How Stock Photos Can Impact Your Website's SEO in Google's Eyes

A silent enemy may be lurking within your website, slowly hindering its success while quietly plotting to overthrow the entire value of your online presence. The threat comes from those perfect looking images placed on your homepage and interior pages: the devious stock photos. 

Sound a little dramatic? 

Maybe. But while these images may provide a quick and inexpensive solution to that blank header on your website, there’s a downside to using stock photography that may negatively impact your website’s search engine optimization (SEO) and user experience (UX).

Your Website Content Should Be Authentic

Our digital marketing team and web designers agree - stock photos are generally not an authentic representation of your brand.

What Are Stock Photos, and Should I Use Them?

Stock photos come from a supply of photographs and are usually licensed for specific purposes. These photos tend to be generic and are obvious to spot. If possible, it’s always best to use your own original photographs, but having a stock photo throughout content can be better than no images at all.

We’ve all seen the pictures of the smiling customer service representative, the perfect family in the backyard, or the close up of a computer keyboard. These images initially appear professional but, in reality, they are not directly related to your products, services or brand. Stock photos may have illustrative purposes, but are actually fictitious in nature - and your visitors notice. 

Everyone can tell if an image is a stock photo. If you visit a company’s site or Facebook account, do you feel more of a connection if you see a group of smiling business people that are perfectly dressed and standing in a row or a less-perfect shot of actual people that work there? Stock photos don’t fool anyone. Most are representations of a concept that is better illustrated with a quick shot from your phone. 

“But I don’t have the time or budget to schedule a massive photo shoot,” you may be thinking. “Sure, people may know these aren’t actual photos we have taken, but that won’t impact my bottom line.” While your website’s stock photos may not seem like that big of a deal, this inauthenticity can affect the performance of your website.

For example, Internet-based research lab Marketing Experiments performed a real photo vs. stock photo A/B test on one of their client’s web pages in which an actual photo of their client ran against one of their top performing stock photos. The web page with the authentic photo saw a nearly 35 percent higher conversion rate than the page with the stock photo. Our Iowa web designers have tested this with clients as well, and we saw better performance on original photos.

Are Stock Photos Bad For SEO?

While stock photos aren't directly referenced as harmful to search rankings by Google, poor stock photos could indirectly harm your website. One of the best things you can do to improve your website’s SEO is provide valuable, original content and a good user experience. Authentic photos of your team and your business are the best options, because we know these perform better than stock photos in organic search and on social. People want to look at real photos and can spot stock photos from a mile away.

In fact, Google states that “new content will not only keep your existing visitor base coming back, but also bring in new visitors." Google continues, saying, "Avoid rehashing (or even copying) existing content that will bring little extra value to users and having duplicate or near-duplicate versions of your content."

Placing a stock photo on your website doesn’t provide your audience with original content or a good UX. Not only can these photos feel inauthentic, but it can be a poor experience to see the same picture again and again across multiple websites. This is something Google would like to avoid showing its users.

Google’s former Head of Webspam, Matt Cutts, once stated that stock photos don’t currently harm a site’s search results. However, he was quick to mention, “that’s a great suggestion for a future signal that we could look at in terms of search quality.” Google can penalize websites that use duplicate copy.

With Google’s dedication to providing web pages with original content, it’s not a stretch to think that we this same focus soon extend to images. In many cases, showing a photo that exists on many other websites could be considered a lesser experience for users since it’s not a unique, fresh, original experience. 

It’s likely that in the future Google could give boost to pages that contain quality, original images while pages with overused stock photos could receive a penalty in . 

Original Photos Perform Better Than Stock Photos

Original photos typically enable content to perform better than stock photos. Our web design team has performed A/B tests across various websites and Facebook posts for our clients, using the same content but showing 50 percent of users a stock photo and 50 percent of users a real photo or an original illustration from one of our designers. Nearly every time, the content with the real photo receives more traffic, and time-on-page. 

Why do real photos perform better that stock photos? Because they’re authentic! Your website visitors are more interested in viewing real photos that truly depict your products, services, office and culture. Yet we see these perfectly staged stock photos again and again across the web. That perfect, friendly customer service woman wearing a headset has become a pillar of our culture’s visuals. 

The Legal Issue With Stock Photos

The risk of potential lawsuits is another reason to avoid adding stock photos to your website. In recent years, companies like Getty Images have gone after numerous website owners for posting stock images for which they didn’t have rights.

Whether these legal threats and lawsuits are legitimate enforcement of intellectual property or questionable copyright trolling is debatable. However, these cases show the importance of ensuring you can prove you have full rights to every stock photo you use. A better approach is to avoid altogether and use original images. 

Move Forward With Fresh, Authentic Photos

So, is it always wrong to use stock photos? 

No. Sometimes it's necessary to do so. If you need a photo of a mountain, for instance, you may not have the time to head out to the nearest mountain range and take an original photograph yourself. 

But, if you’re able, use original images - even if they’re not as professional looking as those fancy stock photos. Taking your own photos or designing custom images may be more of a hassle, but it’s well worth the effort.

Avoid those tempting stock photos. Budget a little more time and money to give your online presence fresh, original, interesting visuals. Your website and social media will look more authentic and you’ll likely see better results. Visitors and search engines will appreciate it. 

Need a hand in creating some unique visuals that will make your brand stand apart? Give our Iowa web design team a shout - we’re happy to help you. 

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