Study: Bargain Stock Photos Don’t Help Websites Sell

Businesses, ad agencies, Web design firms and online publications have increasingly turned to low-cost microstock images to fill up real estate on their websites.

These images are cheap — but do they really offer the best value for photography clients?

Eye-tracking studies by Jakob Nielsen, a Web site consultant and author of books on design and user interface, indicate that generic stock images may be worth even less to buyers than they cost.

What the Research Shows

Nielsen’s research shows that Web users ignore decorative stock images used to “jazz up” Web pages. Such images often simply add clutter to the design and do not help from a business standpoint.

But customers do pay attention to pictures that give them useful information about a product or service being offered, Nielsen’s studies show.

They also respond to pictures of real people who work at a company, or of actual company facilities, while ignoring stock images of smiling businesspeople and generic work settings.

As Nielsen puts it:

The commonality across all of these examples … is that users pay attention to information-carrying images that show content that’s relevant to the task at hand. And users ignore purely decorative images that don’t add real content to the page. So much fluff — of which there’s too much already on the Web.

In other words, Web users want to see photos that contain specific information. Not generic stock images, but images that help them learn more about a product or company.

For this reason, Nielsen advises companies with a strategic online presence to “invest in good photo shoots: a great photographer can add a fortune to your Web site’s business value.”

A Selling Tool

Be assured, Nielsen’s study won’t slow the flood of cheap stock images on the Web anytime soon.

In fact, many Web design firms have a vested interest in ignoring Nielsen’s research. It’s so much easier to just pull images off the Web and plug them into a design than to coordinate a photo shoot. And the additional cost of hiring a photographer can cut into the design firm’s margins when their client has a limited budget.

But photographers can still use Nielsen’s research as a selling tool to convince corporate clients that paying for a professional photo shoot is an investment that’s worth the price.

5 Responses to “Study: Bargain Stock Photos Don’t Help Websites Sell”

  1. This is interesting Jim, and immediately confirmed something I noticed earlier this year, that 'high-end' companies are no longer using stock, and certainly not microstock. They have been burned in a number of different ways, and I think are now recognising that 'real' photography is worth much more than the price difference between microstock and commissioned photography.

    I talked about it in detail here (from a slightly different angle):

  2. Educate the clients and business should flow. After all we are providing value.

  3. In addition to being a photographer, I'm a web designer. And I don't hesitate to let my clients know about my photo skills.

    I tell them that their site photos can be those generic stock thingies. Which could also show up on a competitor's site.

    Or they could have me create photos that would show their organization as the unique entity that it truly is.

  4. This discusses the relation of the subject to the generic image. Hopefully, the next area for research will be the quality and impact of the image, even if it is "right on" the subject. Increasingly, visually illiterate authors supply photos that they have taken to the organization's communications department. They refuse to have funds to pay for photography taken from their project budget, as they have supplied photos. Some data needs to be developed to demonstrate the need for professional quality images.

  5. Photos not only enhance the readability of a text-laden site, but also, by virtue of an alt tag plus a caption and relevant keywords describing the meta content of the client’s photo give reason for the bots (web crawlers) to pick these up for a front page Google score. Nielson is reminding us that the great SEO formula is ‘relevance’ for the viewer landing on a static website featuring an invisible photo.
    Isn’t that the mission of the client in the first place? To get on the first page of a Google search? To get to the head of the line before their competitors? The client’s chances are enhanced if they commission a photographer who is knowledgeable in the area of SEO and source code and knows not only how to make a professional photo but more importantly to physically include symbols and icons in the photo that shout out (figuratively speaking) the client’s message.

    On the Net nowadays, photos play an even more important job than just being an interesting design relief for the page layout.
    Rohn Engh

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