Should Google Penalize Content For Using Stock Images?

By: Chris Crum - June 23, 2013

Use stock images on your site? Soon, you may find that it is hurting your rankings in Google. Maybe.

Do you think rankings should suffer when content utilizes stock images? Share your thoughts.

Google’s Matt Cutts discussed stock photos as a ranking signal in a Webmaster Help video this week. Specifically, he responded to the following user-submitted question:

Does using stock photos on your pages have a negative effect on rankings? Do original photos help you in this regard?

“‘Does using stock photos on your pages have a negative effect on rankings?’ To the best of my knowledge, the answer is no,” says Cutts. “‘Do original photos help you?’ To the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t really make a difference whether it’s a stock photo versus an original photo.”

But he doesn’t leave it at that.

“But you know what?” he adds. “That’s a great suggestion for a future signal we could look at in terms of search quality. Who knows? Maybe original sites – original image sites might be higher quality, where sites that just repeat the same stock photos over and over again might not be nearly as high quality.”


“But to the best of my knowledge,” he reiterates, “we don’t use that directly in our algorithmic web ranking right now.”

Well, even if Google is not using this as a signal currently, it’s hard to imagine why Cutts would make comments like these if he’s not serious about this actually being something Google could add in the future. They are, as you know, making changes to the algorithm every day. Here, he’s pretty much saying that original images are a signal of quality, so that’s worth paying attention to.

Is this the case though? Should original images always be treated as a signal of quality? It raises some new questions that webmasters and SEOs haven’t necessarily needed to think about in the past.

Will original trump actual photo quality? Will an amateur photo in an amateur blog post gain get a boost over a “professional” post with a re-used image from Getty? Will stock photo providers lose business because people are afraid to use the images in their content? Surely webmasters would never overreact to a ranking change Google makes, right?

Do you think stock images hurt the quality of a piece of content? Should Google include this as a ranking signal? Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Chris CrumChris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.

View all posts by Chris Crum
  • Simon

    Wow, it means another threat for future, start making your own images rather than using others. But small companies probably wont throw much importance to it or can afford it.

  • cormac are shagged so

    • http://http// Chuck Boulais

      @cormac: Do you mean to tell me that is already being penalized??

  • Stuart

    I know that Google want to focus on quality websites to serve their users quality results, but that is taking it a bit too far I think. Pictures do not portray the quality of the website and it’s content. It should all be about the structure, wording and backlinks in my opinion.

  • Sandy

    That’s a new one!

  • Mick

    There is not a week goes by that Matt Cutts does not introduce a bit of thought provoking banter.

  • Kenneth Elliott

    How will they know? If the image is changed just a bit, say an added layer, or filter or a bit of text over the images?

  • Anne

    Google is just making things harder and harder for the smaller website owner. If they start penalizing us for stock photos, then they are just taking the whole damn thing too far.

    • koko san

      well said!

    • norm

      This is a funny post since he said they are not going to do it.. what a waste of brain power webpronews had you all go through today.. hey editors, how about being useful and not the National Enquirer of the Web? You suck.

  • Sky high

    I just hope this will never happen. Don’t get me wrong, nice content with unique image is very great however it is fact, and we need to be open that we can’t prevent bloggers, webmasters or anything uses stock images for their contents – so what will Google consider in the end? Someone with low content but with unique image? or excellent content but using a stock image?

  • Jay Kay

    I use (paid for licence) stock photos where design needs it and neither I or the client can provide our own as an original. As far as I am concerned, any ‘punishment’ for using stock photos would infringe my rights to create a site. I cannot see how it would be Google’s business and would be going too far in trying to include this in any algorithm.

  • Jon

    Bad idea.

    Amateur or even local pro photographers will never compete with the best globaly.

    Restricted acess/specialisation – underwater, aerial, space ( NASA ), celebs, wildlife, politicians, high security areas ( Buckingham palace UK ), creative – not everyone is a creative genius!

    If you want to downgrade the visual impact of the web then fine go ahead – otherwise drop this turkey of an idea.

    Stock may mean average, cheap and widespread – it may also mean difficult, time consuming, specialised etc.

    I doubt it is possible algorithmically to distinguish between the widespread use of the shot of Neil Armstrong on the moon vs the use of a suited businessman extending his hand for a handshake to a prospective customer or the headset wearing call centre staff waiting for your call – all used a lot and for entirely different reasons.

    Sounds like a good idea until you think about it and then realise its one of the worst suggestions you could make.

  • Juan

    Google is just making things harder and harder for the smaller website owner. i agree

  • Bharati Ahuja

    Usually, we see most of the sites buy ready images from the numerous websites available for the same. We see board room images, people shaking hands denoting partnerships and finalizing deals. These images have perfect models modeling for the pictures and having perfect smiles which may be a dentist’s delight.

    But, the questions asked in this context are:

    • Do these images project the right impression of your company?

    • Is your team so well-groomed (look-wise) as depicted in the website images?

    • Don’t you think that such images are an insult to the hard working team that you have?

    I am sure you have the answer for the above questions.

    No company has a perfect looking team and the atmosphere at work is constantly not all grins and smiles and achievements. To reflect the true image of your company the images put for the product page,’ the team ‘or ‘about us’ page should be the actual pictures of your team members and the actual shop floor pictures of the product being manufactured or the of the office in which your staff is working to make the targets set by you a reality.

    Having no images on the site is better than having the artificial smiling images. If you just adopt this change I am sure it will add to the credibility of your online business.

    Focus on the content and value your product and people by putting them forward on the real estate of your web page.

    Putting the right content and reflecting the true image of your company is like adding the soul to your website.

    Matt Cutts in the video mentions that maybe in future Google might think about this. Hence according to me letting the website be an actual reflection of the business image you have real time and the website reflecting the actual infra structure and team is always a better option than having stock photos reflecting people and the office place as something totally opposite of what your actual business is or you and your team are.

    As Matt Cutts mentions in the video original photos may be considered as a quality factor but though they are not a ranking factor now but it is pure logic that having a true identity will surely add to the trust factor in the minds of the visitors and gradually when Google incorporates this in the algorithms then it surely will add on to the online trust factor too.

    As Google says cater to the user qualitatively and the search engines too are taken care off eventually, when they are ready and have updated their algorithms to add those signals.

  • Jorge

    It just shows, you have to be careful what you say, what you ask, and to whom you are speaking or asking, (images of Paula Dean in my head). Google search is severely flawed to begin with. I typed one of my websites names in the search querie exactly as it appears, no spaces, no .com and through page 20, never showed up.

  • http://http// Chuck Boulais

    If this turns out to be the case, it would really make me upset!

  • Fonteine

    Perhaps time to be no longer depending on Google alone and focus on more variety in your marketing efforts. After all Google gives you more stress and headaches than other media. Never bet on one horse.

  • Nick Of Time Marketing UK

    Content and images need to continually be fresh and invigorating to attract attention, break up bulky script and return visitors through quality attraction. Strangely I agree with Mr Cutts thought on the option in future of maybe rankings being affected by repeating/stock image use vs fresh/new image users.
    The web has to be pruned and nurtured like a growing flower, plant or organism so it blossoms and grows into something greater. But also for the benefit of all, hopefully !

    • kevin morley

      So, I sell a brand product(and 1000’s of other retailers), the manufacturer of the product gives us access to an image library.
      When a customer searches for that product he is going to find that image, all he cares about is what it looks like, price, availability, warranty etc. He doesn’t give a sh*t about it being an original photo, Google will go the way of yahoo soon and there are plenty of search engines out there

  • John

    In a word, “No” They are just being too arrogant. It would be good to boycott Google, but that is difficult. My default search engine is independent and it is brilliant. I block as much google as I can. Unfortunately Google will always make adwords attractive to at least somebody. And some understandably rely on it for their income. It would be good to at arrange a world wide “No Google” day. Everyone have everything switched off. and if they feel just one day, then do it again, till they start listening.

  • Brian

    I don’t think using stock images should be used as a signal for a quality issue. At least someone has taken the time to actually include an image and presumably provided the proper credit for the image. Perhaps that credit (if it is a link) should be a ‘nofollow’ to follow the same principle as ads, so they don’t pass Page Rank, but other than that I really don’t see why it should be a problem under normal circumstances. There are always those that will abuse any system i.e. overuse of the same image for example, but many webmaster that actually care about the content they are providing will try to ensure the addition of a stock photo actually adds quality rather than the reverse.

  • Mike Seidelman

    I think there is no simple answer like “stock photos are bad and original photos are good.”

    If I have a site selling airplane tickets and I want a photo to represent a location e.g. New York, I won’t go there to take a picture, but use a stock photo and pay for it. That says absolutely nothing about the quality of content of a page or a site.

    If I am a photograph and am selling my art, things are different.

  • Bill Gassett

    I don’t think using stock images should be a factor at all. Does it really say that the quality of the written content is not as good as someone who takes a picture themselves? I don’t think so!

    What about all the image companies? They would all go out of business if Google changed their algorithm to penalize people who use them.

  • Mark

    Will Google penalize websites selling stock image? What if a site uses a combination of of original and stock images? Will Google weigh the ratio of original to stock images? I would have thought it already had occurred to them.

  • koko san

    Just another Google Dictatorship nonsense. should Google penalize this and that bla bla bla….The only important thing for the user is that the results are relevant to his search, and Google doesn’t really excel at that. It penalizes sites based on nonsense in order to inflate the SEO industry, or who knows why.

  • Jon

    What a load of tosh.

    So now we have to have the highest quality designers, content writers that cost the Earth and in the future we are going to have to employ photographers.

    I wish more people would use Bing. They are like google used to be. Clean and simple. Google is just one giant pain in the ass.

    •‎ Skokie Bakery Owner

      A lousy, blurry, nothing-see-but-your-thumb-blocking-the-camera photos are original photos. So are photos taken by whoever won the equivalent of the Oscar for best photo.

      Once everybody stops using stock photos, Google will take it upon itself to create an algo that distinguishes photo quality. And everybody shall jump up with joy.

  • Carl Potts

    I can understand his point somewhat I come accross loads of sites with no real content apart from a bit of guff and loads of cliched stock images, I come accross this quite a lot when browsing about

    • norm

      Well I certainly hope it does not make you cry, Carl.

  • Atanas

    Is it possible at all to distinguish between the two types of images?

  • mihail

    Cutts it is idiot

  • Specjalista SEO

    I don’t think so, because what is difference between sock photos and amateur photos?

    It is very possible, that photos from stock are better quality but private photos can be more umique.

    First of all, you should replies – how many website owners prepares photos files:
    -size of file? (smaller – better)
    -name of file? (not dsc8765.jpg but some_unique_photo.jpg)
    -format of photos? (png are smaller but don’t have possibilty to use meta title, decsription and title),
    -ALT – alternative text for images.

    If you prepare some nice files with names and descriptions, if you use all of possibilities – it’s mean, that you make perfect work to present your content in Web. It’s enough, doesn’t matter stock or private photo:-)

    But if somebody wants to watch us, hi will required all EXIF data (additional place and GPS coordinates for photos.). It will terrible…

  • Roberta Guise

    Google should not touch stock photos with a 10-foot algorithmic pole. Most small business owners don’t have the budget for custom photography.

    There’s a different problem with stock images: overuse. Website owners can research where else their stock photo is being used. For example, I see the image of a pair of hands holding a small growing tree at least once a week — you likely have seen it too.

    When choosing stock photos we need to be discerning, and more so when the page has more permanence, as on one’s site, versus using a stock image to enhance the more fleeting nature of a blog post.

    There’s an analogy in the sound world: many years ago, the department store chain Mervyn’s ran a holiday TV ad campaign with a music sound “bed” that tugged at the heart strings (I worked there at the time in their A/V department).

    They were dismayed when, immediately after their highly-produced commercial, an ad for a wine brand aired using exactly the same music sound bed.

    So that’s what we risk with stock images. Not a big issue for small business owners because of the limited exposure, but definitely an area of concern for big brands that still mass market.

    • Martin

      And every time the wine advert aired, people thought of Mervyn’s.

  • Shiloh

    Google and Cutts are out of control. They have become a dictatorship. Their search results are crap now anyway. Bing is now a much better search engine. Google actually penalizes websites for “bad” links pointing to them. Negative SEO is rampant as a result. Try using BING for your searches and you will get much better results.

  • Sharon Jackson

    This is the stupidest idea I have heard in a long time. Like many people have commented, smaller businesses may not have the budget to hire professional photographers to take photos of the great looking employees they don’t actually have. A small company can provide great content though, and Google should just keep its nose out of the graphics department.

    Curse you, Greg M for giving Matt Cutts the idea!! :)

  • Debbie Campbell

    Bad idea. Small businesses often can’t afford to hire a professional photographer to take photos of their own work, much less the types of metaphorical photos that are so handy for illustrating points in text content.

  • Davina

    My interpretation is anything which is used over and over again would not have the quality of original images. This is just the same as content which is being regurgitated without being changed. We are talking giving value to the viewer.
    I would think stock images are fine, as long as people spend a bit of time looking for the more unusual rather than going for the ones that everyone uses.

  • Chris Agro

    I thought Google took aesthetics into consideration as part of the user experience in authority and ranking? Professional photography and illustration, whether stock or original, helps tell the story. This sounds like it’s engineering advancements versus human qualification. I hope the ‘eyes’ have it on this one.

  • james braselton

    hi there tyour write they penalizing sussesfuoly companies

  • Scotch Macaskill

    Judging by the number of original images that are simply lifted from a web page, used on some junk blog in violation of copyright, and then appear above the original in Google’s image search results, Google doesn’t have the faintest idea of what’s an original image or one bought from a stock site. Cutts is just mouthing off as usual.

  • yosri

    Original photo should make a different when user is looking for photo, not when user is looking for text informations.

  • John

    I would have thought that most webmasters rename pictures before putting them on a site. How would google differentiate between the mainly different pictures with common names such as eiffeltower.jpg?

    • Mitch

      To my understanding there is technology out there from google where you can upload a photo and it will someone how transcode it and find other images similar to it, you can try it on google search if you want… 😐

  • Mitch

    Of course it should not negatively hurt seo rankings. This defeats the whole purpose of purchasing stock original photos in the first place from big companies such as they whole reason they exist is so people can purchase high quality images for their websites.

    Does google really think that every carries around Canon EOS500 digital SLR cameras ? no this is not the case in reality.

    Does google really think that every knows how to take photos ? no this is not the case in reality either.

    I understand that reusing photos may be seen as duplication however i am totally against that it should negatively hurt SEO.

    However i do agree that original high quality photos should help SEO rankings.

    My 2cents.

  • Kevin

    I hope not because as a small business you cannot afford the photo shoots let alone the models.

  • Lewis

    I am surprised that many are talking about employing dedicated photographers as a step towards aiming for original image. Actually, you can still use the stock photos and modify them in any image editor and no one would be wiser. In the last couple of years, Google appears to be hell bent on ‘inventing’ new reasons to slap penalties on Webmasters. They have become the Internet equivalent of the totalitarian states – find a reason to punish people.

    All along we thought Google was striving hard to serve ‘quality’ pages in their SERP. Seriously – they need to change their tactics. “Do No Evil” eh ? It sounds so hollow now.

  • Gerardo

    It does not make much sense really.
    What is important is quality.
    There are some stock pictures that come from top-of-the-line artist, even if they are still not very well known.
    People with not a very big budget need to use a stock picture to start with.
    It would be unfair to discriminate against stock photos.
    How will Google differentiate a stock photo from an original photo?
    But it is understandable the reaction from the executive from Google.
    They will very probably study carefully and decide not to discriminate against stock photos.
    It would be totally unfair and unwise to do so, it seems.

  • Mike

    June 23, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    I would have thought that most webmasters rename pictures before putting them on a site. How would google differentiate between the mainly different pictures with common names such as eiffeltower.jpg?

    This is very true we also tend to crop the images and sometimes convert from one type to another. Also with JPG would not take much effort to convert to EXIF and then add whatever EXIF parameters are required.

  • Opace

    I don’t think website aesthetic has anything to do with content relevancy so I’m not sure why Google should even consider this being added to their algorithm as an indicator.

  • Joe

    Giving dumb ideas to Matt Butts it is not a great idea.

    • Joe

      OMG. Did i write Butts? My bad. Misspell.Really! B is right to C .Sorry.

  • BMD-Media

    Another limitation from Google. :-(

  • millgate

    Don’t be dumb … of course not !!

  • marcie

    I would think that paying for your photos is the most professional, I mean does Google want to run Istock out of business too…Google? God maybe they have gotten too much power!

  • Lex

    Google just make money using AdWords. Any Cutts speeches just for naive dummies.

  • Jon Rhodes

    I think it’s right that a site should be rewarded for making the effort with their pictures. However I can see it getting into a “picture spinning” war where spammers are ripping off unique pictures and electronically changing them so the search engines think they are unique.

  • Paul

    I can already hear all the stock photo site CEO’s rumbling and groaning on “How can we stop this?”.

    • Rank Watch

      The websites which create and use their original and quality images needs to be given importance. Stock photos make sense especially in some areas and website owners or bloggers can’t avoid using it. But one big question is can Google distinguish stock photos from the normal ones.

  • Jeff Foliage

    this would be a boon to photographers with blogs as they usually have “original” images on their blogs. But I can’t see Google wanting to tick off Getty as the gorilla in the room who just started this practice.
    It means that bloggers of less than stellar (spammy) blogs can now have for the price of a link, a quality image from Getty.
    In the end I’m betting if someone puts a bunch of “Getty sponsored” images in their blog it will categorize them and maybe Google will look harder at their content. And last if you have embedded these images in your site will Getty want to check if the return link is still active… Would this slow your page loading time and we do know that this IS a Google algorithm item… hmmm… :-)