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Is Hot linking good for SEO?

Skip straight to: How to SEO your images through hot linking

To start out, let's define some terms. The term "hot linking" is when a website includes on their page an image that is hosted on another website.

Often "hot linking" is used to allow people to show photos on blogs, message boards, social networking sites or other such websites where users like to share content, but are unable to upload images to be hosted. There are many photo sharing websites out there that do allow users to host images and then link to them from other websites. Many times users will find images that are already hosted on the website where they were originally posted. It is common for users to "hot link" or to link directly to the image to call it up on the page where they want to share it, whether that is in their own blog post, discussion board entry, or social networking site.

What is the down side of "Hot Linking?"

Hosting is a service for which users pay annual or monthly fees for a hosting plan (with the exception of free web hosting and image hosting services). Each hosting plan has usage allotments. One of these allotments is called bandwith or transfers.

To illustrate let's imagine that I am hosting a website consisting of 1 page that has a page that is 1 MB and a photo that is 1 MB. That means each time my page is viewed the hosting service deducts 2 MB from the bandwith/transfer allotment of my plan. Letís say my plan is 1000 MB per month. That means I could have about 500 views per month without going over my allotment.

Now let's imagine that a popular blogger finds my 1MB image and "hot links" it on their site on the first of the month. Let imagine this blogger has 1000 visitors per day. In the first day this person would cause my transfer limit to be used up. So what happens next? Well, when you go over your minutes on a cell phone, they don't shut off your phone, they just start charging you a lot more for overage minutes. In the same way, someone exceeding their bandwith limit is charged overage charges. These are much more expensive than the standard rate people pay.

Now the example I gave is very extreme, because many hosting services allow for 1,000 MB (or 1GB) or more per day, not per month. Also, most images optimized for web settings are around .1 MB (100 KB) not 1MB (1,000 KB).

The point is that if not monitored, other people hot linking your images could end up using up your traffic allotment and costing you money.

What is the upside of hot linking?

When people hot link to your photo Google and other search engines see this as a vote for this image. If it gets used across multiple separate websites and even within a single website on multiple pages in certain contexts it helps the ranking of the image and makes it show up higher in image searches. Other people hot linking your images speed us the "voting" process and boosts your rank.

This translates into traffic when a visitor sees the small thumbnail image in the Google image search and clicks on it. That takes them to the page where the image is found. You want to make sure that your page is the one that gets indexed along with the image, because otherwise someone is using your image and your bandwith to drive traffic to their site. The search engines are smart enough to figure out over time the first place where the image appeared. Generally this is the page that gets indexed. Also, they generally will index your page if the image is hosted at yourwebsite.com/the-image.jpg and among the pages that link to this photo is a page hosted on yourwebsite.com.

Generally speaking, Image based SEO is an overlooked part of search engine optimization. As the popularity of Universal Search (when a search engine shows links, videos, and images all on the same results page) grows, the importance of optimizing images for search will also increase.

Get Ready for Hot Linking!

Image hot linking can be a big benefit to your website and drive some good volume of traffic to your site, but you must be prepared for it. There are a few steps to protect prepare your site for hot linking. These will keep your interest protected and minimize the down side mentioned above.

  1. Get a hosting plan that has a high monthly traffic/bandwith allotment. The big guys like yahoo, go daddy, register.com, and the like are not the best deals. They offer convenience of set-up, but do not offer affordable plans that offer high bandwidth. When shopping for this some plans offer large amounts of traffic/bandwidth, but require users to be able to configure a lot of parts of the website on their own. Unless you are a very advanced web user you should go for balance between ease of use through a control panel and the relatively high bandwidth allotments. A couple companies that strike this balance very well are bluehost.com and powweb.com. There are other good hosting companies out there. If you go with another company look for positive reviews from at least 3 sources and look for a company that has been is business 3 plus years.
  2. Consider the dimensions of the image. There are ways to control the dimensions of the images you show on your website. One way is to use a photo editing software like PhotoShop to edit the images. Crop out unnecessary or irrelevant parts of the image. You can make your image smaller very easily in this way and improve the experience for your viewers. Also, you can resize image dimensions. Your images should generally be larger than 250 by 250. Images should generally not be larger that 800 pixels in either direction. 600 to 450 pixels are good targets. This will allow the image to be viewed easily while at the same time allowing the file size to be smaller and make your allotment each month go a little further.
  3. Optimize your images for web. Within Adobe PhotoShop you can do the option file> save for web>. This allows you to adjust the settings of quality, etc. By doing so you can further reduce the file size of your images and better budget your total bandwith usage.

How to SEO your images through hot linking

Let's imagine that my keyword target is "baby bunny rabbits." This step-by-step process will help you to build a page that will allow your image to be found in an image search.
  1. Create a high quality image! Whether you shoot the image yourself, draw it, diagram it, PhotoShop it, license it from someone else, the key is to start with a quality image that people will want to see. If the image is not high quality and in some way stands out or is unique, the odds are against anyone caring to hot link it.
  2. Watermark your image with your web address. Doing this will not directly impact your rank in the search engines, but will have some impact on human users. If they see a great image that has your web address on it on someone else's website there is a chance that they will feel the desire to type your web address into the web browser and visit your site. Over time if a user sees multiple images with your web address on them this likelihood increases.
  3. Name your file using the keywords. So many pictures on the web have file names like "dsc000789.jpg". While there is nothing wrong with this, it gives the search engine spiders no clue about what your image contains. If I have a picture of some baby bunnies and I want to target the keyword above I would recommend using a file name like "baby-bunny-rabbits.jpg". This well let the search engine spiders have an idea of what the image contains. Also, you can create a folder and save the image into that folder (more commonly called directories when they are on a website). Name the directory "bunnies" now your image address is "http://www.yourwebsite.com/bunnies/baby-bunny-rabbits.jpg" This covers many of the keywords you want to target and covers the variations.
  4. Use Alt and tile tags. You can use both an alt and a tile tag on the same image. When you do this the "alt" tag will be visible only when the image is not able to load. It can also be read aloud by a computer if a person with sight impairment is using accessibility assisting software with their web browser. Therefore, in this tag you should write 2-3 sentences describing the content of the image. Make sure to include the targeted keywords, but don't go overboard and use your keyword phrase 5 times in 2 sentences. This will look artificial to the search engine spiders and will sound weird to human users. The title tag will be visible to normal users when they hold their cursor over the image. It is a good idea to keep this short. In the case above I would just make the tile tag say "Baby Bunny Rabbits."
  5. Optimize the page where the image appears. Make sure to include other text on the page that uses your targeted keyword string. For example, write a caption or have a paragraphing that talks about rabbits, and baby bunnies, etc. You might also consider naming your page after your keyword phrase (ex baby-bunny-rabbits.html). Also, don't forget to use the title, keyword, and description meta tags at the top of the page. At this point there is no need to do more keyword stuffing, because you have already covered your bases. Stuffing too many keywords into a page can get you penalized and result in a lower rank in the search results.

Now that you have done these things, the odds are good that the search engines will index your image for their photo searches. If the image is a nice clear one, the odds are good that other people will "hot link" it, and it will start to show up even higher in the search results. Your site will show up higher in the regular listings results as well, and if you are lucky a universal search type results display will show your image for all searches done on your target keyword.

If you are able to do a good job of monetizing your visitors by getting them to become repeat visitors on your site, showing profitable advertising, selling quality products, or converting subscribers, then the relatively low cost of the traffic/bandwidth for you site and for other people to hot link to your images will be an investment that will pay off.