GIFs are insanely popular. So is the world’s largest website for animated GIF search and creation, Giphy.
As Giphy says on their own blog, GIF-content is actually redefining and revolutionizing the way people share information.
An animated GIF (arguably pronounced both as “jif” and “gif”) is a type of media file that can be inserted into personal messages as well as public content online to express emotions or scenarios in a more dynamic and entertaining format.
A quick Google search for GIF (short for Graphic Interchange Format) defines the acronym as “a lossless format for image files that supports both animated and static images,” that rose in popularity during the 1980s.
Google’s Ngram Viewer plots the frequency of the word gif in English literature from the year 1500 until today in the following graph:
While historic searches of the term bring up results for things like the Global Infrastructure Fund, the first instance of a GIF was created by CompuServe in 1987 according to Wikipedia. Gen-X’ers have been enjoying the light-weight format of GIF content for some time.
Today the GIF format has been adopted by Google’s properties, social media platforms and across web content at large.
What are the consequences of dynamic GIF content? As search engine scientists, we ask: are these types of files just scrumptious forms of good content or are they bad SEO practice?
Let’s start at the beginning.
Google Gets its GIF On
Google has a history of enabling GIF content on more and more of their web properties, which isn’t surprising at all. As Tech Times points out, the rise in messaging and mobile services and technology has led to an increase in users expressing emotion through a symbol (emoticon), image (photo) or video clip (.gif file). The fact that Google is clearing the way for GIF content to be read across its properties just makes sense.
Back in 2010, GIF files were too heavy for Gchat, but Google would soon find a workaround. By 2013, Gchat and Google Hangouts were allowing in-line .gif files not just for iOS users but also for Android. And, despite clear guidelines at the time that .gif files could not be used, 2013 was the same year that Google Docs and Google Slides could indeed support a graphically interchanging format.
Just last week I downloaded a Chrome extension, called Animated Tabs, that allows me to have new GIFs and a GIF search engine as my default page when I open a new tab in the browser:
Google has slowly phased in GIF content across their web properties recognizing a growing demand for dynamic content. Social media platforms haven’t been far behind.
Google was still the first to adopt GIF content on a social media platform with their Google Plus for both mobile and desktop users in 2013, reported Paste Magazine.
Although Tumblr users had the ability to fumble around with GIF formats since it’s conception in 2007, Tumblr engineers explain that they really hadn’t come up with a usable way to include GIFs until 2014. Twitter adopted GIF content in 2014 as well.
By 2015 Facebook was allowing this type of content for it’s mobile users both in the newsfeed and profile photo features. Just last year, Hulu, a leader in online video content, launched it’s own search engine dedicated solely to GIF content.
GIF content is continuing to take social media by storm. News sites are also catching on.
I was reading a random article about relationships from Elite Daily a few weeks ago and remarked how the author had casually illustrated conclusions throughout the post using GIF images:
I was entertained by the moving clips that brought perhaps otherwise drab pieces of information to life. As behemoth web technology providers like Google make way for GIF content alongside social media platforms, browser extensions and everyday web news, it seems almost impossible to avoid GIF content on the internet.
As Molly McHugh wrote in 2013, one of the consequences of GIF content permeating the web browsing and information exchange experience is the ability to “think in animated GIF.” Today, our culture celebrates the animated GIF.
Google Goggles: How Does Google Read Multimedia?
If GIF content is not only going to remain a constant in popular digital culture, but is actually gaining steam and momentum over time, we as search marketing professionals have to make sure we understand how this type of content could impact search engines.
For example, how does Google read a GIF file? What happens to our website or our client’s website when enhanced with GIF content?
GIF files are a form of rich media, not unlike .jpeg or .swf files, which search marketers understand well. I’ve explained these concepts in a past SEM Rush post:
As Googlebot crawls the internet indexing over 60 trillion website pages, it is mostly reading the site’s HTML code. As soon as there is any form of dynamic content be it rich media files (like flash or GIFs) or personalized content, indexing becomes more complicated depending on how the content is presented to Google.
Google writes on their support pages that guidelines for rich media content are simple: provide the text-equivalent to any non-text files. Yes, that means metadata.
Not only does this support Google’s ability to read and index the non-text files, but it also helps any visually impaired users as per WC3 Web Content Accessibility guidelines. Google can read BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG, WebP, and SVG files if presented properly.
Let’s Get Meta on Metadata
Google wants to know what is playing behind this rich media file with proper alt tags, descriptive file names, relevant image contexts, image captions and associated links. To do this Google says images need to be added to site maps using image tags. In addition, following Google’s best practice guidelines to images is encouraged, but conflicts with some of what users have come to love about GIF content.
For example, Google’s best practice guidelines for publishing images including GIF files, says not to include on-image text, since it won’t get indexed and if it adds context, this context is likely to be lost. While GIF files appear to be video content, they are not actually videos but rather a collection of images, and therefore cannot include transcripts.
Instead, users have to rely on limited alt descriptions, file names, and surrounding page-context elements to tell Google what their GIF file is all about. At the same time, users have to be mindful not to keyword stuff their alt text or their content could appear more spammy to Google’s search engine.
But, metadata isn’t the end of the story…
GIFs Get Views, GIFs Also Get Heavy
GIFs can support a content marketing strategy, if used mindfully.
For example, if Google image search now contains GIF files, then the appropriate use or popular use of an animated GIF could allow your content to be found by a user who wouldn’t have otherwise, and you know what that means – traffic!
Creating more opportunities for your content to be discovered and connect to users can drive traffic to your content and subsequently the rest of your website. Similarly, upping your content-discoverability can drive social sharing.
The natural consequence of good content that gets discovered is traffic with a low-bounce rate, post engagement and social signals surrounding it. All of these factors of course positively contributing to your own search engine rankings and overall content marketing strategy.
Sounds simple, but GIF-go-getters beware.
Let’s go back to how Googlebot crawls a website for a minute. Remember that if there are too many forms of dynamic content on a website, the site could perform much slower than a site without these forms of content. In other words, if a site was made up of thousands of GIFs it has the potential to have a slow loading time, regardless of how they are presented with metadata or otherwise.
Slow page-load times harm a website’s search engine rankings not to mention turns off the user. Kissmetrics reports that the slower the page response time is, the higher the page abandonment will be. This correlation is the same for mobile websites and mobile users.
Website owners and operators have to balance the competing interests of users and search engines to keep page loading times low while offering a more entertaining and dynamic presentation of page content. While page loading time can be affected by a number of onsite factors, the most common solution to the GIF-content conundrum is for developers to reduce the size of the images.
There are a few ways to reduce image sizes on a website, depending on how the site is built. Kissmetrics walks us through two of these ways:
- GZIP Compression: A technique for compressing or deflating images by up to 70% without compromising image quality. This technique has to be implemented by your web host on their servers. You can use this test to see if your site has been“GZipped” by your web host. If your site has been “GZipped” the results will look like this:
- Image Optimization: Desktop programs like Photoshop and web programs like Smush.it can help to reduce image size, using the “Save for Web” feature. The image quality will decrease alongside the image and, as a result, developers have to find the sweet spot between image size and quality. Developers who rely on HTML to reduce image sizes (ie. WordPress blogs) don’t actually create more room on the server. On the contrary, a web browser would still have to load the original image size before it reloads and resizes the image to the height and width you assigned to it.
The good news is that .gif files are already a compressed form of an image, compared to .bmp or .jpeg files for example.
GIF format is also considered “lossless.” To any non-graphic-designers in the house, a lossless format means that no matter how many times the image is saved, none of the data is lost; however, this format is limited to a maximum of 256 colors.
Either way, you’re already doing your site and search engines a favor by opting for a GIF format over other larger image formats.
Closing in on GIF Content
When used effectively, GIF content has the potential increase engagement on a particular post or piece of content. In other words, GIFs are good for users and can increase traffic to your site as a result.
All of these factors work together to send an indirect thumbs-up to Google.
However, if you’ve gone GIF-crazy you have to make sure Google can still index your content as effectively as it could without the GIF content. This can be achieved by giving Google as much meta data about the content as possible.
You also have to make sure the presence of GIFs on your site hasn’t slowed down your page loading times.
Ultimately, Google hasn’t found a way to enjoy GIFs the same way that users do.
As Google creates GIF-supporting hardware, developing a gesture-based keyboard with built-in GIF and image search functionality, we as search engine marketers understand that GIFs aren’t going anywhere. Search marketers, get your GIF on and deal with it.