Stock photos are standard practice for most small business website design, but in 2018, are they doing you more harm than good?
Do you recognize these people?
Yes, you’ve seen them before. No, the women with the pleasant smile on the left does not work at 15,000 different companies. But this stock photo appears on at least that many business websites.
It’s a nice photo. Anyone would be proud to have such an attractive staff. Look at those smiles – they must love their jobs.
You’d think this photo would help engender trust on a business website. Create a professional image.
But today it may be doing exactly the opposite.
Today, many stock photos suffer from overuse. The same images appear too often. They’ve become another type of content fluff that adds nothing to the UX of a website design.
This is not actually breaking news. In 2010, web usability pioneer Jakob Nielsen did an eye tracking study that showed how “big, feel-good images that are purely decorative” were ignored by website visitors. Irrelevant photos that are just there to “jazz up” your design aren’t helping your cause.
At the same time, imagery has never been more important. The web is increasingly driven by visual content. A great website needs images. But what type?
Information Carrying Images
Nielsen found that images which carry useful information about a product or service are valued by web visitors. This is one eye tracking study:
On the left is a Pottery Barn page with thumbnails of bookcases. The eye tracking shows visitors studied them intensely.
On the right is an Amazon page with flat screen TVs. These images were largely ignored.
What’s the difference?
On the Amazon page, the thumbnails don’t do anything to help consumers understand the products or compare the TVs. For all intent and purposes, the images look the same.
But the images of bookcases reveal important product details that help consumers understand their choices.
This is similar to the hero shot, which shows a product in context of use.
Images are useful – when they show a benefit, aid an explanation, or carry necessary information.
Get Out of the Studio
One of the biggest problems with many stock photos is that they looked staged. Ironically, their perfection is also their flaw.
We live in a visual culture where people document their lives on their phone cameras. Increasingly, the images we consume and respond to are real people experiencing life. We’re more drawn to Snapchat stories showing real events than the dry perfection of a staged image.
Flaws, grit, originality, and – most of all – the emotion of real life gives images their impact.
Social media changed our expectations. Think about it. Can you imagine a stock photo trending on social media?
So does all this mean you should just break out your phone and start taking your own pictures? Is “keeping it real” the way to go for a business website?
Not really. Unprofessional, poorly composed photos can turn out worse than stock photos. You want real-life images, but they need to be composed and formatted so they are effective at telling your visual story.
First, if you want to feature people who work in your office, use pictures of the actual people who work in your office. Today, there is no point in giving a stock photo face to your business. Get some actual shots of the people in your workspace. Prospective clients looking to put a face to your business will appreciate it actually being the face of someone who works there.
Hire a professional photographer to take these pictures. Yes, it’s more of an investment, but think of the mileage you’ll get out the images. Every website visitor you have will get a realistic, appealing impression of your staff.
For other images, start looking into a higher level of photography. Tyler Olsen of Depositphotos says:
“People are still wanting well composed (or at least interestingly composed) images, but don’t want the sterile stock photos that we have seen so often. The challenge is to capture real life looking images – images that don’t appear set up. Captured in a way that appears natural and candid, yet has refinement enough to make the image interesting.”
For example, these are all commercial photos:
They are great pictures that avoid the overly used, staged feel of so many stock photos.
When Can I Use Stock Photos?
Stock photos are popular because they save time and money. Those are good reasons.
In the practical world where websites need to go live and ads must be displayed, you may find yourself with no choice but to use stock photos. Here are a few tips:
- Avoid over-used stock photos. There are millions of stock photos available on sites like Dreamstime or Unsplash. Search for something that looks fresh.
- Choose stock photos that look more natural. Avoid the super composed, staged images that are obviously commercial.
- Choose images that help convey your message. Sometimes you find the right stock photo that shows your product in action and carries important information.
You may use stock photos as filler until you can get your own images produced. Better to do this than delay your project for too long.
Can you still use stock photos to “jazz up” your website? Sure. It’s worth noting that analysts like Nielsen lean towards minimalist design, but many businesses want a more visually appealing look for their brand.
Just remember that these photos are really just part of the background. They are enhanced white space that visitors’ eyes will largely pass over.
Up Your Game
There is one basic takeaway from this. If people can look at the images on your website and immediately recognize them as stock photos, your design is not optimal. Those images are taking up space that would be better served with content that communicates your message.
And let’s face it. If you’re a plumber, people who visit your website are going to know this isn’t actually you:
The only thing faker than this guy’s smile is that random toilet he’s standing next to while writing an invoice. This is the epitome of an uninspired stock photo.
Businesses are always looking for ways to gain a competitive edge in website marketing – ways to differentiate their services from competitors.
Not using the same lame stock images as everybody else is a good place to start.