516 TIGHT OR LOOSE EDITING
November 21, 2002
When marketing images online, is it better to have them on a tightly edited site that offers
a limited selection of the best images currently available on each subject, or on a site
that has a depth of coverage in each particular subject area?
There are advocates for both sides of this issue. The "loose edit" advocates (of which I am
one) argue that customers have a broad range of needs and it is impossible for any editor to
anticipate the wide range of future uses that customers might make of images. Thus, in the
interest of trying to offer images that will meet the needs of every customer and maximize
the number of sales, it is better to provide a broad range of images. (This presumes that
the quality of each image offered is excellent.)
When looking for Rights Managed images many customers want something unique that illustrates
a common theme. When the choices are limited the chances are greater that someone else will
have used the image.
This strategy makes it possible for customers with widely varying needs to find something
that will work for them. It also makes it possible for a greater number of creative ideas,
as expressed by various creators (photographers), to find a place where they can be seen.
The "tight edit" advocates say the above strategy results in too many hits on any particular
search, and most customers want a more focused selection of images to review. They say
customers will not spend the time necessary to review a large number of images and will tend
to go to sites where the choices are more limited.
They also theorize that the ability to sell is predicated on being at the front of the queue
in any given search because the buyers will select the first image that fits their criteria
and not search further. (There is no public data available that would prove that
professionals searching for images operate this way, but supporters of the idea argue that
it is human nature.)
It is believed that due to the limited time most customers have to search they will jump to
another site if they don't find the image they want right away and will not go to sites that
are not tightly edited. Thus, these sellers argue, that it is extremely important to keep
the queue on any search short.
PACA Art Directors Panel
At the recent PACA 7th Annual International Conference a panel of four art buyers/art
directors/graphic designers offered a client's perspective on what they wanted when
searching for stock images. They were: Norma Villafana of MARC USA, Jose-Guillermo Diaz of
Ogilvy & Mather, Sean Martin of Beber, Silverstein Advertising and Rafa Rosa of Pink Haus.
At one point I asked the question, "If you get many hits on an image search, how many
screens are you willing to go through to find the right image for your project before you
move on to another site."
There answers were revealing, although it must be recognized that the strategy of these
image buyers may not be totally representative of all who buy stock photography.
One said that he went through 1,500 images on one project to find the image he used. Another
said he spent two days searching various online sites to find the right image. They pointed
out that even if they find an image early that will work, they will often keep going in the
hopes of finding something even better. They emphasized, "That's our job. It's not to just
find something that will work, but to find the best image for the project."
They pointed out that what turns them off is not the total number of images generated by a
search, but whether most of the images in the search are "appropriate" to what they were
asking for. For example, it they asked for a "couple on the beach with a dog" they want
every image to fit those parameters. With some search engines for this search they would get
couples in non-beach situations or without a dog and when that happens they leave that site
They explained that if they can get 90 images per page, (as Gettyimages.com and some other
sites offer) they don't mind looking through a lot of images. If the site only allows them
to download 9 or 12 images per page they may be more reluctant to go through a lot of pages
because the time consuming part of the process is the page refresh, not reviewing many
These buyers also liked the feature that is on Getty Images (and a few other sites) that
asks them which meaning they are looking for when a word might have more than one meaning.
For example if the word used was "turkey" Getty asks: "are you looking for Middle East,
white meat or poultry."
These particular buyers seemed to fully understand how to use keywords to narrow their
searches. On the other hand Norma Villafana pointed out that sometimes when she is not sure
exactly what she wants she will use a broad term in the hopes of seeing something that will
result in a serendipitous experience that will push her in a particular direction.
They like sites that offer a list of keywords that are connected with each image. Sometimes
when they find an image that has some of the elements they want they will review the
keywords and one or more of them may give them another direction to pursue. They also like
sites where they can search by photographer name. Thus, if they find a particular image
style they like, they can pull up other images by the same photographer to see if something
else works better.
We need to examine the "couple on the beach with a dog" type of search more closely to
understand why these buyers sometimes get inappropriate hits with such a search. Basically,
there are two methods of search -- keyword and natural language -- and sometimes they are
With a pure keyword search only images that include all of the keywords, "couple", "beach"
and "dog" will appear, assuming the images have been properly keyworded. With natural
language the images that have all three elements should come up first. But after that the
search engine will show pictures that include any two of these three elements and then any
one of the elements. It is these additional pictures that seem to upset these particular
While the images that have all three keywords should come at the top of the queue, for some
reason that doesn't always seem to be the case with natural language search engines. And it
is usually difficult to know where the cut off point of appropriate images is located.
Another frustration with natural language is that when buyer attempt to narrow their search
by using additional qualifying words they will get more hits, rather than less, and often
nothing that is precisely on target.
Thus, the problems photo buyers have with inappropriate searches may not have as much to do
with the number of images on a site as with the search technology being used.
When online search was first developed, there were few images available, and natural
language search produced more hits on every search. This made it appear that the site was
more heavily populated with images than might really have been the case. In the early days
this could be an advantage. It was also felt that if the buyers saw images other than what
they had originally started to look for they might have a "serendipitous experience" and buy
something they had never thought to ask for.
Now, the technology and the experience of the professional users has advanced to the point
where they don't need to look at inappropriate images. If the keywording has been done well
and the search engine only looks at keywords, it is a simple matter to narrow any search by
adding additional qualifying words. The professionals seem to be comfortable with this
approach. On the other hand, as Ms. Villafana pointed out, if she doesn't have a specific
image in mind and is just looking for ideas she can always use more general keywords to get
a broader range of imagery.
How Many Keywords?
The "loose edit" people generally believe that many keywords (provided they are all
appropriate to the image) are helpful because they enable the art buyer to use multiple
words to narrow their searches.
The "tight edit" people generally advocate using only a few keywords and focusing on general
categories. They usually believe that more keywords will result in more images on any search
which should not be the case if the keywords are appropriate to the image.
Professional of Amateur Buyers
The issue of whether a tight or loose edit is appropriate may depend to a great extent on
whether you are trying to sell to professional of amateur buyers. The amateurs may have less
patience to review a lot of images, and they may not be as experienced in knowing how to use
the custom features of the site. Therefore, it may be necessary to keep their choices simple
because they tend to use broad general words rather than trying to narrow their searches
with specifics. They also may be more inclined to accept any image that generally fits their
need and price range, rather than spending a lot of time searching for just the right image.
The professional buyers knows how the use the technology and they are more concerned in
finding the perfect solution to their problem. They are willing to spend time so long as the
searches generate appropriate imagery.
In summary, when aiming at the professional buyer more images may be better if the search
engine makes it easy to narrow the search.