Every Picture Tells Two Stories

You know what happens when you get 5 webmasters on a phone call and the subject of Google duplicate image penalties comes up? The answer is easy — an argument. Each of us had ideas as to what was happening after hearing this rumor. None of us knows what Google is doing and some didn’t think there was a penalty.

The debate started when one of us heard Google was penalizing sites for duplicate images. This is where an image on one website is seen on others. One webmaster cited a well-known internet marketer who tested this theory. If true, this would be dramatic for her. She runs an eCommerce store and gets her images from the manufacturer. Presumably, the manufacturer gives those same pictures to their other clients.

I tend to believe this is not so much a “penalty”, but Google rewarding people for original content. Some may argue the outcome is the same. It may also be a move to discourage copyrighted material. It’s sad to say, but the web is full of sites that scrape content from other websites or don’t provide attribution.

The Other Story

I think a bigger issue is that many websites don’t give much thought to how they use images. I’m sure you’ve all seen examples where a website has used stock photos. Maybe this was done to get the webpage up faster or maybe someone thought it was the best image available. I have seen cases where stock photos were used and added beautifully to the story.

Too often, I’m seeing the same stock images or concepts. Here are some that make me roll my eyes:

  • Guy in business suit crossing the finish line
  • Smiling telephone support rep with headset on
  • Woman sitting cross-legged on floor with notebook on lap and arms raised in air
  • Someone mind mapping on a glass dry-erase board

I can’t say with certainty if using these types of photographs would hurt a website. But, here are some questions to consider:

Below is a quote I found from Dr. Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director of MECLABS, which I think provides guidance.

“The force of an image increases as the connection between the image and the perceived value becomes clearer. Therefore, marketers must choose images that have a direct implication of value for the actual product or service. For instance, to increase image relevance, marketers should stop using random stock images that communicate little to no value about the offer.”

While I agree with the good Dr., I also think stock images run the risk of making prospects feel like you don’t care enough about them or the product. They cheapen the experience.

Stock Up On Your Own Photos and Descriptions

I understand that if you’re an eCommerce store and have hundreds of photos it’ll be a royal pain in the arse to fix them. Those are the realities we have to deal with. This is a case where I would research which are the most popular and profitable pages via your website analytics and test new product descriptions and images. Even changing a few pages starts to set you apart from your competition.

I’m also reminded of the story of the lion and gazelle, which seems to apply here.

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

You may not be able to change everything at once, but you can start running.

Update: 6/17/13 – Matt Cutts posted a YouTube video on the Google Webmaster Channel that pretty much says that he’s not aware of any impact to search engine rankings. But, he does say it might be an interesting signal in the future. More details here in video.