Top keywording tips in 2021 for the major Microstock agencies – Part I

Alexandre Rotenberg
May 27, 2021

Although both stock photography and footage contributors are considered ‘creatives’, unfortunately, much of your time is dedicated to generally tedious administrative tasks, such as keywording. Even though it's probably the most boring part of workflow, consistently accurate keywording is a fundamental aspect related to your success as a stock contributor.

In this Part I of the series, we will take a detailed look at:

·        Why accurate keywords are important;

·        How to select relevant & accurate keywords; and

·        Microstock Keywording Online tools to help you select relevant keywords, including those provided by three major Microstock agencies.

Watch this space for Part II, as we’ve kindly enlisted the help of a stock photography / videography keywording expert, Clemency Wright. Clemency has kindly agreed to answer some burning questions about good keywording practices and provide examples of effective keywording, which we trust will be useful to get you well on your way to maximising your earnings. Let’s get started!

Why accurate keywords are important

Search Engines are Blind

Similar to Shutterstock Reviewers nowadays, search algorithms are ‘blind’ and cannot see the images/clips, however beautiful they may be. Although there has been some progress made on the AI front, which is beyond the scope of this article.

Instead, search engines rely on keywords attached to content to sort, categorize and present them to prospective customers. Since the Microstock market is highly competitive, one of the ways to gain an edge over the competition is to provide relevant, quality keywords.

Making it easier for buyers to find your content

By providing those relevant keywords, you inevitably make your content more easily discoverable by clients by matching your content as closely as possible to buyers’ needs – and ultimately, helps to convert searches to sales. Alamy has an interesting metric in this regard within its Alamy Measures pages (within the Contributor Dashboard) that displays the number of searches for specific keywords vs the images zoomed and ultimately sold.

The importance of good keywording cannot be underestimated. With poor or otherwise, non-relevant keywords, even the best visual content has a lower chance to gain traction or attract client attention and can even be demoted due to keywords spamming.

The importance of good keywording cannot be underestimated. With poor or otherwise, non-relevant keywords, even the best visual content has a lower chance to gain traction or attract client attention and can even be demoted due to keywords spamming.

How to select relevant & accurate keywords?

According to Clemency Wright, in an interesting LinkedIn post titled: A Moving Story: Keywording Video for Stock Sales:

“Keywording is not a case of simply 'saying what you see'. It is about presenting the exact results your customers expect to see, and doing so consistently, so they get relevant results quickly and easily without having to spend time thinking about what keywords to use.”

The first question one may ask when keywording assets is simply: “Where do I get keywords from?” The first urge is to usually take a look at your content and take them “just from your head”, by simply describing what you see! This is especially true if you’re in a rush to upload them to multiple stock agencies and move onto the next shoot.

At first, this technique does not seem overly difficult, but I bet you that by the 15th keyword you would change your mind and you may end up including irrelevant keywords, also known as “spamming”.

Disadvantages of “describing what you see”

Even if this approach works for some, let us consider the many disadvantages of this strategy:

- English may not be your native language and you may make many spelling or interpretative mistakes, for instance a common mistake of non-native speakers is to confuse “teaching” with “learning”, for instance, a French / Italian / Spanish contributor, for instance, may erroneously write: “a teacher is learning her students

- As mentioned above by Clemency, generally, brainstorming keywords is guesswork, as you’re guessing what might work for customers, yet you have no data or indication whether your assumption is correct;

- You may have to repeat this process for every image you wish to submit, which is time-consuming;

- The process is tedious, and it is known that attention span can be quickly exhausted with boring and repetitive tasks.

The above mediocre-at-best approach will probably not yield many sales, even if the content is trending. Therefore, to avoid the above trap, there are a variety of tools available to help with this task.

Which tools can be used to help with keywording?

Let us start with free online tools offered by the main Microstock agencies, consisting of Adobe Stock, Shutterstock, and iStock. Each provides their own respective interfaces where you can find tips and tools to keyword your assets.

Adobe Stock Keywording Interface

Adobe Stock has probably the most polished and streamlined web-uploading interface of the Big 3. If you do not provide your own metadata embedded in your file during the upload, it will analyze your image with AI and provide automatic keywording suggestions. Sounds exciting, isn’t it?!

Let’s not get too carried away as the AI still needs a lot of work. Adobe’s recommendation is to explore this feature, but you may quickly realize that it is far from being optimal or relevant. In other words, we would suggest not to use it as your go-to tool, as it should be a reference point at best. The only automatic part that can be fully trusted, is an auto-categorization feature. Adobe got it right and it helps optimize the workflow.

 Some pointers to consider when working with Adobe keywording interface:

 - The order of keywords matters, and Adobe provides you a way to change it easily. You can drag the number to the left of a keyword up or down to rearrange the order.

 - Adobe system gives most weight to the top 5 keywords. Bear it in mind and move the most important and relevant ones to the top.

 - Your content can be uploaded directly from your preferred Adobe editor – Photoshop CC, Lightroom CC, or Bridge CC. Bear in mind that only Bridge preserves the initial keyword order, in all other cases keywords will be reordered alphabetically, and you will need to re-arrange them after uploading.

Shutterstock Keywording Interface

Shutterstock, on the other hand, provides a more robust solution, which includes a dedicated Microstock keywording tool, which is accessible from the contributor's dashboard.

After the requested search string is provided, you must select three images and it will get you keyword suggestions. You can either add keywords individually by clicking on the plus sign for every desired keyword, or you can simply use the “Add All” option.

 You can easily copy selected keywords by clicking on the ‘Copy’ button and then paste it into the image you are keywording. No automatic keywording is provided, but this is hardly a problem.

 The advantages of this tool are clear:

 - Shutterstock provides you with the visual choice to find images similar to yours;

 - It displays bestseller images relevant to your search, so you can use keywords that are proven to work on this platform;

 - It can be used as a keyword research tool for purposes other than submitting assets exclusively to Shutterstock.

As for the automatic keyword suggestions, you can obtain them in the web uploader interface, but the quality and relevance remains below expected standards.

iStock Keywording Tool

iStock uses its own keywording system utilizing a controlled vocabulary that prompts you to fine-tune your keywords in case the precise meaning is requested by the system. For instance, when you enter ‘destination’, you might be given an option to choose from an expanded list of keywords that offers a precise match, such as: “travel destination”, “art destination”, “GPS coordinates”, etc. This can be frustrating and time consuming to have to click through multiple boxes.

Even though iStock provides multiple software options for uploading and keywording images and videos (DeepMeta, qHero, Web Upload), we won’t cover them here, since those tools are specific to iStock and controlled keyword vocabulary approach cannot be used to provide keywords for other platforms.

Keywording for submitting to multiple Microstock agencies

The vast majority of Microstock contributors submit their work to multiple agencies as Royalty-Free non-exclusive. This means that the desired workflow for keywording images should consist of the following steps, each of them performed in the most efficient manner with the least amount of time dedicated to the task:

1.      Find relevant keywords for the asset being submitted;

2.      Apply keywords to images and videos in a single program/interface;

3.      Submit to all supported agencies.

For Step #1, we would recommend, which is a free online tool that provides you with advanced keyword research.

Once you are satisfied with the keywords selected you can press Copy and then paste them into your preferred Metadata Editor.

Apply keywords to images and videos in a single program/interface

As to the second step in the workflow, it comes down to your preferences but consider some points below.

-  Adobe Bridge keeps the original order of your keywords, while Lightroom will rearrange the alphabetically, which is not great if the platform you are submitting to requires you to prioritize the order, such as Adobe Stock;

- None of the existing stand-alone metadata editors can provide you with the ability to provide embedded keywords that will be recognized by all agencies. For example, Adobe Bridge can cover most agencies, but the embedded data won’t be read correctly by Shutterstock Footage upload portal. If you want to optimize your submission and minimize your work, you should use services such as StockStudio.

Submit to all supported agencies

There are great solutions that provide a single interface that can be used for both - keywording and one-click submissions of your content to major stock agencies. As mentioned, StockStudio is one of them and it can do much more, including team collaboration for content projects, property and model release management, cloud storage of your portfolio, etc. For full features please see this link.

Next up, Part II of the article with Clemency Wright

We trust you’ve found the above advice useful. Stay tuned for Part II where we’ll discuss keywording trends and best practices with Clemency Wright. In addition to providing a case-study on keywording two stills and one clip with explanations as to why she’s used certain keywords. How would you go about keywording the following image?


Relevant and quality keywording is a tedious but extremely important process of ensuring your images and footage have a chance to be sold. It can provide you an edge in the competitive world of Stock Imagery. Ultimately, providing keywords is not about describing what you see but about presenting the results customers expect to see. If you are serious about turning your photography passion into income, keywording is an important part of this journey.

Aleksej Vasic

Aleksej is the co-founder and General Manager of Lumina stock studio that has more than one million licences worldwide. With 10+ years in the stock industry, he knows its ins and outs, players and complexities as well as anyone.