One thing you'll hear me say over and over again in this column is that good usability and design comes before optimization. It can be all too easy to market online through optimization, link building, blogging, and social media ( to name a few) and see that immediate upsurge in traffic, but not see any change in conversions.

Today we're taking a look at a stock photography website that is selling the rights to photos of a niche topic.

The website (which has asked to remain anonymous) has a great product to sell, and a decent process for doing it. However, the site design and usability could use a little work prior to taking the next step in online marketing. When you are offering a niche product in a common area, IE stock photography, it's helpful to take some cues from other successful industry websites. After all, no good ideas are truly original. As long as you don't violate copyright, there's no harm in rooting around and making use of what works.

Elements of Design
One of the main usability pitfalls on the current website is the lack of visual contrast; blue and gray text is on top of a gray background, which will get very washed out on varying monitors or for people who are color blind or have vision problems. The blue, gray, and lighter gray color palette is very low contrast, which causes all of the elements on each page to blend together. Using colors with higher contrast will make the site easier to read, and make it easier for visitors to distinguish the sections of each page (such as navigation, content, search, etc).

Hierarchy is another element of contrast that needs to be addressed on this website. The eye should be given a specific path to follow based on size, color, placement, and style of elements. A few key elements that need to stand out on every page are the site name and navigation. There is not enough contrast in size and color on the website for visitors to be able to find these elements easily.

The stock photo site has done a good job of using consistent styles and color across the website. In general, however, the fonts need to be bigger and the colors need more contrast.

jupiter-color.jpgComparison: Take a look at, for example. This popular stock photography site has a simple, yet very contrasting design. The white, dark gray, and cyan blue are simple yet effective in making text, navigation, and primary elements pop off the page. It is well designed, drawing attention to the three primary sections: 1. the header with site name and navigation 2. left sidebar with image search 3. content area with image results or instructions.

Logical, easy to find and follow navigation is critical to good usability. While it's great that our stock photo site has multiple ways for visitors to navigate to information, it is spread out and hard to find on the page. On the homepage alone there are 5 different ways to navigate:

  • Global horizontal bar with contact, help, my account, etc
  • Left sidebar with option to browse by popular searches
  • Search bar in header
  • Four vertical feature boxes on the left side of the content area
  • A horizontal navigation list underneath the large homepage image.
The problem here is that there are too many navigation options and that they are difficult to locate. They are not indicated consistently visually and their placement is pretty random within the overall design. I would strongly recommend that the website managers do some major housekeeping. Go through the website and figure out all of the content that is available, and think through a logical way to re-organize it much more simply.

comstock-nav.jpgComparison: Take a look at This website has three navigation areas:

  1. a horizontal bar with all account, cart, and related visitor info. Notice that the "register" and "sign in" links have been paired with this information. All of the visitor's necessary information to purchase on the site is easily accessible in one area.
  2. a vertical bar with the search options. Our website could take some cues from Comstock and move the search function above the popular searches in the left sidebar. This type of organization moves similar information to the same location, simplifies the design, and makes it easy for visitors to see that they can navigate the site in both of the those ways.
  3. a horizontal bar below the content with all of the housekeeping links for home, contact, about, etc.
Comstock's navigation options are simple, logical, and organized by type of information. Our review stock photo site could greatly improve it's usability by incorporating some of these ideas.

Make Use of Industry Conventions
Many of the major stock photography sights whether they are rights-managed, royalty-free, subscription-based or otherwise are displaying images similarly. The stock photography website's image results look messy because the image thumbnails are different sizes; some are horizontal, some are vertical, and they don't have a consistent alignment. It creates a less than professional look that is also difficult to scan, a key element of usability.

istock-images.jpgComparison: Look at's method for displaying images. While here, too, images differ in orientation, the thumbnails are all the same width and align at the top. This is a much better way of dealing with differences in images while providing some measure of uniformity and cleanliness. In addition, all of these major stock photo sites provide a larger version of the thumbnail when you roll-over it with the mouse. This has become common, and many visitors may begin to expect this functionality as it becomes more and more conventional.

Usability? Thumbs Up. Onto Some Optimization and Marketing.
Some basic optimization has already been done on the review site's images. I'm glad to see unique, descriptive titles for each that have some basic keywords incorporated. Now it's time to take it a step further.

Fine-Tune Keywords
While the stock photo site's images do have unique titles with some keywords, these images aren't ranking well in web or image search results. It's time to do a little keyword research and start incorporating specific phrases that searchers are using. And be sure to include location specific keywords when appropriate.

Social Media
If you're feeling really brave and are prepared to take a big step in marketing online, start getting the stock photos posted on There are a few major benefits to posting photos to Flickr:

   1. more links to your site, which equals more traffic
   2. multiple ways for people to find your images
   3. your optimized images will show up in Yahoo web and image search results.

You can write unique titles, descriptions, and tags for each photo, create sets, include links back to your website, and get involved in groups and discussions. You can also adjust your account settings to copyright the photos and prevent them from being downloaded. Include smaller sizes with watermarks so that people can't try to use them anyway.

It Comes Down To Improving Visibility
While putting images out on a photo sharing site can be scary, taking that step as well as improving your image optimization will greatly increase your online visibility. Designers and marketers who don't know about your site and go to a search engine looking for photos of your niche topic will find you more easily, which is good for them and for your bottom line!


August 4, 2008

Jackie Baker is an internet marketing analyst with SiteLogic Marketing ( where she focuses on auditing websites as well as SEO, social media, usability, and information architecture consulting. She comes to the industry from a marketing/PR and website development background. Jackie maintains an active presence online through her blog ( where she shares her love all things equine, particularly therapeutic riding.


really good article! web design tips that all should follow

Not a bad article. I think you mistakenly identified the site. At the top you said, "The website (which has asked to remain anonymous)". However further down you state, "a vertical bar with the search options. ___________ could take some cues from Comstock and move the search function above the popular searches in the left sidebar.

Of the sites you listed, I really enjoy browsing at istockphoto the best. My only criticism is there is so many photos it's hard to find the one I want :)

Sam - Thanks for pointing that out. I will get it fixed right away. I too really like; it takes a little practice, but you can eventually find a good search system to locate the photos you need. It's a great service especially for small businesses on a low budget because the photos are very affordable.

The article!, on web design tips that one should follow,is really good.

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Search Engine Guide > Jackie Baker > Site Clinic: No Good Web Design Idea is Original, So Use It!