Why It’s Important to Get WordPress Featured Images Right (Plus Tools & Tips)

“Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.” is the first reported instance of the English language idiom that most of us know as “A picture is worth a thousand words”. In other words, why waste your breath (or fingers) when you could use a single picture to tell your story? A beautiful example of this is the featured image.

If you’re familiar with the WordPress Codex, then you may have heard featured images referred to as post thumbnails. Regardless of what you call them, featured images are a critical part of the content creation process in WordPress.

Think of a featured image like a model for your content. It’s that pretty and relatable face you put in front of your visitors (or in front of people outside your site) that says, “Don’t be a stranger!” But there are no words needed. The image speaks for itself.

Whether or not you’ve already gotten into the habit of applying a featured image to all content on your WordPress sites, there are important lessons here about the power of using strong imagery on your site as well as why you should always dot your i’s and cross your t’s before publishing anything to your site.

What Is a Featured Image Really For?

If you’re not comfortable with the model analogy above, you can think of your featured images as the representatives of your content. It would be like if you ran a beauty salon. The last thing you’d want to do is put someone at the front desk with bad skin and oily hair. That would be a terrible representation of what your business stands for or what level of quality of service your customers would receive (hopefully).

Actually, I take that back. The worst thing you could do is not put anyone at the front of your store to greet visitors. The second worst thing is to put someone up front who would confuse and potentially frighten customers.

In other words, you absolutely need a high-quality and relevant featured image tied to every page and post on your website. The featured image isn’t just the photo that shows up at the top of your blog post content. Its effects are actually quite far reaching:

When your theme includes a header image to go with your blog post title.

Featured Images - Esquire Header
Esquire places their featured images just below the title and byline.

When your post goes live on the main blog page.

Featured Images - WPMU DEV Consistency
Love, love, love the consistent design of all of WPMU DEV’s featured images. It makes for a super polished blog roll viewing experience.

When your post shows up in a suggestion for related posts.

Featured Images - Nerdist Related Posts
Since Nerdist covers a lot of entertainment news, it makes sense they’d have plenty of related content to share.

When your content is shared on social media.

Featured Images - Social Media Post
I think most social media platforms have now gone the way of these full-width featured images and they look great when you’re trying to find interesting stories to read in your feed.

When your content is pulled into an RSS feed.

Featured Images - RSS Feed
Articles in Feedly almost always have a featured image attached. For whatever reason, though, this one from Seth Godin doesn’t.

Featured images can also be attached to your website’s pages and ecommerce product pages as well. You never know when that content will show up in a feed or on social someday, which is why you should always attach a featured image to each new piece of content you create in WordPress.

Why Is a Featured Image Important?

I’m going to tell you a very quick story. It’s about this local newspaper:

Featured Images - Local Paper
Even though I should’ve expected it, I was surprised when I saw the wrong photo associated with this article.

See that headline that says “Wilmington doctor indicted on insurance fraud and identity theft”? Right, so the image to the left is most certainly not related to that article in any way, shape, or form. It’s a photo of a police officer who was recently shot while on duty. The reason why it shows up as the featured image for that story is because Delaware Online embeds a news video player at the top of all their pages.

Featured Images - Header Video Error
Here’s the reason for the wrong featured image getting pulled into the article about the Wilmington doctor.

The videos are always unrelated to the actual article content featured below, which, in my opinion, makes for a terrible user experience. As someone who reads this online magazine often, I always know to scroll past the fold in order to get to the content I want to read. However, this has got to be confusing for new readers. It also clearly messes with the featured image pull as RSS feed aggregators have no idea where to get the story’s image from. I’ve learned to ignore it, but it’s likely to befuddle people who run across this in Feedly or Google News.

If there’s one thing I can stress here, it’s the importance of the featured image. Here are some other reasons why featured images are important for your WordPress site’s content:

  • It’s an easy way to draw visitors’ attention to your blog.
  • They tell visitors what your content is about without forcing them to read anything.
  • Featured images indirectly improve SEO.
  • They give readers’ eyes a break from all that text and make it easier to find the blog posts, product pages, etc. they’re looking for.
  • They reinforce consistency of your web design (look at WPMU DEV’s main blog page for example.
  • They improve brand reputation when you use high-quality and memorable photos.
  • Content also becomes more appealing to people running across it for the first time on social media or in news aggregator feeds.

Tips for Using Featured Images on Your WordPress Site

Alright, so you know why a featured image is important, but do you know how to go about finding one and what to do with it once you have it? Below are 7 tips to use to create high-quality featured images that will look good no matter where they show up online.

1. Try to stick with one

Although I appreciate having multiple featured images to choose from when sharing an article on social, I work in marketing so I have a good sense for what type of image works well. For non-marketing pros, the results might not be as successful. While you might appreciate these brand advocates sharing your content, do you want a potentially bad image choice made by them to mar your reputation?

2. Use a high-quality image

There are some awesome free stock image sites you can use to find featured images. Or, if you want to get crazy with it, you can design your own.

3. Keep it relevant

While an image gone totally rogue might lure in more readers, the effort might fall flat if the content doesn’t match the hype.

4. Use one that’s truly engaging

One of the things I like about WPMU DEV’s featured images is that they’re all hand-crafted to mirror the blog content and fit with the site’s illustrative style. While that’s what works for them, it’s up to you to define your own hook. Maybe you’ll find that shocking or humorous images make sense, so long as they don’t cross the line into offensive.

5. Be aware of cropping

Because featured images get pulled in from different sources both on your site as well as others, you really don’t have control over how they get cropped. One way to ensure your image looks okay if that happens is to pick one that puts the subject of the photo dead center.

6. There’s size to also worry about

Size matters when it comes to featured images. For one, because if it’s going to fill that header space at the top of a blog post, it better be clear and high-resolution. Secondly, if the file is really large, that’s a lot of undue strain to put on your server if all that’s showing up is a small thumbnail in a Related Posts list.

I’d suggest sizing your featured images to around 600 to 800 pixels. Or you can upload as full size and allow your Smush optimizer to handle the rest.

7. Optimize for search

Featured images should be treated like all others, so don’t forget to give them the SEO treatment.

5 Plugins for Using Featured Images in WordPress

Finally, we come to the WordPress plugins.

Here’s the thing though: WordPress already does a good job of simplifying the process of adding featured images to your content. Simply scroll down your post or page and find the Featured Image box. Click on Set featured image.

Either upload a new featured image or select one from your Media Library. Apply the metadata and then set it.

Featured Images - Select featured image
When you do find that perfect featured image, don’t forget to fill in the metadata and optimize it with a plugin like Smush before adding it to your content.

Your featured image is then ready to go.

If your theme is set up to add the featured image to the top of your post, you’ll now find it there in the Preview. Otherwise, you’ll see it once it’s live and you visit your blog roll, RSS feed, social media promotion, etc.

Now, just because WordPress has given us a really simple solution to do this, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plugins that can help us achieve other things with featured images. For example:

  • Auto Post Thumbnail PRO

    Featured Images - Auto Post Thumbnail Pro

    I’d say the key reason to use this premium plugin is if you’re absolutely strapped for time and want assistance selecting a featured image from the images (or videos) you’ve populated your page with. If you’re handing your site over to a client that you know will blog but won’t take the time to find a featured image, this would be a good plugin for that too.

    Interested in Auto Post Thumbnail PRO?

  • Featured Image Admin Thumb

    One of the more annoying things about making a sweeping change to your site (like deciding to use featured images after not doing so) is having to go page-by-page to make sure you’ve consistently applied it. This plugin will save you the guesswork by adding a thumbnail of your featured image within your Posts and Pages lists. You can also change your featured image right there so you don’t have to go in and out of each individual page to do so.

    Interested in Featured Image Admin Thumb?

  • Default Featured Image

    Featured Images - Default featured image

    Here’s another good option if you know your client will be diligent enough to create content, but won’t think to add a featured image or take the time to do so. Unlike the premium plugin that pulls images in from the post, this one simply applies a default featured image to any page or post without one. So you could set this as the company logo or some other related brand image, and ensure your clients’ butts are covered that way.


    Interested in Default Featured Image?

  • Dynamic Featured Image

    Featured Images - Dynamic Featured Image

    Although I recommended earlier that you only use one featured image per post or page, I’m going to include this anyway as I think there are certain use cases where multiple featured images make sense. Like a product page. You could include multiple views of your product for people to choose from. The same goes for unique pages like testimonial roundups or portfolios. Multiple featured images might serve you well there.


    Interested in Dynamic Featured Image?

  • Quick Featured Images

    Featured Images - Quick Featured Images

    Think of this plugin like a combination of all the others on this list, minus the premium features. If your goal is to make bulk changes to your featured images or to create default settings to save yourself time in applying a featured image in the future, you can do all that with this plugin.


    Interested in Quick Featured Images?

Wrapping Up

The user experience doesn’t always start and end on your website. What if someone were to run into one of your posts in their RSS feed and, while they thought the title was intriguing, they were confused by the strange photo accompanying it? Or what if someone wanted to share your article on Twitter, but no featured image populated at all? Posts with images receive more engagement than those without, so that might be enough motivation right there for them to look for something else to share.

The featured image may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but it does have a lofty role to play in the user experience.

Suzanne Scacca
Is there any online publication you run into often that you especially like the featured images they use? Share your thoughts in the comments below.