Why we need to start thinking about next-gen image formats


On 24 January during a Google NYC meetup, John Mueller, Google’s Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst, said that in the coming year, webmasters and SEOs would have to start thinking about Image Search a little differently.

Mentioning that it would be a “bigger topic” during 2019, Mueller said that users may in fact start using Image Search to do new things, such as accomplish tasks, purchase goods online, or even to learn something new.

He also said that SEOs and webmasters would need to start thinking differently about how they optimise for Image Search.

The overlooked art of image optimisation

Although Mueller didn’t go into the specifics of what these considerations would be, or why in fact SEOs would have to make them, it is clear that Image Search is about to go through what could be a fundamental change. 

This means therefore, that SEOs are going to have to spend more time investing and optimising an area of work that often gets overlooked, which is a peculiarity, considering that over 60% of the internet consists of images alone.

Although the change may feel somewhat sudden, Google has been urging SEOs to offer a better and more inclusive experience to users for years. 

In fact, in 2017 the US Government even passed a law under the American Disabilities Act (ADA) that required websites to provide alt text to users. 

Although it was later revoked, in December 2018, it was reported that a legally blind man was suing the Playboy website after claiming that it was “inaccessible” due to its lack of alt text.

Laws, courts, and Playboy aside, there are also other reasons why we need to be putting more thought into optimising images, such as providing the best possible performance for users on all devices.

Over the past ten years, web developers and SEOs have worked together to create faster and more streamlined experiences for users, which means looking outside the usual alt text and image description parameters.

With the demand and reward for image optimisation about to get a lot more interesting, this means putting ourselves behind and investing in next-gen images to ensure that we’re offering the best possible performance for users.

What are next-gen images?

Put simply, next-gen images are image formats that have superior compression and quality characteristics to their JPEG and PNG ancestors.

The most popular are JPEG 2000, JPEG XR, and WebP, and as you might have already guessed, they offer the dual benefit of taking up less data while maintaining a high level of quality.

It is important to realise however, that not all browsers yet support next-gen formats. For example, WebP, which is supported in Chrome and Opera, is not yet supported in Safari or iOS Safari.

Likewise, JPEG 2000 is supported by both Safari and Safari IOS, although not yet for Firefox or Chrome.

There are solutions to these issues, which can be found near the end of this article.

It is WebP however, developed by Google itself, which is likely to become the most common next-gen image format due to the percentage of users using Chrome as their preferred web browser.

WebP

WebP provides superior lossless and lossy compression for images and are 26% smaller in size compared to PNGs.

At the equivalent SSIM quality index, WebP lossy images are 25-35% smaller than JPEG images.

What’s more, WebP supports the alpha channel (also known as transparency) with a cost of just 22% additional bytes.

Supported in Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and the Opera browser, WebP can also be used within a range of image editing tools.

If you have Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X, you can convert any PNG or JPEG image by downloading the precompiled cwebp conversion tool here

Jpeg2000

As you might already be aware, JPEG is a newer version of the JPEG format, and has been designed by the Joint Photographic Experts Group committee.

The advantage of a JPEG 2000 file is that it is able to preserve great amounts of metadata information, which is useful when data is required to study lighting and exposure conditions.

Files can be encoded losslessly, and the format offers good compression performance, which makes JPEG 2000s appealing for online use.

Able to be compressed further than a JPEG image, and with only a minimal loss in visual quality, the format is well worth considering for when you are creating new content.

Although only supported on Safari for the moment, the images provide great usability and benefit for those using Mac products.

JPEG XR

Although last in the list of the three primary next-gen image formats that you should consider, it almost sits in the middle of JPEG and JPEG 2000, and is considered more practical than the latter.

Designed as the original successor to JPEG itself, the JPEG XR is actually the standard format for enhanced HDR images and can support bit-depths of 16 or greater, as well as better compression techniques than standard formats.

However practical it might be however, it should be worth noting that JPEG XR is only supported on Firefox and Safari for the moment.

If next-gen images only work on certain browsers, why should I use them?

The good news is that there are solutions that you can utilise to ensure that everyone can make the most of next-gen images.

For example, there are development tools readily available so that websites can detect what browser a user is operating on so that they can be served the correct image.

With companies such as Google putting so much time, effort, and finances into next-gen images, and regardless of whether it lets other formats fall by the wayside, we are on the verge of next-gen imagery becoming standardised and accepted by all web browsers.

By investing time and effort into using next-gen images now, and more importantly, before your competitors, you can strive to get ahead of the curve before we see major changes in Image Search across 2019 and beyond.