Hotlinking by website & blog owners could be stealing your bandwidth & images. Hotlinks may affect your SEO efforts too.
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Hotlinking - Are hotlinks stealing your bandwidth & images?

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Are you and your website victims of theft?

You may not have heard of the term "hotlinking", but it's something you should become familiar with, particularly if you have a moderately to highly trafficked website.

Your website will no doubt use images embedded in the page using HTML. You may have bought those images, downloaded royalty free images, used your own images, or perhaps you, like many others, have used Google Images as your image resource library.

You should be aware that just because an image appears in Google Images, it is not necessarily free for the taking, and you may, if you download the image and use it on your own website, be guilty of copyright infringement.

Google have been very smart though and included a filter so you can filter out images which are not free to use through the advanced search options. You can choose to display images using the following usage rights filter options:

Google Images Usage Rights filter

What is hotlinking?

Let's say you find an image you wish to use, but, instead of downloading the image to your computer, then inserting it into your web page, you leave the image where it is and link to it using the <image src="http://imageURL"> HTML tag. That is "hot linking".

This is quite common in blog websites where you can simply insert the URL of an image and it will remain in the host website, but display in the blog website.

So, not only may you be guilty of copyright infringement, but you may also be guilty of "stealing" bandwidth from the owner's website account.

Hotlink website example
 ^ Click for an example of Hotlinking traffic
I checked a friend's website server statistics a few days ago (a lawyer), and it showed over 2,000 hits in a month from people hot linking to images located on his website server account (see image to the right which shows a small portion of the statistics report).

Aside from the fact that people are "stealing" images HE has purchased, which may put them in conflict with the original copyright owner and/or image seller, but they are using bandwidth which HE pays for on his monthly account.

Some people may be asking if hotlinking is illegal, but no, not really. However, I think you could certainly class it as unethical.

Don't be a hotlinker
There are ways to stop hotlinking, but most people will need to speak with their website developer about implementing server side coding, such as hotlinking HTACCESS solutions if you use an Apache server. You have to be careful though because you do not under any circumstances want to block (for example) Google Images from crawling your site and listing your images - that may work against you from an SEO/traffic perspective.

You can choose to block all and allow some, but then that could work out to be a problem too.

To see if you are a target of the practice of hotlinking, check your server statistics, such as AWStats, or whatever your website hosting company supplies. Check the full list of "Links from an external page (other web sites except search engines)". The hits which do not have a corresponding page view, will likely be hotlinks.

There is another possible detrimental aspect - if a site of dubious content, or just a "junk" website, is using images which are "stored" on your website, then that may be an unhealthy link between your site and theirs, essentially linking you to a "bad neighbourhood".

On the other hand, a well optimised image located in your website (rather than hotlinked) can help your search engine optimisation.

At the end of the day, some people may simply take an image you own and attribute it to you, or link back to your website and think that is ok too. Well, not really. It's like the old saying: "It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission".

Alternatives to hot linking

So how DO you source images for your website or blog without hotlinking? There are a number of ways:

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