Identifying Images That Don’t Convert: The Caption Test

In my column on the Landing Page Battles of the Flat Fore Headed, I deride stock photography as the result of lazy designers. I was asked on LinkedIn by a reader if all stock photography was bad. Obviously, the answer is “No.”

So how do you determine what images are going to be effective and which are not? Which images are going to reduce the conversion rates of your landing pages and which will help instill confidence in the visitor to take action?

Unfortunately, I am not a photographer or graphic artist, so I really can’t critique images on their intrinsic value. However, I have a little test that I use to identify irrelevant images and photographs.

I call it “The Caption Test.”

The Caption Test

Most of the images used on a webpage do not have a caption. This is unfortunate, because readers who are scanning your page will read these, often more than will read your headline and certainly more than will read your copy.

Thus, captions are a great place to put offers.

Web images don’t have captions because there is no intelligent caption that could be written. If you tried to write a caption for many of the images on your site, you would be at a loss.

This is a sign of irrelevance.

A Tale Of Three Captions

An image should say something to the reader. What do your images say?

To tease out the relevance of a photo, graphic or illustration, I going to ask you to write not one, three captions for the images on your key webpages.

They are:

1. What the image should have said

This can be gleaned from any accompanying copy on the page. If one of your headlines would work underneath an image, your image is probably relevant. Of course, if your headlines aren’t drawing in the conversions, the image they inspire won’t be very effective either.

I’d like to find an image that said this:

“This column provides helpful tips and opinion to help you increase the conversion rates of your online marketing.”

How about an image of money flying out of a computer! Is that really what I’m saying?

2. What you thought it was insinuating

We tend to choose images that are subversive in their impact, as if we spoil the surprise if the image reveals too much about the product or service.

Images are often chosen that the designer believes are aspirational or stimulating. This technique may be acceptable for an article or blog post, but it is a waste of key real estate on a page designed to incite action from a visitor.

If I wanted to insinuate that pretty people read my column, I could put an attractive woman on the page, perhaps staring longingly at a laptop, the screen of which you can’t see. NOTE: both men and women respond positively to female images. I’m not being sexist.

Such an image may be preferable to a more negative image, but it will not make you believe that you will be more attractive if you read my column. Of course, you will be, because smart is sexy.

3. What the image actually says to the reader

This is a chance to underscore the way humans process images. A segment of your visitors will interpret images literally, another segment will attach meaning to images from past experiences, and yet another will ignore images that aren’t blatantly interesting or provocative.

Put yourself in your visitors’ shoes and be honest with yourself. What does this image really say to the reader?

The laptop with money streaming out of it makes a promise I can’t keep: “My column will make money flow from the Web for you.

A beautiful woman supposedly reading my column makes a promise no one will believe: “You will be more attractive if you read this column.”

This is where we call “Bull” by putting ourselves in the readers’ shoes.

A Few Examples

As I said, I’m not qualified to judge images aesthetically. I don’t know if these examples are particularly good or bad. Instead, I chose some that are representative of images I see over and over again.

All of these are illustrative of those found on actual websites. You may have similar images on your site.

The Enigmatic

What the image should have said:

“We can answer your questions about which financial vehicles are right for you.”

What it was insinuating:

“You are probably confused, so you should start writing us checks.”

What it actually said:

“Little plastic people are terrible at designing stairs.”

Business Porn

What the image should have said:

“Our IT training provides guidance on how to effectively build, deploy, support, and improve services to enable your business.” (I don’t write this stuff)

What they were insinuating:

“If you pay for our training, you can hang out with young beautiful people. Like me!”

What it actually said:

“Don’t look away! Don’t look away! Look at me!”

NOTE: Beautiful people will seriously detract from the message on the page. We just can’t stop looking at them.

Hallmark Moments

Source: iStock Photo

What the image should have said:

“It’s easy to compare insurance plans, get quotes and apply online.”

What they were insinuating:

“Shopping for health insurance on our site makes you more attractive and happy.”

What it actually said:

“These people are having fun shopping for insurance. And if you believe that, have I got a policy for you.”

Nailing It

What the image should have said:

“Our computer is thin, light and easy to carry.”

What they are insinuating:

“Our computer is thin, light and easy to carry.

What it actually said:

“Look how thin this computer is. You can bet it’s light and easy to carry, too.”

A hat tip to Social Triggers, who pointed out this last one.

Your Turn

This is caption test is fun and can seriously improve the performance of your pages. Give us the link to images that you find—good or bad–and take a stab at the caption test. I may have a few captions of my own. I’ll share your images and captions on with my readers.

Post in the comments below or email to

Images used under license from iStockPhoto.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Search & Conversion


About The Author: is the Conversion Scientist at Conversion Sciences and author of Your Customer Creation Equation: Unexpected Website Forumulas of The Conversion Scientist. Follow Brian at The Conversion Scientist blog and on Twitter @bmassey

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  • Samantha McCormick

    Post: “What Are You Doing To Earn Facebook Likes and Facebook Fans?”

    “Wearing an invisibility cloak in the corner of an 11 year old’s makeout party”

    Sorry Michael Gray, but I can’t stand your irrelevant use of stock photo spam. I would say my respect for him downgraded 60% when he started using it exclusively for every single post. When overdone it comes across lazy and generic.

  • Nancy

    Great analysis Brian. This is a quick and easy rule to remember…I’ll ask myself these questions next time. What’s your take on video faces/ video avatars- distracting? effective?

    Here’s my “Caption Test” entry:

    What the image should have said: We’re a qualified diverse team of business professionals worldwide working for you 24/7.

    What they were insinuating: Look at our sexy and powerful models…all in suits!

    What it actually said: ♫ “Here come the men in black (men in blaacck) Galaxy defenders (oaahhh ohhhh)”♬

    Maybe it’s just me, but those lyrics came to my head :)


  • Brian Massey

    Samantha, I read through the post you reference and didn’t see anything about teenagers or pizza. It’s not even a good reflection of the demographic of Facebook. Bog posts are a bit of an exception, though. It appears that the rule “any image is better than no image” applies in this particular format. I’ve learned a lot from Michael’s blog, but clearly the images aren’t working for you. Good feedback for him.

  • Brian Massey

    Nancy, this is a GREAT example. You hit on an issue that I pulled back on in the article: expressing diversity.

    Putting images of “people of color” on your site looks like pandering. If you’re so “diverse” put pictures of your management up. Put pictures of your customers up. A company consisting of old white men can buy stock photography of people of any culture for their site. Is this really honest?

    Readers who aren’t familiar with the song “Men in Black”, check it out here.

  • renbyrd

    I’m guilty of using business porn and Hallmark moments, but it’s hard to do otherwise when a client is offering a very non-visual service. Yes, Apple nailed it with their imagery, but try finding a non-cheesy visual for business payroll services, sleep apnea treatment, or IT services (actual clients of mine). Sometimes all there is is cheesy. I guess the best advice would be to avoid the cliche and let your text do the talking, not the picture.

  • Brian Massey


    Well, it’s easy to criticize, and quite another to do the hard work of making images that really work for you.

    Images play a role on a page.They make a page full of text look less intimidating. Right justified images at the top make the first few lines shorter, easier to read and those lines can draw the reader into the copy.

    If you must use “business porn” choose an attractive woman who is looking at and even pointing at something important, such as the headline or your call to action on a landing page.

    I also offer several alternatives in my previous article: Show the product, show the employees, or show your customers.

    If you can work a metaphor into your copy, image selection becomes much easier. “Sleep Apnea is the Undetected Career Killer” might have a picture of a masked man with a gun.

    Once you commit to communicating with words and images, it can get quite fun.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • AstroGremlin

    Brian, your funny captions bring the point home: Random images may be telling a different story than your post is!  I’m as guilty as the next guy of posting eye candy and trying to work a story around it.  Color me chastened.


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