There are a number of reasons to believe that a rapidly growing supply of images may not be as big a problem for the buyer as some industry insiders think. Large image collections are outpacing tightly edited rivals in revenue growth in all pricing categories, suggesting that collection size and pricing are not the only factors influencing buyer decisions.
Customers responding to surveys have always said they wanted better-edited collections. They did not want to be forced to look through too many images in order to find the right one for their needs. Consequently, sellers responded with tighter editing. But the tightly edited collections of Getty, Corbis and Jupiterimages, while growing slow in size, are not showing significant growth in revenue.
In contrast, Alamy—the largest online collection, with 13.35 million images currently—does not edit and still has the best annual revenue growth in the traditionally priced category. Despite what buyers say about not wanting to go through lots of images, they evidently would rather do that than be forced to accept an image they don’t want, because the agency’s editors have not made the right image available.
Alamy has made search easier for buyers by using an algorithm to organize search returns that puts the most desirable images, from the clients’ point of view, at the top of the search-return order. Other traditional agencies tend to deliver search results with their newest images first, regardless of their appropriateness. They also give preference to wholly owned imagery, even when image-partner images might be more appropriate to a customer’s needs.
Microstock collections offer a different perspective. They tend to be much larger and growing much faster. Despite this, customers are using microstock a lot more than traditional sites. In 2007, iStockphoto licensed 12 times the amount of images licensed by Getty Images. Traditional sellers argue this is all because of cheap prices, but it is not the main reason.
Despite large microstock inventories, customers can still find what they want quickly, because they can organize search results in several different ways. The most useful of these is by total downloads. This allows customers to see what others liked and results in less time spent searching through inappropriate images.
Some iStock images have been licensed as many as 5,000 or 7,000 times. This didn’t happen in one month; although these are great images, most have been on the site for a long time. If the only search-return option was newest-images-first, many of iStock’s top-selling images would never have been seen by a significant portion of the buyers who ended up using them. For suppliers, the disadvantage of organizing images by downloads is that new images get pushed to the bottom of the search results and are seldom seen.
In addition, microstocks edit but tend to accept a larger portion of a photographer’s production than traditional agencies. Most leading microstock producers have many more images online that the bestsselling photographers of Getty or Corbis.
Microstocks are also more focused on expanding their number of contributors rather than limiting it, as do traditionals. This benefits the buyer by providing a greater variety of vision and subject matter. The disadvantage for image producers is that the vast majority does not earn much at all from their images.
All things considered, sites with lots of images may be providing a better service to buyers than those with tightly edited collections—even if we disregard the price advantage.