How Does iStock Define “Most Popular”?

Posted on 7/28/2014 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

At iStock the “Most Popular” search option used to show images in order of popularity based on the number of times each image had been downloaded during its life on the site. The first image shown was the one with the most downloads; the 2nd image was the image with the second highest number of downloads, 3rd had the third highest number of downloads and so on. This was true as late as the end of June 2014.

Now, based on examining the portfolios of contributors with many images licensed more than 1,000 times I discovered that there is no longer any sequencing based on the overall popularity. For some of the best selling photographers the first image shown will have no more than a few hundred downloads and the second or third images shown may have fewer than 100 downloads. See a few examples:

  July 27           June 30  
  No1 No 2 No 3 No 4 No 5   Best 5th
              Seller Seller
Yuri 7300 5700 1300 3200 5500   13000 12000
LiseGagne 2800 200 70 60 400   12000 9200
DNY59 700 900 600 400 500   7500 4800
shironosov 5900 1400 4300 9400 3300   15000 5800
TommL 200 700 2500 100 11000   11000 3300
nyul 1900 1600 8600 1800 1400   8600 1900
LeggNet 100 100 70 20 800   3800 1300
Turnervisual 4300 300 1400 3400 200   5100 3700
abzee 400 60 300 200 1900   6100 2600
anouchka 24000 30 200 20 20   24000 700

Since many searches result in more returns than any customer has time to review, many customers have come to rely on the “Most Popular” search option. Their understanding has been that in a few pages they will see the images with a particular keyword that other customers have found most useful. That may no longer be true.

The new approach certainly has the advantage of surfacing a lot of images that customers may not have seen before, but it doesn’t help customers find the images that have been most popular historically. Now, with any particular keyword some of a images that have been downloaded the most times may not be shown until the 400th or 500th return.

The key question is how the search algorithm decides which image to show first. I searched for “woman computer office”. The sixth most popular images only has 300 total downloads, the 9th has 10,000 and the 10th has 100. Interestingly, on this particular search seven of the top 20 images were created by monkeybusinessimages. What is the logic behind how these images are chosen?

  Sequence Total DL Total DL
  In Which This Image For
  Image Shown   Creator
nyul 1 8600 170000
monkeybusiness 2 1400 580000
goodluz 3 1100 23000
endopack 4 7900 78000
diego_cervo 5 2100 140000
monkeybusiness 6 300 580000
monkeybusiness 7 400 580000
endopack 8 700 78000
silvrshootr 9 10000 30000
pressureUA 10 100 39000
Peopleimages 11 100 1500000
kupicoo 12 300 150000
monkeybusiness 13 200 580000
shironosov 14 300 310000
monkeybusiness 15 200 580000
monkeybusiness 16 300 580000
ridofranz 17 500 78000
chagin 18 200 21000
pressureUA 19 100 39000
monkeybusiness 20 400 580000
diego_cervo 30 400 140000
endopack 40 2200 78000
skynesher 50 7800 410000
EHStock 60 100 150000
ridofranz 70 50 78000
elenathewise 80 100 180000
claudiobaba 90 2300 55000
erikona 100 100 7800

Is “Most Popular” based on the number of downloads of a particular image in the last 30 or 60 days, or is there no basis on popularity whatsoever? If iStock felt a need to add a new search option why did they have to eliminate the “Most Downloads” option that many customers have come to rely on? There is no indication that iStock has explained, or intends to explain to customers – or contributors -- the logic for this change. Is there a good reason for keeping everyone in the dark?

Does this new search option benefit customers? “Most Popular” could mean that in the last 60 days an image has been downloaded 10 times and that is more than most other images using the same search term were downloaded during that period.  There is no indication as to what that number might be, but the customer will be able to discover that the images has been downloaded 300 or 3,000 times over its lifespan.

The new system may benefit photographers who are pumping lots of new images onto the site, particularly if those new images have been shown for a while near the top of the “Best Match” search return order. Photographers with a few best selling images, who may have cut back on the number of new images they are contributing could see a major decline in  sales as it becomes harder and harder for customers to find their images. There are lots of unanswered questions. 

Copyright © 2014 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


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