Behind the Desktop Wallpaper – Ranking for Generic Queries

June 23rd, 2017 by Mike Bates

image search results

generic desktop background

Every time we search, we give away something else about ourselves. Whether it’s to Google, via the ubiquitous search assistant, or industry sites like Amazon, Facebook, or Skyscanner. You might be lusting after a holiday to Las Vegas while your other half is none the wiser, but the chances are Google, Twitter, and AirBnB have already clocked it and have a legion of ads waiting to send your way.

User intent, and predicting the likelihood of users converting is big business. It’s the evolution of these algorithms that continues to drive digital ad spend’s annual increase, from PPC campaigns through to broadcaster VOD. But what about non-commercial searches? How can publishers and webmasters create content that will appeal to the ultra-generic query?

It’s simple really: remember that the user is a person (even if that person is one of thousands of ambiguous search impressions).


Protip: Image Filters in Image Search

Google Image Filters

What do Kate Spade, Lily Pulitzer, Disney, Marvel, and owls have in common?

They are all modifiers to the generic ‘desktop wallpaper query’ that other users are applying to refine their search. Keyword research tools also show that other common modifiers are ‘cool’, ‘free’ (did anyone ever pay for these?), and ‘nature’.

So our users are telling us that, when people are looking for specific wallpapers, they like them to contain these items, designs, and people. This is certainly something of a none-point, but what else does it say tell us about people, and their search habits?

It tells us that people are a bit unsure of themselves – they set their desktop wallpapers not just for their own satisfaction, but to tell others about their interests, what makes them unique. They have to have cool device wallpapers, showing their interest in art, comics, and cinema. This is great if people volunteer this information to Google when they search, but what about when you look for something that is unbelievably generic.

What if you ask Google to provide a ‘desktop wallpaper’? Well, these search terms tell us that when people ask for a ‘desktop wallpaper’, these are all the things that users are NOT looking for.


Ranking for ‘Desktop Wallpaper’

image search results

If you’re searching for ‘desktop wallpaper’, you’re out of ideas. You don’t want a Disney wallpaper, or you’d have asked for it, and that Obama Yes We Can wallpaper no longer fits the bill. You want Google to pre-empt what will work for you, and the search engine needs to do this on the assumption that if you had a specific subject in mind you’d have made it clear.

But without anything to go off, Google hedges its bets. The algorithm can only present high-quality wallpapers that are going to appeal to the widest possible audience. It also has to do this in a way that offers better results than any other search engine can, or it risks losing even more ground to Bing.

Google is being asked to provide the most acceptably average desktop wallpapers imaginable – the Lighthouse Family of image results pages.


Ranking for Ultra-Generic Queries

While SEO, reputation, and UX will all be vital here, this query is all about content. While it will be tough to rank if you can’t get the basics of a good website in place, you have to offer the goods. Without an achingly generic wallpaper to offer, you have no chance.

So if we want to create this content, we need to understand what makes the best, average wallpaper. But how do you know what to offer people who don’t know what they want, let alone tell you what they’re after? You look to see what Google is already suggesting.


Generic Content for Image Search

desktop subject pie chart

Returning to our SERP, a subjective categorisation of the top 125 results by subject matter shows that 30% of these results are landscapes or images of the skyline, while 25% of images prominently feature water, and another 25% focus on plants.

The biggest losers are technology (The Matrix wallpapers are a thing of the past guys, sorry) and images of people are clearly too divisive. Only 0.8% of ‘desktop wallpaper’ results include people, and you can never see their faces clearly.

So we can reason that if you’ve ever searched ‘desktop wallpaper’, the chances are you ended up setting a leafy landscape with a lake in it as your background.


The Perfect Colour for a Desktop Wallpaper

colours for a desktop wallpaper

Charlotte Perkins Gillman can rest easy: the desktop wallpaper is not yellow. In fact, using an image colour summarizer on our SERP reveals three colours dominate: a muted cerulean, olive, and indigo. These align well with water, foliage, and blue sky respectively: they even occur in representative quantities.

Our perfectly generic wallpaper would therefore be approximately 7% water, 12% greenery, and 28% sky blue. The sky blue is slightly purple, so you probably want to take your photo at twilight to recreate the perfect shade, and edit your image to mute the colours a little.


Creating the Ultimate Desktop Image

ultimate desktop image

The perfect image for a desktop wallpaper is a wet landscape that uses a muted palette. Never include human faces and stay away from technology, although an animal is allowed (make sure it’s a popular one: puppies, kittens, tigers, and mystical dolphins all do well).

This points to a fairly typical landscape, so it’s hardly surprising to find that this isn’t without precedent. Microsoft already cemented its place in desktop wallpaper history when it set the photograph ‘Bliss’ as the default wallpaper in Windows XP.

While too bright to perform well now (notably, Bliss ranked 267th in our sample SERP), the iconic wallpaper is 34% sky blue, and 20% sap green. All that’s missing is our 7% water. So if anyone at Microsoft is reading this, add in a lake and reduce the saturation, and desktop wallpaper domination can be yours once again.