Stock Photos and SEO: Why Your Website's Stock Photos Are Plotting Against You

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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).

stock photo seo

Your Website Content Should Be Authentic

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

Stock photos may be negatively impacting your website's SEO & user experience

“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.

seo stock photo

Stock Photos May Harm Your Website’s SEO

One of the best things you can do to improve your website’s SEO is provide valuable content and a good user experience (UX). In fact, Google has said that “the key to creating a great website is to create the best possible experience for your audience with original and high-quality 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 does often 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 will  see this same focus soon extend to images. 

Google shared its feelings about stock photos again in its Guide to Material Design, saying “stay away from stock,” as “photographic stock and clipart is neither specific nor interpretive,” adding that “stock images can feel inauthentic.”

It’s likely that Google will soon begin to give a search rankings boost to pages that contain quality, original images while pages with overused stock photos could receive a penalty in search

stock photo impact on seo

Original Photos Perform Better Than Stock Photos

Original photos typically enable content to perform better than stock photos. Our web design team in Iowa 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, engagement 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 environment 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. 

are stock photos good for seo

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 the headache altogether and use original images. 

Move Forward With Fresh, Authentic Photos

Taking your own photos or designing custom images may be more of a hassle, but it’s well worth the effort. Avoid stock photos. Budget a little more time and money to give your online presence fresh, original, interesting visuals. Your website 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. 

Drew Harden
Drew Harden

President and Co-Founder of Blue Compass, Drew Harden has grown and guided the company from a two-person startup in 2007 to one of the Midwest's leading digital marketing companies today. He's a published author, has been cited by PR News and USA Today, and has led web projects that have been honored by organizations like Adobe and American Design Awards.

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