Guidelines For Using Photos As Web Content

Back when I started this blog, I made the conscious decision not to include images unless they were directly illustrative of the point I was trying to make. Flash forward a few months later and if I'm not writing a case study I’ve found myself starting to use images to ‘pretty up’ most, if not all, of my posts. Research by web usability guru Jakob Nielsen indicates that I should have stuck with my original plan.

Nielsen’s eyetracking studies document a dramatic gap in how users approach website (and blog) images. Here’s the major takeaways:

1. Some types of pictures are completely ignored by web users
This is typically the case for big feel-good images that are purely decorative.

2. Other types of pictures are treated as important content and scrutinized
Photos of products and real people (as opposed to stock photos of models) often fall into this category.

3. Visual bloat annoys users

Even with high-speed Internet connections and sub-second download times, users still prefer websites that focus on the information they want, rather than images and visual design, especially when they are using smartphones.

According to Nielsen (whose website is an exemplary model of web usability), pictures can make a positive difference to the user experience in some cases. In e-commerce for example, product photos help users understand products and differentiate between similar items. On corporate and personal websites and blogs users want to see the person or team behind the site, organization or company.

What it comes down to is that users pay attention to information-carrying images that show content that's relevant to the task at hand. They ignore purely decorative images that don't add real content to the page.

Aside from these practical tips there’s a larger lesson for communications professionals here. As marketers we sometimes get sidetracked and try to give our customers what we think they should want as opposed to what they really need. We usually have the best intentions–we want to delight our customers–but it can have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting their brand experience. Graphic design should always be used judiciously and only in service of the goal we're trying to accomplish, not the other way around.

I’ll admit it, I got seduced by the power of visual assets and graphic design. I was worried about what marketer Lauren Girardin calls the deadly “nothing but text” screen. Plus, social media guru Chris Brogan, in a great post about blogging best practices, says that "using pictures makes the posts pop". But Nielsen reminded me that while blogs are a unique form of website, they are websites nonetheless and normal website usability guidelines apply to them too. From here on in, I'll be following his blog usability guidelines to the letter.

What do you think? Do images enhance your user experience on this blog or would you rather do without them unless they are directly adding to the content value or brand experience?

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 


Lauren Girardin said...

Natalie, you did it right. Whether or not to use photos should be evaluated as part of your site's strategy and your brand--it's not a hard and fast rule.

Sometimes images are useful, adding the right dramatic touch, perking curiosity, or illustrating the main point.

Sometimes images are a detrimental distraction, particularly if they're chosen without careful consideration. It's better to have no image than one that is off brand or off message.

You could run some testing on whether adding photos increase things like the number of people that read your content, the length of time they linger, or if they comment.


Thanks Lauren.

As I get the blog more established I'm definitely going to start doing some testing to see what's working.

I think you raise a good point about personal brand. I'm guessing most people start their blogs (myself included) with little thought to what visual assets they want to use as part of their brand strategy. I did a quick search online and found little written about developing brand guidelines for personal blogs.

This, by Ron Ashenkas, is interesting but it's talking about personal brand conceptually rather than how it's expressed visually. Still an interesting read though:

You've given me an idea for another blog post now, thanks!