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Hotlinking: How Others Force You to Pay Their Web Hosting Costs

Posted by Andrea Meyer on Apr 13, 2021

Have you noticed an unusual jump in your website’s hosting bills? Has your website’s performance seemed a lot less snappy than it was?

It’s possible that the cause is hotlinking. This practice isn’t always malicious — a lot of hotlinking happens because people don’t realize it’s unethical and potentially illegal — but the effect is the same. Instead of hosting images on their own web server to serve up to visitors, they link to an image on your website. As a result, when people visit their page, the HTML code calls up the image from your web server, which can cause you all kinds of problems:

  • Increased bandwidth costs: Since they’re drawing the image file from your web server, you pay for the bandwidth, not them.
  • Degraded performance: Especially if you’ve got multiple sites hitting your web server for a popular image, that means there’s less bandwidth available to serve people who are actually coming to your site. Customers, prospects and partners may experience poor responsiveness as a result, which could have an impact on sales.

How do you know if you’ve been hotlinked? Luckily, Google makes it simple. Visit Google Images and conduct the following search:

Inurl:[your domain] -site: [your domain]

What you’re doing is searching for any image that contains your domain in its URL except for those on your own site. So if your website’s domain is “BuyOurCheese.com” then the search would look like:

inurl:BuyOurCheese.com -site:BuyOurCheese.com

If you’re using a content delivery network (CDN) that provides hotlinking protection, though, you won’t need to do any of this. Simply enable that option and it will both find automatically hotlinking and block it.

Stopping Hotlinking Once You Know it’s Happening

There are a number of measures you can take to stop hotlinking once you’re aware that it’s occurring. First, you can send a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice. DMCA protects companies from digital use of copyrighted content without permission, so if you’ve created or licensed the images, DMCA applies. You don’t even need to hire an attorney to do this. Here’s a site with much more information on DMCA, along with a free form to generate a DMCA notice.

Of course, the offender can always ignore the letter, so, if you’re looking for an immediate fix, just change the URL or filename of the image, so that hotlinkers’ sites will show a broken link. This doesn’t scale, well, however, so if you want a more permanent solution, you can insert a code snippet in your .htaccess file. Here’s a great resource for the crunchy details on exactly what code to insert to block hotlinks, but, in a nutshell, this allows you to:

  • Block all attempts to hotlink to your images so that their site displays a 404 error message
  • Include exceptions for sites such as Google that are important for SEO
  • Swap out an alternate image instead of the one to which they’re attempting to hotlink 

If you go the last route, you’ll still see your bandwidth costs increase and may experience a performance hit, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that instead of your incredible gif, visitors to the offending website will see something else entirely. Matthew Inman, the artist behind The Oatmeal, famously swapped out a photo of his monthly bill from Amazon when The Huffington Post hotlinked to his cartoons. Later, he added some goofy scatalogical images that finally did the trick.

These aren’t the only measures you can take, of course. You can also add a digital watermark to your images that show your brand and any text you’d like people to see. It won’t actively stop people from hotlinking to them, but it might give them pause, and it also has the advantage of stopping others from simply ripping your images from your site and hosting it on their own. You’ll need a professional tool to do this in bulk, but if you have just a small set of popular images you need to watermark, a free tool like Watermarkly might be a good option.

Finally, if you’ve got a small handful of offenders, the easiest solution might be to block their IP addresses altogether. Here’s a handy Hubspot guide that can walk you through the IP address blocking process.

Hotlinking can be an annoying drain on your website’s performance and bandwidth, not to mention a violation of your intellectual property rights. But by taking just a few simple steps such as the ones outlined above, it won’t be anything more than a momentary headache.

Want to learn more about hotlinking, content delivery networks (CDNs) and website design and management in general? Get in touch!

Topics: Website Design & Development

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