There are some website developers who would say hotlinking images without permission is stealing.
Hotlinking, for the uninitiated, is the practice of embedding images on your website by using image file URLs from other websites.
It might seem innocent enough. You just want to use a photo or illustration in your website that you found on XYZ.com. Instead of downloading it from the other site, then uploading it to your own, you simply used the image’s existing URL on XYZ.com. Where’s the harm in that?
Actually, there’s a lot of harm – to the image owner, and possibly to you as well.
Hotlinking is Bandwidth Theft
Possibly the most infamous example of this was in 2015, when the Huffington Post UK hotlinked several images from the popular webcomic The Oatmeal. Cartoonist and The Oatmeal owner Matthew Inman got his revenge by simply replacing all of the hotlinked images with a pointed message for HuffPo UK:
As Inman demonstrates, hotlinking by The Huffington Post UK had a serious financial implication for both websites. HuffPo UK enjoyed the benefit of sharing his content, while Inman’s much smaller site bore the brunt of the traffic, driving up his hosting costs.
While the Huffington Post draws thousands of visitors daily, you might think your smaller website will have a negligible effect on another website’s bandwidth. Ask yourself: does that make it okay? If so, would you be bothered by another website doing it to yours?
As Kinsta brilliantly put it, “Hotlinking is like driving away with gas you siphoned off from your neighbor’s car.”
Times Change, and so do Image URLs
Inman’s clever act of revenge also demonstrates the other major problem with hotlinking. If the hosted image changes URLs or is removed by the site owner, your site will be stuck with a broken image link.
That means visitors to your page will see incomplete, busted content, and you’ll immediately lose credibility. It’s also a turn-off for SEO, since broken images are a trigger for search engines to negatively score your site in their rankings.
In the case of HuffPo UK vs. The Oatmeal, Inman also took advantage of the Huffington Post UK author’s laziness by replacing the last image with some, ahem, not-entirely-safe-for-work doodles.
Don’t risk raising the ire of another website’s owner by hotlinking their images without permission!
What About Offloading to Image Hosting Sites?
Because images can be a real drag on website speed – and therefore, SEO – you might have considered hosting some of your own images on another site, then hotlinking from there. They’re your images, so it’s technically not theft, correct?
Again, it’s not so much the intellectual property up for debate here as the appropriation of bandwidth. Most image hosts won’t allow hotlinking anyway; attempting to do so will result in an “error image” showing up on your site instead.
Some free stock image websites, like those we discussed in our previous post, prohibit the practice and will actively block attempts to hotlink. Read the Terms of Service and FAQ if you’re unsure.
Granted, other free stock image websites will actually allow you to hotlink their images. If you really need to do this, go for it. Keep this in mind, however: if the image host ever changes its URL structure, removes the image, or shuts down entirely, you’ll be stuck with a broken image.
It’s Harder to Hotlink in 2021
You may have considered that your own website could potentially be targeted by lazy designers and have images hotlinked without your permission.
It’s easy to find out. Using Google, search for “url:xyz.com -site:xyz.com” with xyz.com standing in for your own website’s domain.
The good news for website owners is that hosting technology has caught up with the trend of hotlinking and made it easier to prevent.
If you’re on WordPress, Hostinger has several recommendations for preventing hotlinking. These include plugins, or using a CDN, which is our preferred method here at BizTraffic.
For developers, DreamHost has some guidance on using an .htaccess file to thwart hotlinking.
The Bottom Line
Hotlinking is a dubious practice at best, and one that can get you into trouble. It’s also very unethical, unless you have written permission from the host website’s owner. Don’t hotlink, and take a few steps right now to prevent hotlinking of your own images.