How hotlinking images can land you in hot water

How Hotlinked Inages can land you in hot water - blogger SchoolPost updated on 5th November 2013

Hotlinking by Lesley S  Smith

On the 16th of October, I decided to do a check online and find out how my image were faring.  What happened next was that the post went blogger viral and brought in thousands of page views.  I wasn’t prepared for the influx, or the results that many of us encountered.

The reason for the increase in numbers was directly linked to the potential of our children to be used on porn sites.  At best, someone else was linking to our images by using our own bandwidth to pull through our images to their websites.

I have written posts about using images on blogs and if you are interested, you can read it here.

What many bloggers were finding was that images were being linked to by websites which also misrepresented themselves.  One site seemed to link back to our websites, but when clicked, it asked for us to download something from their website.  Some others came up as risky websites in McAfee Site Advisor which I always have installed on my desktop to help flag up potentially damaging websites.

One of my images was hosted on a Chinese website, which said “Here They Are My Frightful Kids” about an image with my three children in Halloween masks.

Another hotlinked image was one I had bought from a stockphoto site, and was linked to a porn site which was hidden behind what looked like a respectable catering website.

How to find out if you have hotlinks to your website.

Go to the Google Image Search tool which you find here:  http://images.google.com/imghp?hl=en

The magic term I used to search my website was:  inurl:scottishmum.com -site:scottishmum.com

Change the website in the search term above to your own website and click the magnifying glass at the right hand side of the screen.  Any hotlinks to your website recognised by Google will show up.

There seem to be fewer hotlinks on the hosted websites like WordPress.com and Blogger.  Perhaps they are good at finding the links or perhaps they all show up under the wider parent domains and are harder to pinpoint.   The only way to find out would be for us to approach the big blogging networks and pose those questions.

It seems that self-hosted websites that have been going for some time are most at risk and it would be sensible to check your own links from time to time.

If you wish to find out more about the website pulling your images, you may have to click the image to open it which means clicking “Visit Page” to see where it really goes.  You may wish to install McAfee SiteAdvisor in your browser so that it can warn you if it is a risky website that you might end up going to.  Do not click any of the links or offers to download if you are on a website that has taken your images.

Hopefully you find very little, but if we do find unsavoury images, as lots of us did, we do have a choice in the short and in the long term.  It goes without saying that I would much prefer not to have those links being seen to point to my website as they are highly likely to be classed as poor quality links and in the worst case scenario, be detrimental to my positioning in searches.

Short Term

  • We can delete the hotlinked images from our websites and replace the image in blog posts with a renamed image.  I have done this to several of my images, but if they have automated image services, they could simply link to another one.  It’s still worth a try.

  • Add a watermark to all hotlinked images.

  • Change the image at the image URL to one that says something like “This image is the property of ……… and has been stolen.”  I’d advise caution using this approach as it may just serve to anger the people behind the site that has chosen to take our images, and we don’t know who they are.

  • Attempt to find out who owns the website using a whois search.  It may or may not show up who registered the website and who is responsible for it.  If it is a hosted blog such as WordPress.com or Blogger, contacting the owners may just be enough.  Privately owned websites or ones from different countries may be much harder to find out or deal with.

  • Ask the website owners to take down the hotlinks and images if there is a contact address or contact form on the website.

  • Contact Google to request the takedown of an image URL or whole page if it violates your copyright as the photographer.  It will only take the image out of Google, but given that the search results for Google are so large, it will help.

  • Use the Google disavow tool in Webmaster Tools to try and stop the link being counted as a link into your website.  I am unaware of how this would affect a website.

Long Term

  • Check the status of hotlinked images on a regular basis to see if any new ones show up.

  • Add in a plugin that could disable right click and might help with people trying to download image to their own computers for later use.  Personally I dislike this option as I use right click for many other things and I end up removing it again.

  • You could watermark your images, i.e. placing an almost invisible mark on the image that shows where it came from.  If people download your images, they can easily airbrush it out, but it would remain there for hotlinked images.

  • In WordPress, if you are comfortable with code and happy with amending your files, there is the option of amending your .htaccess file, but do some research to ensure you have the right code before starting.  Some website hosts may help you to do this.

Whatever you decide to do, at least you have some basic knowledge of what hotlinking is, how it could damage your website and some potential ways to deal with it.  If you can think of anything else, please leave a comment.

Hotlinking by Fiona Maclean

I saw Lesley writing about her experience with hot-linked pictures and was curious.  I know it is thought to be damaging to have porn sites hotlink pictures on your site, apart from the horror of finding your kids somewhere undesirable, it is also something that can damage your site’s reputation with Google.  So I took a look at my own site and found a couple of porn site links all of my own.  Strangely they were not to pictures of people at all but to images where I had titled the image with something that might be taken as pornographic (‘spicy Indian’ for example).  And there seemed to be a lot of other hot-linked images too, most of which I initially thought were ‘innocent’.  But, when I checked a little more closely I was quite disturbed.

One site looked a bit like a different version of Pinterest, but instead of encouraging people to pin back to my blog, they were promoting the download of an image copying application.  That’s right, one that would enable people to steal my photos and pin them as their own!  Several had no apparent relevance to my own site but were offering downloads of my pictures (some for money, others free of charge).  If I tried to download then my virus software went into overdrive warning me that there was a Trojan present and blocking the download.

I panicked.  I removed around 150 images and put them into a special file to upload again with a new name.  And to my horror just a few hours later I discovered that the offending sites had simply repopulated with new pictures.

My business partner and I had a look at what was available to prevent this happening.  He’s rather more technical than me and advised that there were a few options.  We looked at the plugins available on Word-press and those that we thought might be functional against the scraper hot-linking sites would also have blocked all my images from Google.  And that isn’t something I want as I do get traffic from Google Image Search.  We were not convinced that disabling a right click copy would have much impact on something that is clearly automated rather than manual.  So I now have a list of sites which are blocked through my .htaccess file .   I am checking my own site for new links and adding to the list as I find new sites.  And, I’ve reported almost all of the sites to Google, either for being pornographic and having unauthorised backlinks or for malware (Trojans).  I still have a little more work to do as I found one site that had simply scraped my text and hot-linked my images and they need to be issued with a DMCA notice.

Yes it is more work.  And, in the short term unbelievably it may appear that my site loses rank, because all those links might be temporarily ‘improving’ my score on things like Technorati and Ebuzzing.  But, in the long term, I’d rather have a clean site, where my images don’t infect someone else’s PC as I suspect that would damage my reputation far more than losing a few hundred *bad* backlinks.

So thank you to Lesley for spotting this and alerting me to it.

Written by:

Guest Professor Lesley S SmithScottish Mum Blog

Guest Professor Fiona MacleanLondon Unattached

Featured photo: Flickr/pratanti

Post By Guest Professor (3 Posts)

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