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To Hotlink or Not to Hotlink – What’s Good for Image Search?

| Posted in category Internet Marketing Link Building Video SEO

Today, let us speak a little hotlinking. Let us see what hotlinking is and whether the phenomenon is completely negative as many white-hat SEO-optimizers believe.

So, first thing first, what is hotlinking? This is, technically, linking to a piece of content that's located on another site in such a way that people can actually view it from YOUR site, WITHOUT having to go to the site where it is physically situated. Think of a Vimeo video that you embed on your blog: it would be hosted on Vimeo's server, while being available for viewing on your very resource.

Hotlinking is also referred to as direct linking, leeching or inline linking.

Hotlinking Images

Images get hotlinked a lot. It's not that often that one would want to have a snippet of text from another site sitting on their resource. However, with images, things are different. A lot of people just perform a basic Google search, see an image they can use to illustrate their article with and - voila – put a direct link to it.

Now, this is generally considered bad practice. People who do it are often called all sorts of names in the SEO world for not even bothering to download the image they want to use, upload it to their own server or to an image sharing site like ImageShack or Photobucket,and hotlink to it from their site.

Why is hotlinking such an evil thing to do? There are several reasons. First, hotlinking steals the original host's bandwidth. Say, if the image is large and there is a lot of traffic on the scraper's site, the damage will be particularly big.

Second, hotlinking is basically against copyright. Say, I'm a hotel owner running my own small business. I hire a photographer to take some pictures of my hotel and the beautiful areas around it. I own rights to those pictures and would NOT like them to appear anywhere else except on my site. However, one day some lucky ducky decides to hotlink to my original pictures (say, a competitor from a neighboring hotel, just to make it sound REALLY evil). I certainly wouldn't be happy about that.

What's good for images SEO?

Well, now, those of you who are unfamiliar with all the intricacies of images search, I have some shocking news for you. Even though there are lots of arguments saying that hotlinking is unethical and all that, try ranking highly in Google Images for a competitive keyword without a single hotlink to your picture. Anyone?

Thing is, for images SEO, hotlinks play the same role that backlinks play for the "regular" SEO. Search engines see each hotlink to your image as a vote, which can boost your rankings in Image Search. Some even claim that hotlinks are also considered "normal" backlinks by Google, since it reportedly looks at any links like votes.

So, now the question is: to hotlink or not to hotlink? How does one protect their bandwidth from unauthorized use, execute their copyright and ranks high in the Images SERPs at the same time? Here are some tips to help you:

Reserve some space for hotlinks

If you are really determined to rank your images high, consider allocating some extra bandwidth for potential direct links that will be placed to them. This means choosing a hosting plan with a lot of/unlimited traffic.

Mind your image size

Pay attention to how big your images are. Do not make them unnecessarily large, for example, 1200 by 700 pixels is already a large image, it's best to keep your images within the 300x200 – 500x300 pixels span.

Watermark your pictures

You can also watermark your images, say, brand them with your website address or the name of your company. If you are interested in hotlinking, make your watermark rather unassuming, so that others are still interested to direct-link to your images, thus spreading the word about your site or brand.

To create watermarks, you can use some watermarking software like PictureWatermark or Visual Watermark.

Now, if you don't wanna do it…

If, for some reason, you don't want other folk to hotlink to your pics (say, you are already ranking high for them, and would rather save bandwidth than pursue higher ranks), there are several things you can do to prevent that from happening:

- Disallow direct linking by adding the following code in your .htaccess file:

RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^http://(www\.)?yoursite\.com [NC]
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !^$
RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} ^http://.*$
RewriteRule \.(jpe?g|gif|bmp|png)$ - [F]

- Use a respective plugin that disables hotlinking (there is one for WordPress, for example)

Well, there are other extreme ways to deal with unsolicited direct links, such as disabling the right click or replacing the image that got hotlinked with a piece of porn. But why go to such extremes if there are quite simple ways out (such as described above)?

Well, in the end, it's up to you whether you need the hotlink juice or not. You may as well just play around with this "link building" technique, see whether it causes more damage or benefits to your site and then make up your mind on the matter.

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