Every online marketer worth their salt understands the importance of having decent imagery on their websites, blogs and social media. Google Images is free to use and you can find almost any image you can think of.

The Digital Age has brought about a culture of image sharing, reposting and reproduction and it is widely believed that you can use any picture from any source without permission or credit, because the original poster chose to share it with the world. Talk to any artist or photographer and they will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that that is not the case. Copyright laws still apply on the internet and you can still face very real consequences for not abiding by them.

Using Images from Google

Using Google images for your website is easy, right? Simply copy and paste or click to save and you have some great images for your website.

Well, until you get sued for copyright infringement. Contrary to popular belief, fair use of images is still important and people do still suffer the consequences of getting it wrong. Ignorance isn’t bliss, either – you need to make the effort to know that you have the legal permission to use any images you want for your blog, website, shop or page. Google images are free to use financially speaking, but the original poster doesn’t lose their rights to the image just because it can be seen on Google, and that can lead to much higher legal costs than buying the rights.

In our age of ‘disposable’ content, there are several widespread misconceptions about using and reproducing images from the internet. Many people believe that using any image taken from Google is ok as long as:

  • The pictures are only used for personal and not commercial purposes
  • You credited the artist or photographer and linked back to their website
  • You put a disclaimer on your site to absolve yourself from liability
  • The images are embedded and not saved on your server
  • You take the image(s) down as soon as you receive a DMCA notice

None of these are true, however. Unless you have either received express permission from the copyright holder or are using public domain images or images that hold the necessary Creative Commons license, using Google images for your website is violating copyright law and you could be prosecuted.

In the age of social media, sharing and reposting other’s images happens on an enormous scale. It’s unavoidable. When you are posting – rather than liking, sharing, retweeting or forwarding – you must make sure to only use your own images, or those with the appropriate permits and credit. You should also try to post pictures from the original source, or from places where the original source has been duly credited. Remember that it’s someone’s artwork being used.

Unfortunately, using Google Image search is not the easiest way to find an appropriate image to upload. A Google image search can be refined by both ‘Creative Commons licences’ and ‘commercial and other licenses’, but even so the explicit permissions needed are not clear and it would be easy to make a mistake.

For any purposes, you should avoid using Google images for your website. If you can’t find a legitimately-sourced image yourself, try a free stock image website – more on those in a moment.

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons-licensed photos incorporate different levels of licensing depending on how the copyright-holder is comfortable with their content being used. This can include whether an image can be used commercially or not and if it can be edited, but all Creative Commons licenses require attribution, or credit.

Two hands pointing at a computer screen while a third uses the trackpad.

Alternatives to Google Images

Stock Image Websites

As the call for content grows, so does its availability. Stock image websites such as Unsplash, Pexels and Pixabay offer public domain photos without any required attribution, or even creating an account. This means it takes the same level of effort as using Google images for your website, but the end result is much safer.

From the Unsplash license:

‘Unsplash grants you an irrevocable, nonexclusive, worldwide copyright license to download, copy, modify, distribute, perform, and use photos from Unsplash for free, including for commercial purposes, without permission from or attributing the photographer or Unsplash.’

 

This is a much better option than using images from Google – typically, photographers upload photos to the free service to gain recognition, so although you are not obligated to give credit, you are prompted to do so if you can to help raise the photographer’s profile.

However, you should still be careful, especially if you are using images from these websites for commercial purposes. Websites like these don’t always clarify what permissions the uploader of the photo has.

If you use a photo with a clear brand or logo, you may not have permission to use that product’s trademark. If there is a clearly-identifiable person in the image, you could face legal action for using a person’s image without their consent.

From the Pexels license:

‘Identifiable people may not appear in a bad light or in a way that is offensive. […] Don’t imply endorsement of your product by people or brands on the imagery.’

You must be careful to stick to the rules and, if you are in any doubt about whether or not to use a certain picture, err on the side of caution.

A person takes a photo on their smartphone.

Take Your Own Photos

A far less radical but oft-overlooked way to get around the problem is to take your own photos. You don’t have to be a great photographer; just display your products creatively and take a picture with good lighting. You could even hire a photographer to take pictures for you – that way you can discuss permissions and copyrights with the artist themselves.

Snap some before and after shots of the projects you carry out for your clients, or photograph your team at work. Candid shots of your product in use are always useful. While Google images are free to use, you probably already have a smartphone – you could take your phone out on a sunny day and photograph free images of a more abstract nature, such as a cloudy sky, an office block or a Caution sign.

Taking your own pictures also humanises your brand in a way that has become not only advantageous but often a vital part of digital marketing. With all the social restrictions in place over the last year, many brands had to turn to authentic, laid-back content and the public responded well to it. Content value over production value resonates with audiences.

The secondary benefit of using your own images (or images that you have hired someone to take) is that they are much more likely to have consistency. Consistency in colour, content themes and quality is key to creating and maintaining an effective brand style, particularly for social media.


Using images from the internet is sensitive business, but hopefully you now feel a little more confident about what should and shouldn’t be done. Here are some basic rules of thumb to take away with you:

  • Check the licensing restrictions on all the images you reproduce
  • Use image sharing and social media sites like Pinterest with care
  • Assume that all images are copyrighted until you have proof to the contrary
  • Remember that giving credit isn’t the same as having permission
  • If in any doubt, contact the artist or photographer requesting permission

Google images are free to use, technically, but they could come at the much higher cost of legal action against you. Imagery is vital for creating an interesting online marketing campaign and getting others to share your content. For more tips on how to create the perfect marketing campaign, check out our blog or get in touch and see what Zelst can do for your business.

DISCLAIMER: This is not intended as legal advice and this information should be considered with due caution.