How keywords help you find images in a DAM system

Clemency Wright
minute read
Written By
Clemency Wright
May 19, 2023

Visual content plays a key role in the success of marketing and communications for small and medium businesses. They help attract new customers and play a huge part in influencing people’s buying decisions

So it’s no wonder more businesses are investing in digital asset management (DAM) to help manage and streamline content management. It’s a place to organise, search and deploy visuals to your marketing channels. Using a DAM will help you find images quickly, which helps you launch marketing campaigns fast and, ultimately, helps you make more money. 

But the key to a successful DAM is how your metadata and keywords are set up. 
What types of keywords should you be using and how can you make sure other people are able to find your images, fast?

In this article, I’m going to delve into keywords and explain how you can use them to make finding your images in DAM a breeze. 

What are metadata and keywords in DAM? 

We navigate to physical destinations using maps, signs and GPS. Each case requires us to know where we’re going so that the tool can show us the way. 

In a digital asset management system we navigate using metadata

Metadata is image information that can be “read” by your digital asset management system. In many cases, metadata lives behind the scenes so people searching your DAM are not aware of its existence. But if you create digital files of any kind—including images, videos, PDFs and graphics—then the metadata you add to this content in your DAM tool tells the search engine what the content is and what it’s about. This is what powers search.

Keywords are one form of metadata. They describe the attributes of an image such as the location the photo was taken, prominent colours, and the people depicted. Keywords are essential to image search because a search engine cannot “see” visual media, but it can “read” the metadata attached to it in your DAM.

Searching for images in a digital asset management system requires applying metadata and keywords in a systematic way. The keywording process varies from business to business, but the end goal is to ensure relevant and accurate search results and a consistent user experience. 

Why bother with keywords?  

So you know what keywords are—but how useful are they? Here are three key reasons you should spend time applying keywords to your images. 

They make folders easier to navigate 

In his book “Don’t make me Think” User Experience designer, Steve Krug, writes that “nothing important should ever be more than two clicks away”. What this means is that content should be quick and easy to find, and the search experience should be simple and intuitive. 

If you are currently storing your photos and other digital files in folders, then the chances are it’s taking more than two clicks to access them. Storing files in complex folder structures is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Search becomes frustrating, slow and ineffective and, as a result, businesses lose money. 

Let’s say you have a series of folders in your shared drive containing photos of your staff, offices, logos and products. The worst-case scenario (and this is not unusual) is to simply dump all of the logo files into the “Logo” folder and expect people to open it and visually scroll through it. You may have broken them down by year or brand, which helps, and you may have assigned meaningful file names (such as marketing_2023_ebook.jpg), but search is still clunky.

Folder structures work if you know exactly what image you want and you know where it is. You can navigate your way through multiple levels to eventually locate your desired file.

However, there are two problems with this. Firstly, this method will almost certainly require a lot of clicks. Secondly, it doesn’t cater to people using the system to discover new content, or who describe imagery in less formulaic terms.

By adding descriptive keywords (to describe what is shown in the image), as well as administrative metadata (such as creation date, copyright, file size etc.) we open up search to a wider spectrum of people, creating a much more accessible experience.

They save your business time (and money)  

Perhaps you have a library of images already on your hard drives. Think about the times when people have asked you where a particular photograph is. Or, worse, the times when you’ve had to spend ages clicking through thumbnails before you find the image you need.  

When we’re busy and need images fast, we just don’t have time to scroll through folders, trying to remember where things live. What’s more, as your image library grows you end up dropping more files into your sea of content and it takes longer and longer to find what you need. 

Thankfully, keywords facilitate self-service— that’s quick and easy access to all of your content without the need for frequent intervention from your team. This results in more engagement, higher usage rates, a reduced time to market, and overall reduction in time and money spent trying to locate images on a case-by-case basis.

They reduce brand risk 

Imagine you’re uploading images from a shoot for one of your team events. You’ll certainly need to include key information about the event such as its title, where it took place, any key people depicted etc. 

Depending on the circumstances you might also want to specify if the images can be used for social media or press releases or whether they are for some reason “embargoed” for public domain use. This information can be written into the metadata for the files in your digital asset management system so that people searching for content will know how they can use the images.

How to use keywords in your DAM system

Every photo or video uploaded to a digital asset management system should be keyworded to help people find it. The keywords applied to the image should match those terms most likely to be used by people searching for your imagery.

Without keywords, how else will people find the right imagery? Unless they can remember the specific file name or exact location of the folder it’s been filed in, they’ll waste a lot of time searching—and often won’t find it at all. 

Here are some tips on picking keywords for your DAM system.

Discover what your colleagues are already searching for 

Often, when searching in a DAM, people know exactly what they want, or at least they have some idea of the type of result they’re looking for. However, sometimes people are unsure about what’s on offer, or what they want. They might want to be inspired to discover something new. This changes the way people search and the words they use, and so keywords should adapt to various user journeys. 

Some digital asset management systems are configured to help people browse using categories and galleries. Others implement filters and advanced search to help narrow down search results. In comparison, a simple search box allows for a greater sense of autonomy; search is not restricted to a list of options, but rather, it is a blank canvas. 

If you are able to generate keyword search logs, you will find these produce extremely valuable data for your business. Search logs and usage analytics provide insights into the way people navigate your digital content and the terminology they use to search for specific files. This can then be used to course-correct the terminology applied to images to make them even more accessible.

Find synonyms and alternative keywords 

Search is straightforward if everyone is looking for the same thing such as the name of a specific city. Or, when people use the exact same words such as “Coke” instead of “Coca Cola” or “Soda”. However, for smaller, and more specialist businesses, there are plenty of instances where people will be searching in less predictable and more varied ways. 

For instance, people may use different words to describe the same thing (such as “sofa” or “couch”), or conceptual terms like “success” or “celebration”. Concepts are a great way to allow people to search for content that conveys emotion and creates connections, however, they are more difficult to define and put into words. If you can include synonyms and alternative terms to your keywords, then this will make the search experience on the front end much more efficient.

The first stage to making visual media more visible is to learn how people describe it and the terms they use. From there, you can create a strategy to help apply relevant keywords to images so they can be surfaced to the right people at the right time.

Set up usage rights and expiry dates 

You may need to decide who is allowed to see certain files in your DAM and set permissions accordingly. You might also need to define the way images are used, and create clear governance around this, to avoid any confusion or misuse.

Without metadata and keywords, people might feel nervous about using content. This can put people off using your digital asset management system. When this happens, content becomes redundant, it loses its value, and money is wasted creating duplicate content.

By making sure your digital asset management system indicates the status of content, you will reduce risk, help people make good choices and increase their confidence in the way they search for and use content. 

How to get started with keywording?

Keywording is something that takes a bit of time, thought and planning—but it’s never too late to start.

Here’s a quick run-down of how you might get started:

  • Review existing metadata – is it relevant and helpful?
  • Identify your key stakeholders – get together the people who’ll be using your DAM. Find out what they’ll be searching for and the keywords they want to use. 
  • Review content – what are the main topics, themes and concepts in your visual content? 
  • Get specific – how else might people search? Are there any synonyms or alternative keywords you could add? 
  • Assess user experience - are users struggling to find content? 
  • Draft a “work in progress” keyword list - as you research, add your findings to a document and start to build out a comprehensive keyword list. 

After this, think about how best to integrate keywording into your business workflow. What resources do you have? What resources do you need? 

If you want to help people find relevant images, then a simple, easy-to-use digital asset management system is the best place to start. One that can be easily configured to adapt to your growing and changing content collection.

Get 20% off Clemency's keywording course 

If you need guidance with developing a keyword and metadata strategy, you can join my 4-part course: Developing a tactical keyword framework. Make sure to use the code DASH20 to get 20% off! 🤩

And if you don't have a DAM system yet, you can sign up for Dash free for 14 days. Just head to the form below. 👇

(You can also use our free digital asset migration spreadsheet to help get your content ready to move to your new system).

Clemency Wright

Clemency Wright is a Keywording Consultant. She helps brands increase visibility to visual media through strategic search methods and Keywording training.

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Clemency Wright

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