Google’s Virtual Game Changer

Leveraging 360 VR video & image optimization for SEO

Contributor Brian Ussery notes that as global search interest in VR skyrockets, Google has quietly made 360-degree VR videos and images accessible across devices and optimizable for organic search.

With little fanfare, earlier this year Google rolled out a way to embed 360-degree VR media for headsets in search engine optimizable web pages accessible via desktop and mobile. That’s right, immersive VR videos and images for VR headsets can now be optimized for search, accessed directly from Google and experienced on desktops and mobile devices, with or without the need for a native mobile app or VR headset. (Full disclosure: I own stock in Google.)

Considering Google has shipped over five million Cardboard VR headsets, and over 12 million VR headsets are expected to sell this year, this innovation presents a major opportunity for search marketers in travel, real estate, design, education and other industries.

While it has always been possible to embed 360 VR media in pages for consumption on desktop and mobile, compatibility issues made it nearly impossible to embed content for VR headsets in web pages. Google’s “VR View” is changing that by making immersive 360-degree VR media interoperable and resolving concerns about the “limited availability of VR hardware among the general public.”

Google VR View for the web supports full 360 VR through Google Cardboard devices. For mobile and desktop users without a VR headset, VR View pages default to a “magic window” accessible across browsers and mobile apps and by search engines.

Following the 360 VR revolution

This release comes amidst a dramatic rise in public fascination with VR technology. Global search interest in “VR” has increased 300 percent over the past year and reached a new all-time high in June 2016. Additionally, an increasing body of research indicates that 360 VR content increases engagement, interactions, views, shares, subscriptions, time on page and empathy. Search engines can interpret these as signals of quality content, which, as you may already know, can be critical for rankings.

Quality content is kind of the whole point of good virtual reality. When executed properly, 360 VR videos and images provide users with a sense of “presence” or the feeling they are “somewhere else.”

The idea of “presence” is near and dear to Google, as co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page considered focusing on telepresence in college instead of search. Rather than being its own product internally at Google, VR is more of an interdepartmental concept that every product manager is encouraged to explore and understand. Google employees working on Search, StreetView, YouTube, Geo, Maps, Android and other things are also working on VR-related projects.

Because Google believes in the potential for 360-degree VR media to be a “transformative technology,” it has heavily invested in VR. With its current fleet of hundreds of cars, trolleys, trikes, snowmobiles, submarines and backpacks dedicated to capturing panoramic imagery for Google Street View, perhaps no company on earth has as much experience capturing 360-degree media as Google.

360 VR has come a long way

Being a deeply invested trailblazer in this emerging medium is no small feat. Producing high-quality 360 VR images and video has historically been expensive, difficult and tedious. When I created my first 360-degree image back in 2002, it took me more than 40 hours just to digitally stitch every image together. That doesn’t include time to scout locations, capture images or “invent” the necessary equipment (nothing existed commercially at the time).

Of course, today there are a number of relatively low-priced options for capturing and automatically “stitching” together VR media, and this form of content creation is becoming more and more popular among brands and publishers alike. In addition to the wide range of cameras and devices on the market, there are free apps like Google’s Street View camera and Cardboard camera that make it easier than ever before to capture 360-degree videos and images. In addition to real-world capture, VR View even supports an expanding range of CGI solutions.

Now, with Google VR View, nearly anyone can embed and promote VR media directly on their website, letting users easily find it from Google search and consume it on desktop, mobile or with a VR headset. This is the first step in what’s sure to be an exciting future for VR.

Google VR View

VR View starts with a “magic window” iframe embedded in a traditional web page. On desktop, VR View works like standard 360 VR content, but on mobile, the image on the phone corresponds to the movement of the phone. With VR View, when the phone moves, the VR video or image embedded in the magic window responds to move along with the phone. Mobile users can view 360 VR media via partial or full-screen experience, or they can click on the Cardboard icon to transition to a head-mounted display (HMD) VR experience.

To see VR View in action, check out Google’s demo on your desktop, mobile and Google Cardboard-powered VR device.

360 VR video & image SEO preparation

VR View supports mono 360 panoramas, as well as omnidirectional stereo (ODS) panoramas. Both 360 stills and videos are supported in mono or stereo. When it comes to image files, Google supports PNG and JPEG, but JPEG is usually the best option from a load time perspective.

Content in 360 VR can be optimized to load quickly on mobile and even use advanced technologies like AMP, which now supports immersive video viewing experiences. Dimensions should always be divisible by 16 and be a maximum of 4096 x 4096.

To use 360 VR images from Google’s Cardboard camera app, download the image and convert it to align with Google’s formatting standards. Google provides all of the basic information and guidelines you will need on the VR developer site.

360 VR technical SEO preparation

Google has open-sourced “VR View,” making all of the technical specifications available on Github. Google recommends uploading a local version of VR View instead of using a linked external version.

For those folks who are not technically inclined, the advantage of VR View is that it does all of the hard work. You can actually get VR View up and running by simply uploading VR View files to your site from Github and making a handful of required technical changes.

360 VR search engine optimization

When it comes to optimizing VR View pages for search, it is important to be aware that search engines do not index video files directly in search results. Instead, search engines index URLs of pages where video content is accessible for users. In order to index VR View pages, the engine must crawl the parent URL, find the iframe and iframe content, associate them all together, and index the parent URL in search results.

Thanks to VR View, SEO for VR content pages is easy. In many ways, it is similar to standard video or image optimization, except for a few key differences.

  1. Once you have a 360 VR file embedded in a working, mobile-friendly HTTPS page that loads quickly, it is time to start thinking about optimizing URLs for search. The page, iframe URL and VR media URL all need to be unique and optimized for search. Since file names can convey important clues to users and search engines, it is a good idea to include descriptive keywords in URLs for these files. For VR files, “VR” and geographic keywords usually do well. For instance, chicago-vr-image.jpg is better than 1234.jpg. Google includes some keyword terms in the VR View example, but it is possible to make additional customizations for SEO.
  2. Each page needs a unique and descriptive HTML <title> element (60-70 characters), meta description (a short sentence or two) and heading tag (three to eight words). Given the interest in “VR” related keywords, it is a good idea to include geographic and VR-related keyword terms accurately describing the subject. For instance, “VR Video Wrigley Field Chicago, IL” is better than just “VR Video” or “Wrigley Field Chicago.”
  3. Include a short five- to eight-word caption under the magic window for each piece of 360 VR content. Ensure each caption accurately describes the location and subject matter of the media in the page, in addition to including a couple of “VR”-related keywords for searchers looking for VR content. For instance, “360 VR image: Machu Picchu Peru Guardhouse View.”
  4. If an image is worth 1,000 words, 16 images have to be worth a lot more, no? Include some unique original text (ideally a paragraph or two) under the caption for each piece of VR content that accurately describes the subject matter of the 360 VR media embedded in the page. Try to include relevant named entities like nearby cities, states, countries, landmarks, rivers, mountains ranges, forests, oceans, deserts and seasons in addition to elevation, date, time, weather or other relevant information. To attract users searching for “VR”-related keyword terms, do not forget to include format-related content keywords like “VR video,” “VR images,” “immersive video,” “360 VR media” or similar words that make sense. At the same time, the key is to sprinkle, not spam.  (Google’s demo is a technical proof of concept and not an example of SEO best practices; including duplicate text taken directly from Wikipedia is not recommended.) Stanford’s Virtual Storytelling Guide is a great reference for VR success.
  5. Since the magic window in VR View leverages an iframe, and iframed content can be problematic for search engines, it never hurts to place a rel=canonical tag pointing to the parent URL in the iframed page, as long as the same iframe URL is not embedded in multiple parent URLs. When used properly, the rel=canonical tag helps ensure that engines index the page with the embedded video and properly consolidate linking properties.

VR videos & image search options

In addition to embedding 360-degree VR media in web pages or uploading VR videos to YouTube.com, many of the latest 360 VR cameras, devices and apps interface directly with Google. That means that photographers can instantly share 360 VR images on Google with the push of a button.

This is important for marketers because photos with virtual tours in search results are twice as likely to generate interest. With the Google Street View camera app, user-contributed 360 VR images can appear in Google organic search results, Google Maps, Street View, Google Earth, third-party sites using embeddable widgets or the Google Maps API, as well as other Google products and services.

Final thoughts

When people think about VR, “gaming” is the first thing that usually comes to mind, but not all VR experiences require the time it takes to play a game, let alone a fancy VR headset. According to some leading VR experts, the best applications for VR might be communication, not gaming.

Marketers interested in VR should think about opportunities to share real-world “bite-size” VR content that anyone can consume — and the sense of “presence” it conveys. For instance, building trust with a 360 VR video of your actual office, closing more deals by leveraging a 360 virtual walk-throughs of homes still under construction, booking more guests by capturing actual views from your rooms or properties and selling more tours with immersive images of real world destinations.

Instead of taking a traditional “gaming” approach to 360 VR videos and images, marketers should focus on Google’s “VR for all approach.” Just like Google image search and YouTube, sometimes the best result for a user’s query is not a page full of text. VR creators, developers and users will come up with new and interesting ways to leverage 360 VR media.

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