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The Impact of an Effective Image Management Strategy on Your Website

Posted on 8.22.2016

:: By Colin Bendell, Akamai ::


Images are critical to the success of your online business. Good visual content does not just increase online sales, but also increases user engagement, retention and loyalty. Even online training or workflow compliance can see increases with more images. As a result, images account for 1.5MB per Web page visit - or more than 60 percent of the bytes per Web page. Images were the least sexy part of the Web 10 years ago and are now critical to your brand’s online success - regardless of your industry.

Not surprisingly, images also can also pose a risk to the business. Discovery, content creation and licensing of images are just one part of images that impact your Cost of Goods Sold (COGS). Displaying large, high-resolution images to a user on cellular will cause that user to abandon your site, impacting revenue. A malicious image manipulated in a transformation workflow can create backdoor security vulnerabilities which can cause reputation damage. Images can even negatively impact your backup and disaster recovery strategy. It is important to balance the impact between the designer’s aspirations, the user’s expectations, security’s concerns, legal & finance’s guidance and your IT operations responsibilities.

A good image management strategy takes a multi-disciplined approach to reduce risk and maximize opportunity. There are five key strategies to consider:

Creative teams need storage and discoverability

Users expect mobile engagement

Security requires secure image transformation

Operations manage the disaster-recovery and business-continuity plan

Marketing & finance want a SEO and bot strategy

Storage and discoverability

Every business has an implicit storage strategy for images. It can be as simple as a common file store where images are edited and saved. Or as complicated as a fully featured Digital-Asset-Management solution that tracks all videos, images and derivative content, utilizes workflows, approvals and tagging. For a commerce site, the key is to make sure products have an associated image set. For publishers there are may be legal audits that need to be approved before publishing to the Web. Each business has different requirements for storage and discoverability.

The goal of your storage strategy is to reduce duplication and ensure employees’ workflows are efficient. Here are some good guidelines for selecting and developing your storage and discoverability strategy for images:

The completeness of your image storage solution will on business requirements. It does not necessarily require purchase of a complex DAM; it can be as straightforward as a set of checklists and procedures. 

Mobile Images

We all know that a good mobile strategy is important to reach and engage users. Responsive Web Design (RWD) improves the design and layout for a better mobile experience. However, images also need a mobile strategy. 

Images not optimized for mobile can drain battery, slow a site down by consuming large quantities of memory and slow the download of a website. All of these factors impact the perceived experience and ultimately can impact revenue. For example, my own research has shown online retailers can improve conversion rates by 10 percent or more by optimizing images specifically for mobile.

A mobile image strategy should focus on utilizing:

New image formats such as WebP (Android/Chrome) and JPEG2000 (ios/Safari). This reduces data usage by ~30% compared to traditional JPEG. For example a 40KB image can be reduced down to 28KB.

Chroma-Subsampling of 4:2:0 to reduce device memory usage by half and further reduce file sizes by 18 percent. For example a 1300x1024 image could require 4MB of RAM, regardless of the format. Converting to 4:2:0 can reduce the memory to 2MB. Remember over 25% of new android phones sold in 2015 had less than 512MB of RAM. Images that use less memory load faster.

Responsive Images. Using one image for all types of users forces the mobile device to waste CPU and RAM to perform the resize. Not to mention that the extra pixels add to wasted network. Using Client Hints will allow your application to send the exact right size of image that will fit perfectly for the display.

Both Web and app users have the same challenges of many screen sizes, different browsers and OS versions and constrained CPU/Memory/Network. A good mobile image strategy targets each fragmentation differently to deliver the best user experience.

Secure Image Transformations

Security is everyone's responsibility. Regardless of your workflow, any point where images are transformed, converted or otherwise modified, images can create unintentional security risks. The number of critical-vulnerabilities related to image editing has increased over the years. Just this year the ImageTragic vulnerability notably targeted ImageMagick installations with a remote code execution exploit. A tampered JPEG image could easily compromise your entire business. Image graffiti - adding advertising or dubious messaging to your images - is another potential security risk.

How could a contaminated image enter your workflow?

* User generated images; compromised at source

* Vendor supplied product images; compromised at source

* In house photography; compromised by malware on the artists laptop

A good image management strategy should be tightly coupled with a secure image strategy. Two major considerations when implementing a secure image strategy are:

1. Secure delivery. Many public Wi-Fi hotspots and some cellular providers intentionally manipulate images to reduce bandwidth costs. Often this is innocuous, but it results in a quality of image that could tarnish your brand. This same technique can be used to graffiti images for your site. Using TLS (HTTPS) delivery ensures that user sees the image content as you intended

2. Secure image transformation architecture. A secure architecture is not only has a patch strategy but also has an architecture isolation strategy. As a baseline, any automation or toolset used in image transformation should contain at least 3 layers of isolation to ensure that even if a compromise can be limited in scope: 

The topic of secure image delivery is a very lengthy discussion but should be paramount in an image management strategy. 

Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity

Inevitably, an unexpected outage will occur with a server or system related to your website. The operations teams are charged with managing the risk of these unforeseen situations. Images are just as vital to your disaster recovery and business continuity plans. 

Just as important to having a plan is to understand what the Mean-Time-To-Repair (MTTR). Several years ago, a customer of mine was under a volumetric security attack making their primary datacenter inaccessible. The DR plan was initiated and they proceeded to failover to the backup datacenter. Unfortunately, because of all the mobile optimized images and their small file sizes, it would take 8 hours to restore from tape backup.

Images consumed for the Web tend to be smaller than a single iNode on disk. The overhead of file system metadata can dramatically impede the fastest RAID array. 

Key factors to consider in your image management strategy include:

Including image restore time in your DR and BCP

Prioritizing pristine images (those before any resizing or automated transformation) 

Comparing backup-restore time for all images against the cost of just in time generation of derivative images

Utilizing multiple caching layers in your architecture, including a CDN to reduce the demand while

Bots & SEO

Finally, an image management strategy should also account for bots - both good and bad. Some bots are good for business because they can drive search engine traffic. Other bots scrape and steal your image content and use it for other objectives. 

Just as with a mobile image strategy a bot image strategy can help optimize costs related to delivery. Bots are increasingly sophisticated and having the wrong strategy can quickly turn into a game of cat-and-mouse. A few key considerations to include:

Classify types of bots that are clearly good for business (e.g., SEO), clearly bad (scrapers on AWS), or unknown

Optimize the performance for search bots by delivering smaller resolution images to improve website performance for search bots

Reduce delivery costs for “bad” bots by delivering placeholder image (1x1 white pixel) or using a blurry low resolution image. The goal is to send as little data as possible without causing the bot to detect the counter measures. 

Analytics - track image consumption by friendly and nefarious bots alike to tune and tweak your countermeasure strategy.

Increase Revenue, Not Costs

The success of your brand and online presence depends on a good image management strategy. This strategy should address the needs for your internal content creators, external mobile users, security risks, operational risk management and even manage costs from bots. The objective of these strategies is to utilize images to increase revenue without causing increased operational costs.


About the Author

As Technology Director, Colin Bendell is part of Akamai’s CTO Office focusing on performance and scalability while aligning customer trends with product development. Colin brings over 15 years of experience in business operations and as a full stack developer. His experience spans multiple industries including High Tech, Mining, Real Estate and Health Care. He has built large scale, globally distributed Web applications for Fortune 500 companies and has also operated a small automotive aluminum wheel repair shop. 

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