While the majority of websites have become more cookie-cutter thanks to platforms like WordPress, Wix, and Squarespace, every so often you still run across a site that makes you feel slightly uncomfortable.
Maybe you can’t put your finger on why it’s not quite right… Is it the color scheme? Is it the use of fonts? Is it the navigation?
As much as we’d like to think that all aspects of a website’s design matter – content, colors, typography, etc. – the imagery used on the site itself can often be the deciding factor between whether a site grabs your attention or sends you running for the hills.
One very common (and often overlooked) flaw with many websites is the poor use of stock photos. Whether that means the stock photos themselves are bad, or that they’re used in the wrong places, these photos can have a major impact on your site’s effectiveness.
The Effects of Imagery
We already know that images can have a powerful affect on user experience. This infographic shows that sites with images receive up to 94% more views than those without, and it’s fairly well known that if you want your site to grab attention, you need to include images.
But what images, exactly?
Well, image selection for a lot of designers – especially newbies – often means opening up Google Images and saving the first stock photo they come across.
While it may seem that any old photo will do, the type of photo can have a huge impact on your user experience. In fact, a bad stock photo can actually be worse than no photo at all.
So how exactly do you determine the right photo for the job?
Stock Photo Don’ts
Well, the first rule to choosing photos is knowing what to avoid. Like we said, a bad photo is sometimes worse than no photo. Here are some stock photo “don’ts” that if implemented could send users clicking away from your site in a hurry. Stay away from:
It should be common sense, but a lot of sites use weird stock photos that are completely unrelated to the content on their site. It’s one thing to go for shock factor, but having an image that’s just plain strange won’t bring the attention you want.
And trust us, there are plenty of strange stock photos out there.
Weird photos can be anything from normal people with unusual facial expressions or body language all the way to whatever this is:
But as one user notes, the weird factor may have less to do with the actual image and more to do with the uncanny valley – where the people in the stock photo look almost like real people doing real activities, but there’s still something unnatural about it that makes it disconcerting.
Moral of the story? Keep your photos realistic and relatable.
A lot of businesses often market to the same audiences or use the same themes in their websites, so it’s natural for stock photos to get reused. But sometimes those images are overkill, and once your audience has seen it on every site they’ve visited, they no longer view it as a good thing.
The photo itself doesn’t even need to be the exact same picture, even something like a recurring theme – say, a woman smiling at a computer or a businessman superhero – is enough to cause unwanted déjà vu.
Image overload can also be the result of lazy designing. You see this most often with designers who simply grab photos off of search engine image results. Speaking of which…
Don’t pull images from search engines. Many images are copyrighted, and/or were purchased legally by one party but are not so legal for you to use without permission.
Believe it or not, copyright infringement comes with some serious penalties if you’re caught in the act. One blogger shares a story about an $8,000 copyright lawsuit they faced as the result of pulling images from Google without asking the original photographer’s permission.
Don’t make the same mistake.
Poor Quality Images
Legalities aside, another way stock photos can harm your site is if they’re of lower quality compared with the rest of your graphics.
If they’re small, unevenly sized, or just plain pixelated, you risk your site looking cheap and outdated, and cheapness is often the cause of such poor quality pictures.
Stock photo sites like iStock often give several resolution options for every photo, and while you may be tempted to snag the cheapest option (because let’s face it, stock photos can be expensive!), you also risk purchasing a photo that doesn’t meet your size requirements.
And if you’re thinking, “Oh, we’ll just stretch it to fit,” just know that you’re setting yourself up for a blurry mess. If you’re going to spend money improving the looks of your design, don’t be stingy with your stock photos.
Which, of course, leads us to…
Stock Photo Do’s
Here’s what you need to know about choosing the right images for your site. You should be looking for:
Better Quality Images
When they say, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” what they really mean is a good picture. Even if you’re using the most generic, overused image out there, having a high quality photo makes all the difference.
In his book Emotional Design, Don Norman describes what makes “attractive things work better.” He explains that attractive products trigger our creativity and ultimately expand our mental processes, making us more tolerant of minor difficulties.
By using “attractive” high quality photos, you’re essentially easing your site visitors into a good user experience with very little effort on your part. Your photos are communicating a message, and that message should be that you’re successful, not that you scrounge the bottom of the barrel for whatever image is cheapest.
Along those same lines, the best use of imagery in your design should be including photos that convey strong emotions. There are, generally speaking, seven (or eight) basic emotions: joy, sadness, contempt, fear, disgust, surprise, and anger.
The goal (we hope) should be to communicate joy. With that in mind, using images that feature smiling, happy people tend to get much better results than photos of inanimate objects. Focus on using pictures of people doing activities related to your business or site’s theme, and the more they’re enjoying those activities, the better.
Just remember to steer clear of uncanny valley.
Of course, the absolute best thing you can do for your site is to not use stock photos at all. The more you can use original work – especially if it’s snapshots of people who really work in your office, preferably smiling – the better.
As Arnie Kuenn notes in Visual Content Marketing on 3 Major Networks: Ideas and Inspiration, photos can be used to humanize your brand, so the more personal you make them, the more your audience will respond.
While it’s not always possible to hire a photographer to take professional shots of everything you need, the more you can include relatable images in your site, the more effective your images will be… as long as they’re high quality, of course.
When it comes to choosing stock photos, treat your images as if they’re content. Evaluate each photo’s usefulness to your overall design and strategy.
Does it convey the right emotions? Is it the right size and quality for the space it’s in? Is it necessary, or is it just there to “add something” to the site? Is there another image or original photo you could replace it with instead?
Remember that an effective photo will both engage your users emotionally as well as communicate a clear message. So even if you’re using stock photos, make each one of them count.