No one is looking: Effectively using images online

No one is looking: Effectively using images online
Laura Flugga
September 18, 2014
Older man using computer

Imagery plays a vital role in our lives, including on the Web. We are naturally drawn to visual content and can understand a concept faster through images than we can through words. It’s become a cliché, but a picture is worth a thousand words (or more accurately 84.1 words). Because of this many designers use generic stock imagery on websites to make it more visual and compelling. While this is a great goal, the method so often used is flawed. 

Studies show...

Eye tracking studies (a method for tracking what users look at on a website) show that generic stock photography is largely ignored on the Web. 

When the imagery used is content related (rather than generic stock), eye tracking studies tell a completely different story. Users spend more time looking at the images and less at the text when the images are meaningful and directly related to the content. 


Eye tracking results on page with stock photography (left) and on a page with content related images (right) 

Why generic stock doesn’t work

Users don’t consume content on the Web as they do in print and other mediums. People generally have a specific purpose for visiting your website, and their attention is very selective. They will ignore any information that they don’t think is relevant to what they are looking for. Generic stock photography isn’t meaningful and doesn’t provide users with the information that they are looking for, so they ignore it. 

Ways to use images effectively

1. Use meaningful images

Instead of using generic images of people smiling, use photos that communicate a clear message. 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a great example. Its photos are all real images of the aquarium that clearly communicate the aquarium’s exhibits and events. In contrast, the 4-H website uses a lot of photos, but they are vague and generic.


2. Use images that directly relate to your content

Instead of using photos that represent only a feeling or industry, use images that directly illuminate the subject. 

Invisible Children use images and icons that each directly relate to the copy. This helps users understand the content and find what they are looking for. In contrast, Habitat for Humanity uses imagery that relates to the organization, but the images aren’t directly related to the copy, e.g., a photo of a construction site doesn’t communicate FAQs.


3. Make sure images are recognizable

It’s okay to be literal. If users don’t understand an image, they won’t spend much time trying to figure it out.  

The Red Cross uses a close-up photo of someone doing CPR to communicate CPR Certification. It’s literal and instantly recognizable. In contrast, the Environmental Defense Fund uses a photo of a sad child for information on BPA. It is not clear what is happening in this photo and how it relates to BPA.


4. Show instead of telling

People read very little on the Web. Rather than writing a paragraph describing something, show a picture of it that clearly and simply illustrates your point.

Mint just shows us a picture, instead of saying, “Our financial software works on all devices, including desktop, tablet and mobile.” It gets the point across faster and shows what the company’s product looks like. In contrast, NCH uses mostly text to explain its software. Since users don’t read, it’s more likely that NCH’s website will have a higher bounce rate than the Mint site.


How to get effective images

Now that you’re convinced that you need better imagery on your website, here are a few ways to get it:

  1. Find less generic stock photography. Stock may still be an option; it just needs to be specific to your content, rather than smiling generic people. Check out the images on Stocksy. Or use a microstock site such as iStock, but be very specific with your keywords in order to get images relevant to your content.
  2. Take your own images. Your iPhone’s camera is a better camera than the majority of digital cameras available five to 10 years ago. Make use of it by shooting your own images. Use these tips from Business Insider to help you get great images. 
  3. Hire a photographer. Even though hiring a photographer can be expensive, it might be worthwhile. Better photography can equal more conversions, which in the long run means you get a return on your investment (ROI). Websites such as Photographer Central make it easy to find and compare local photographers for your project.

Written by Laura Flugga, a Web Developer at Güd Marketing from 2008 - January 2015.