What Is a Featured Image and When Should You Have One?

As you probably already know, blogging is an inherently visual platform. Yes, your posts are made up of plenty of text – don’t get me wrong – but what captures visitors’ attention are stunning photos and graphics.
And none so much as a featured image.

What is a Featured Image?

Many people associate featured images in WordPress with those that appear at the top of a post or page. And this would be correct. Except when it isn’t.

Allow me to explain.

You see, an image that appears at the top of a post or page could have just been manually inserted. A featured image is one that was set using the special menu option in the post editor in your Dashboard. It looks like this:

featured-image-dashThis image is not necessarily inserted into the post; rather, it’s attached to the post to then be used as your theme or a plugin dictates. And that’s where things start to get tricky.

How Are Featured Images Used?

Featured images can be used in a number of different ways depending on the theme you’re using. A few common placements for featured images include the following:

  • Above post title. Themes that use featured images in this manner will set the image above the post title on the individual post page.
  • Below post title. Sometimes, themes will set featured images below the post title. So, instead of inserting a photo into your post within the post editor box, you’d simply set the featured image as whatever photo you want to appear directly beneath the post’s title.
  • Post thumbnail. In some cases, featured images are just used as a thumbnail on the main blog index page. This thumbnail typically appears next to the post title and an brief excerpt and is intended to entice people to click through to read more.
  • A combination. Much of the time, themes will dictate that featured images be used in a couple of different ways. One of the most common options is to use it as a thumbnail and below the post title. This way, your site visitors get a taste of what’s to come then they click through and get to see the full-size image.

In all cases, not knowing how the featured images work in your theme can make for some unfortunate formatting issues. For instance, in the Twenty Twelve theme, if you set a featured image and also insert an image at the top of your post, you’ll get a small photo above the post title and a larger one below it, making for all-around awkwardness – especially if you chose the same image in both cases.

How Plugins Affect Featured Images

Several plugins have been created to address common issues with featured images. For instance, if you want to change your theme at some point to one that uses featured images differently than the one you have now, you could face hours of manually updating those settings. Who has time for that?

For instance, a plugin like Auto Post Thumbnail will help you to automatically add a featured image to old posts you wrote before having a theme that called for a thumbnail image. It’s convenient and takes some of the pressure off of commitment to any particular theme.

When Should You Use a Featured Image?

Featured images definitely have a time and a place. They obviously don’t work with every theme and don’t always complement your site’s layout. However, if you’ve chosen a theme that sets off featured images in a prominent way, it can do you a lot of good to make use of that. After all, 40% of people respond better to information when it’s presented visually or with visual elements than just plain text.

You should also use a featured image if your theme calls for it directly. That is, it would look incomplete or as though an error had occurred if you fail to include one. This is most common with themes that use featured images for thumbnails. If you don’t include an image in your post and you don’t set a featured image, visitors will be greeted with a blank gray box next to the post title, which is just plain unappealing.


Featured images can definitely be useful in making your WordPress posts and your main blog page more attractive. Images engage your site visitors. And in a way, having to think about a featured image for each post forces you to prioritize the graphical elements of your blog, even if just for a moment. The end result is a post that looks cleaner and more enticing and a reader that is hooked from first glance.

Do you use featured images in your posts? If so, have you run into any problems while implementing them? Do you use plugins to better manage them? I’d love to hear your thoughts!