Google’s web search algorithm doesn’t care what’s in an image. All that matters is it’s marked up with the correct structured data.
Whether it’s an award-winning photograph, or a blank square, it’s all the same in terms of the SEO value it adds to the page.
A site owner named Andrew Sychev joins the Q&A to ask Mueller about using placeholder images in conjunction with lazy loading.
Sychev has his site set up to load images further down a page as grey squares until a visitor starts scrolling.
When a visitor gets closer to where the image is located on the page, the grey square is replaced with an actual photo.
This is done to improve page speed and to prevent a page from shifting around in a visitor’s browser, which may happen when a bunch of images are loaded all at once.
Since Googlebot doesn’t interact with web pages, and therefore won’t see the images, Sychev asks if there’s any harm in using this set up.
While this question relates to using lazy loading as a way of improving cumulative layout shift (CLS), the answer given by Mueller applies to SEO in general.
Would using your own photos add more SEO value to a page than using generic stock images?
Can Google recognize when an image contains useful data, such as a chart or an infographic?
These are all questions that come up around images and web search— and here’s the answer.
Google’s John Mueller On Images & Web Search
As it relates specifically to web search, not image search, Google doesn’t care what’s in your photos.
Google’s only concerned about signals such as structured data and alt text.
That’s what’s important to web search as it can help Google understand the page better.
“I don’t think we care, to be quite honest. I don’t think for web search we look at the specific images on the page and say oh this is a nice image and this is a boring image.
We basically use those images in image search and that’s where we care what the content of the images care. But within web search we don’t really care if it’s a gray square or if it’s a picture of a beach.”
To answer the original question, substituting images for grey squares in a lazy loading setup would be perfectly fine.
Mueller reiterates that structured data communicates all the information Google needs.
“It sounds okay. I think for the core web vital side, the CLS side, that’s something you can test where you try it in one way or the other way. With regards to indexing what is important is that we have information about the images on those pages.
So what you can do if you’re not sure if your lazy loading is recognized by Google is use the image structured data. On the pages themselves, give us the structured data for those images and then we can definitely pick that up.”
Keep in mind this information is applicable to Google’s web search algorithm only. What’s in an image does matter to the Google Images algorithm.
More important than that— it matters to visitors.
While Google may not care about the work you put into crafting the perfect graphic for a piece of content, your visitors will.
Images can impact how a person feels after consuming a piece of content. If the images made a difference to how much they enjoyed it, then they’re probably going to come back.
Hear Mueller’s full response in the video below.
Featured Image: Beach Creatives/Shutterstock
Matt Southern has been the lead news writer at Search Engine Journal since 2013. With a degree in communications, Matt has an uncanny ability to make the most complex subject matter easy to understand. When he’s not ferociously following and covering the search industry, he’s busy writing SEO-friendly copy that converts.