Article images, similar to how thumbnails on YouTube effect engagement, will increase the engagement of your website or blog articles. Of course this is mostly true if you also share your content on social media, since the image can then be included along with the shared link. But, representative images are also useful when used in a related articles section on individual pages. I personally use of both!
This article specifically deals with representative images, but it can also be a good idea to include more images in general, as they may supplement and simplify complex content.
Now, I do not have images in all my articles, as it is a relatively new habit I got into. For a while I was also a bit inconsistent with including them, and sometimes I might still delay adding an image until later when I am in the mood to do it.
Content creation is hard! And it can certainly feel tedious at times. So, if we are not in the mood to do a specific thing, it may be better to sometimes delay parts of the process until later. This is perfectly fine, and is not going to harm your SEO or anything, so do not worry about creating content that is not fully completed. The important thing is that you finish the article later.
In my case, a missing image really does not matter much. I just wait sharing the article on my social media pages until I have included the image that is going to represent it.
Note. Article images will also be used if you use Matched Content units from Google Adsense, which may show users more targeted and relevant content than anything your own CMS might be able to include in a "related" section.
Creating the images is usually a fast process, since I have opted to use a consistent and simple image format in most my articles. Doing it this way allows me to use pre-made templates when creating the images. An example template is included below:
All I have to do after opening the template file is write some text, and/or place relevant elements on top of my background. Currently I use Gimp, but I have also used Paint.NET in the past. Both programs are free! This simple format has a positive effect on my branding, while also optimizing my use of time. I want to spend most my time writing articles, creating content, while I spend as little time on graphics and design as possible.
Using representative images for articles
Writing a good article is still going to be the main thing, so you will want to write at least 500 words, and possibly even more. Keep in mind that any such rule is more a rough estimate of what is needed to rank with targeted keywords, in reality the word count does not mean much!
Having images in articles does not seem to effect my SEO much, other than the fact that the images themselves are indexed and might bring in traffic—so do not expect miracles in this area.
Personally, I like to add my "conclusion" or "main information" somewhere at the top of my article, and then I will write how I reached the conclusion in the body for the users who are interested in a more detailed explanation. I am a Web Developer, and i know from my own use of search engines that I prefer to quickly find specific information, and I rarely care about the details unless it is an entire new subject to me. While this might be good to users, it will probably be bad for our bounce rate.
I have found that tutorials are very effective at driving traffic to a website. Sadly, the field is also overcrowded, so I have a lot of competing websites. I try not to look at them at my competitors, but it is hard not to be frustrated about them when you got poorly spelled spam articles outranking your highly informative content. Typically this will be very low word-count, poor spelling, and maybe even copy pasted from official sources such as php.net. Yet, for some reason these sometimes seem to easily outrank more original content.
The best way to deal with these competitors is to write comprehensively, and try to do everything better than they are doing. I am sure being more thorough will pay off in the long term.
Images and SEO
SEO is also not a high priority for me, since I expect the best of my content to at least rank similar to other competing content. That is not always the case, however—In fact, far from it!
For instance, I have some articles that are really good, but they are outranked by simple forum discussions and low-word count content from spammers. That is of course quite frustrating, but you have to remember that ranking in the search engines is a process—it can take several months for an article to get decently ranked!
I have had articles rank badly for months only to suddenly gain steam later. So, ranking is very much a process.
Images might still be picked up as a quality signal in some cases, but I think the effect, if any at all, is likely to be very small. If done right however, there is sure to be an indirect positive effect, just as other things you might do to improve your users experience of your website.
You should of course remember to properly fill out the alt attributes on your images, as this both helps with indexing the images, and provides extra meaning to users of assistive technology.
Content-wise, the effect of including relevant images should not be underestimated. Ultimately I want to provide users with a good experience on my sites so they will want to come back. But, I also want to consider possible things I can do to include my overall SEO, and if relevant images might be picked up as a quality signal, then it is a very small thing I can do to improve my overall chances of a better ranking.