armpit vents and a removable hood." Or I could say, "This coat is ideal for outdoor sports like skiing and snowboarding."

In the first description, the physical characteristics alone aren't helpful because there is no context. In the second description, anyone can imagine where he or she would use such a coat and what physical qualities it should have. Because good images and videos suggest use cases, we need keywords that reflect use cases.

2. Examine how people describe images of your product

With some products, the use cases can vary in important ways. As I described earlier, a blender in a restaurant kitchen is different from a blender in a family kitchen. So, brands must discover how consumers describe images of their products.

Consider this example from one of our clients. This major retailer recently launched a new sandwich-maker. The keywords originally used in the company's website's product description were sandwich, sandwiches, grill, makers, and recipes. However, after collecting and analyzing engagement with product photos across social, the retailer found that consumers were describing this product as a dorm-room necessity.

The original product description read, "Enjoy perfectly cut sandwiches in this non-stick electric grill."

Its improvement based on consumer descriptions of product images is now: "This non-stick sandwich grill is a back-to-school dorm essential."

The improved description now has a target audience (college students) and a use case (dorm-room cooking). College students looking for dorm-room cooking tools are now far more likely to discover the sandwich-maker and imagine the benefits of having it in their dorm room.

3. Feed these insights into visual content creation

I have argued that useful keywords go beyond physical descriptions to use cases, and the very best keywords and product descriptions reflect how people describe images of your product. Therefore, visual content should also be curated based on how customers describe products.

Let's return to the sandwich-maker for our example. If we know this is a popular dorm-room item, we can help consumers make this association. So, rather than presenting a generic picture of the sandwich-maker, we could instead take a picture of the sandwich-maker in a dorm room with some college guys making grilled cheese late at night. Rather than strictly using text to describe the sandwich maker as a dorm-room essential, this visual interpretation shows exactly how and why it is a dorm room essential. The original feedback to the photo becomes the creative inspiration for improved visual content.

* * *

If the future of social communication is being driven by the consumer through images and videos, then the data-driving SEO, product descriptions, and visual marketing materials should be driven by the way those consumers discuss your products.

In a sense, visual marketing is becoming a caption contest where brands always win. The written responses to product images are free SEO gold and free creative inspiration. As a community, your social fans are now an ongoing focus group. Listen closely to what they see and wrap it into your SEO.

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What's the Future of SEO in a Visual World?

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image of Apu Gupta

Apu Gupta is a co-founder and the CEO of Curalate, a social commerce solution, enabling brands to leverage their social media presence to sell more effectively online.

LinkedIn: Apu Gupta

Twitter: @apugupta