Picture this: how quality images make for a better website

Remember when connecting to the internet sounded like R2D2 getting a colonoscopy (beeeep-teeeeek-shhhhhhhh-zhzhzhzhz)? That was the bad ol’ days of dial-up, when loading images on a webpage took foreeeeeeeeever.

Thankfully, with super-speedy internet connections nowadays, we can get images quickly (and get our unboxing videos at lightning speed—phew!). That’s why users want images with their web experience. Scratch that; users expect images. But not just any sort of images either. It’s not enough to stuff your site full of crappy pictures, like a school kid cutting out magazine photos to pad out their assignment on the history of Pokémon Go. Your images need to be high quality. But what makes a high quality image? Here’s three things to think about when adding images to your site.

Pictures...who needs ‘em?

Let’s back up a moment. Sure, images have become a standard part of the web experience—but why? Two reasons: (1) photos are interesting, and (2) photos make us feel.

It’s not rocket science: photos are more visually appealing. What would you rather look at: black squiggles on a white page (text) or a dynamic, bacchanalian, polychromatic display of eye-candy pyrotechnics (photos)? Thought so. Of course, the internet is still heavily reliant on text, but images break that text up into manageable chunks. In other words, deep down we’re all just little kids who want books with lots of pictures and minimal words.

But images can also do certain things that words can’t. While text is great for efficiently conveying a lot of information, images are great at delivering an emotional punch. Simply put, photos make you feel. To be sure, words have their own strengths—precision, economy, factuality—but nothing is quite as evocative as a well-crafted, well-chosen image.

The Don’t: users can spot stock photos

Most of us understand the appeal of a professional photograph over a rough-n-ready homemade snapshot taken on your iPhone. Most of us also understand that hiring a professional photographer is likely to cost big bucks. If only there was a way I could (legally) get professional images without having to pay premium prices...Guess what: you can. It’s called stock photography.

There are lots of stock image databases on the internet that allow you to get your sticky hands on the “right” photo just by typing in a search query (“baby wearing bowtie and beaglepuss”) and paying a fee (or even get them gratis). Seems like the perfect solution, right? Wrong.

Here’s the problem with stock photos: everybody can tell it’s a stock photo. “To see a stock image is . . . to know you're seeing a stock image,” says writer at The Atlantic Megan Garber. After countless thousands of visits to meticulously preened, stock-heavy corporate websites, we’ve all become blackbelts at identifying stock images. The three telltale signs you’re looking at a stock photos according to Garber are “prettiness, preciousness, pose-iness”. That seems pretty accurate, but whatever the reasons, we can all smell stock photos a mile off.

But so what if people can tell? Does that matter? According to eye-tracking studies (where they monitor what parts of a webpage people actually look at—and the parts they ignore) conducted by web-user experts Nielsen Norman Group (NNG), users completely ignore stock photos. That’s right—those glossy, slick, carefully-crafted images shot by Leibovitz-wannabes fail to capture the attention.

The Do: real, high-quality photos really work

So what does work? Real photos. Real high quality photos. By which I mean photos specific to your business, featuring your people and your products. In the aforementioned eye-tracking studies, NNG found that, while users completely overlook stock photos, they do look at non-generic images.

Chinese researchers have also found that images with people in them often work better than photos without people (e.g., a photo of somebody wearing your headphones will trump a photo of the headphones all on their lonesome). It’s about trust. When a website visitor is able to see your staff’s faces, your brick-and-mortar shop, and your branded company cars, it proves to them that you’re a legitimate business. Their trust increases. They realise that you’re actually the real deal, not a con artist with a website.

What what sort of photos actually work? NNG specifically cites the following as the right kind of images to be using on your website:

  • Information-carrying photos (i.e., not purely decorative filler....Stock photos, I’m looking at you…)
  • Staff photos (of actual staff)
  • Product photos

The Big Picture: improve your images, improve your website

Photos matter. All websites should use them—wisely. That means it’s worth getting professionally-shot photos BUT not stock photos. Yes, they’re pro but you’re not fooling anybody. No business has staff that gorgeous, no science lab has labcoats that clean, no university has students that smiley. But high quality photos of actual people? Those pictures really are worth a thousand words.