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Infographics & Visual Storytelling: How To Do It The Right Way
When Jay-Z released “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)” back in 2009, he took it upon himself to “draw [a] line in the sand.” He pointed out that auto-tune had become a victim of its own success, with everyone jumping on the bandwagon and many artists using it as a crutch or a gimmick rather than a way of taking music to new and innovative directions.
It was a polarizing yet seminal moment in Hip-Hop culture.
The Problem With Infographics
The marketing industry is having a similar moment with infographics. Over the last few years, infographics have become one of the most popular ways to build inbound links.
Publications are so saturated with infographics that there is an entire industry devoted just to highlighting and critiquing infographics published elsewhere. It’s safe to say the novelty of infographics has worn off, but the oft-mentioned quality control and saturation issues aren’t the only reasons for it.
Infographics aren’t dead, but it is time for marketers to draw a line in the sand and reclaim the medium. It starts by understanding the problem with infographics and then addressing the issues one by one.
Accuracy & Attribution Issues
Unlike written content, infographics don’t allow for an easy way to cite and link to the sources you use, and most people compiling infographics just dump all the URLs at the very bottom.
This is a poor way to give credit — and it also makes it tedious to verify the information because you have to manually type out the URLs. What’s worse is that, in many cases, the sources cited at the bottom aren’t even the original sources for the data — they are blogs that have interpreted (or misinterpreted) and reblogged data originally published in a case study by a third party.
One recent example of this is the Twitter Engagement infographic published on Quick Sprout. Even though there are eight URLs listed at the bottom, almost all of the data originated in a Buddy Media report that is almost 18 months old! It is obvious that the makers of the infographic did not reference the original study because errors published on the cited blogs are copied over to the infographic uncorrected.
Due to the costs associated with creating infographics, incorrect data or outdated data are almost never updated, leading to an incredibly short shelf-life for the integrity of the infographic. This is especially problematic in rapidly-changing industries such as social media and digital marketing.
To address these issues, rely on primary source data, verify all data used by third parties (if outsourcing infographic production) and, whenever possible, focus on evergreen content.
List sources separately from the infographic and make them easily discoverable by anyone who republishes the infographic. Keep the raw assets on hand in case you find any errors, and update the infographic whenever necessary (you can even list last updated date on the graphic). Also consider going beyond images and use HTML/CSS to develop infographics.
Accessibility & Usability Issues
Infographics rely on visual panache above all — and at times at the expense of everything else.
While visually displayed information is pleasing to and preferred by many, it also creates a lot of accessibility issues and usability issues. As Access iQ points out, the blind, color blind, vision impaired and people with cognitive disabilities all have a difficult time viewing and following the information presented in an infographic.
If they are using screen readers to access the infographic, all they will see is the image alt-text. While it is possible to create accessible infographics, the finished work isn’t necessarily better than presenting all the information in text form.
Even for users without disabilities, infographics present problems. Your goal should be to present the information you wish to communicate in a way that it is easiest to understand, but because most infographics are designed with virality and linkability in mind, they end up making the information interesting to look at but significantly more difficult to understand.
Additionally, infographics are developed as static images with desktop users in mind (after all, it’s these users who will reblog and share the content) and are virtually unusable on mobile devices (these users are not responsive). Most mobile devices have 4″- 5″ screens, while most infographics are 600 pixels wide at a 10-pt font. Considering almost 30 percent of global web traffic is now mobile, you can imagine the ramifications of relying on infographics.
Speaking of global impact, consider this: text-based content can be translated in a browser on the fly; however, when it comes to infographics, we run into not only translation issues, but also cultural ones, as people’s interpretation of colors and iconography vary by country.
To address these issues, offer multiple versions of the same infographic (different versions, formats and sizes) and offer a text transcript along with the infographic. Additionally, to make translation easier, you can make the raw assets available on your site and allow international publishers to localize them while giving you credit.
SEO & Indexing Issues
“In principle, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of an infographic. What concerns me is the types of things that people are doing with them.” – Matt Cutts
1. The Intent Problem. Infographics have gained popularity as a search engine marketing tool, and most content creators have put on blinders to other uses for them. Data visualization can be exceptionally valuable when used for the right reasons — like taking large amounts of raw data and presenting it to the reader to create more clarity and a better understanding. One chart or graph can explain data from a spreadsheet in a manner that several paragraphs may not be able to.
However, that is not the intent behind most infographics, which are used to make information more visually appealing to readers often at the expense of cognitive simplicity. This is one area where digital publishing can learn from print: using data visualization to complement, rather than replace, text-based content can make complex data easier to understand.
2. The Perception Problem. Infographics cost anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000 to research, create, and promote — the range depends on quality and volume of link acquisition.
Purely based on the cost structure, high-quality infographics are simply unaffordable for the average publisher. A majority of infographics are produced on the behalf of companies that can afford to pay a high up-front cost and make up for it in the volume of new customer acquisitions or lifetime value of customers — in other words, lead generation companies looking to rank for high-volume keywords through rapid link acquisition. The perception problem means the average publisher, reader and social news community (such as Reddit or Hacker News) is skeptical of the motivations behind infographics, limiting their potential reach.
“The other thing that happens is that people don’t always realize what they are linking to when they reprint these infographics. Often the link goes to a completely unrelated site, and one that they don’t mean to endorse.” – Matt Cutts
3. The Implementation/Functionality Problem. What Matt is talking about directly follows from the first two points. When infographics are designed purely with marketing intent and to build links, oftentimes these links don’t go back to a page where the infographic was originally published (or where you found it) since ranking that page doesn’t serve a purpose.
Instead, the embed code from the infographic links back to the homepage of the site with the specific phrase the infographic creator is trying to rank for. Note the difference between  and  in the image below.
The problem isn’t limited to this, either. The links generated from these embed codes are placed underneath the infographic and are not contextual links (links to a site provided within a body of text discussing a topic relevant to the linked site).
Embed codes try to get around this by placing instructional text such as “please link to [source website] for this infographic” in there, but the practice isn’t popular because most publishers don’t bother to edit the default text and because companies producing the infographics insist on specific anchor text.
How Will Google Respond?
The two Matt Cutts quotes I’ve highlighted above are hard to misinterpret. Google believes there is nothing inherently wrong with infographics, but the way they are being used for link building falls under Google’s definition of a link scheme.
I would encourage you to read the entire interview between Matt Cutts and Eric Enge if you’re relying on infographics for link building. What Matt Cutts says is not very different from the IAB disclosure guidelines I’ve previously discussed.
The big key is that the person publishing the infographic has to know, and agree with, including an endorsement to your site as attribution with the infographic.
Think about how a publisher’s willingness to republish your content changes when the publisher is made aware in clear terms the nature of your business and what you’re trying to accomplish with the infographic.
Best Practices For Infographics
When Google does respond, don’t think that it will be a blanket devaluation or penalty. Expect the same guidelines for usability, content quality and intent to apply to infographics as they do to any other type of content. If you focus on high quality content that is original, relevant and useful — and organically generates editorial links — then you have nothing to worry about.
If you’re looking an example of an infographic done right, the Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO is a good benchmark to go by.
Here are some of the things they’ve done to address and anticipate potential issues that arise with infographics:
1. Accuracy & Citations. Due to the expertise of the site, the infographic is based on a combination of primary source data and information made publicly available from Google. This, combined with periodic updates to the table as the industry evolves, eliminates any possibility of incorrect information or citation issues. There is only one link on the graphic, which takes you to the hub for the SEO Table.
2. Accessibility & Usability. The infographic is available in two versions (full and condensed), two formats (image and PDF), and six different sizes, including a condensed version at 480×758 which is perfectly legible on a 4″ iPhone screen. Furthermore, the infographic comes with a short companion guide as well as a longer, more detailed guide for anyone who may have trouble viewing the infographic or is looking for more information on SEO.
3. Intent & Implementation. The landing page of the infographic has no embed code on it, only buttons for sharing it on social sites. You have to be specifically looking for the embed code and click a link on the page to get it.
When you get to the page, you are given embed codes for the infographic in various sizes, but none of the embed codes include a link to the infographic or Search Engine Land by default. There are instructions further down the page requesting that you link to the landing page for the infographic (not the Search Engine Land homepage), using the title of the infographic (not anchor text for high volume search-related terms).
It is easy to see what sets this infographic apart from a majority of infographics that circulate on the web. To answer Barry’s question, Google should have no problems with this infographic because it consists of evergreen content that will naturally acquire contextual links.
The $8.1 Million Question
Reading the coverage of Visual.ly’s $8.1 million series A funding gives us some insight on the future of visual content. Increasingly, the company has been broadening its scope to other forms of data visualization such as interactive infographics, motion graphics and videos.
While infographics are by no means dead, they are evolving beyond the static images we’re used to seeing. To stand out from the crowd consider using these technologies to tell your story and reach people in ways not yet saturated in the market.
Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.