Ease of Search Impacts Image Use

Posted on 3/5/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Given the time pressures customers are under, most tend to go to the sites where it is easy to find a usable image. Given the way traditional and microstock sites are designed, it is infinitely easier to find a good, usable image in microstock than on traditional sites—and microstock customers get the added benefit of paying less.

Yuri Arcurs estimates that between 80% and 90% of microstock customers search for images based on how frequently those images have been downloaded by other customers. These customers are not looking for something unique; the fact that an image has been used a lot by others is not a negative. Rather, the customer assumes that other experienced buyers have looked through the collection and come to the conclusion that the most used image is the best available. Thus, if that image seems to fit the buyer’s needs, why should she spend time looking further when there probably is not anything else as good?

Arcurs says about 20% of his iStock sales come from images that are more then four years old. Most photographers who are always trying to improve their work believe that their newest images are better than their older ones. They would like to see their newest images pushed forward, but that is not what customers want and not what happens on iStockphoto or other microstock sites.

Microstock sites give customers a choice of the ways they can search. In addition to searching by most downloads, customers can search by fewest download to find the images that have never been used. They can search for newest images. When they find a photographer with a style they like, they can easily search that photographer’s entire portfolio using specific keywords. Microstock sites also offer “best match,” based on each distributor’s custom algorithm.

One of the big problems with traditional databases is that they do not provide customers with choices. They have one search-return order, and that is it. Since most offer images from several different brands, the search order tends to be determined by assigning each brand a certain number of slots. With Getty Images, some brands get 1 or 2 slots in the first 300 images, with the sequence repeating for the next 300 images and so on. Within each brand, the newest image uploaded to the site comes up first, regardless of whether it is great or mediocre. Thus, often some of the earliest images in the search return may have never sold or had a preview downloaded. They are new, but this is not what customers want to see; they want the freedom of seeing what is selling.

What photographers want

Rights-managed and traditional royalty-free photographers often do not want their images shown based on the number of downloads. They prefer the traditional system, because it increases the odds that their newest work will be seen. It gives everyone a chance to have their images seen and is fairer to new entrants. However, it also means that great images, images that have sold and made significant money, can work their way down in the search-return order very quickly. If such images do not have very unique keywords that can separate them from other large groups of images, they may never be seen again.

Microstock photographers acknowledge that best sellers have a tremendous advantage, and that it is very difficult for new images to get traction. However, once an image has been used a lot and makes it to the top of the search-return order, it tends to get used a lot more. When an image has been licensed 1,000 to 2,000 times, it is almost guaranteed to be on the first page of all the keywords on that image. Some lifestyle images have been licensed more than 10,000 times on iStock.

On the other hand, for those photographers who can remember the heyday of print catalogs 20 years ago, that is exactly what happened then. Everyone wanted to get their images into print catalogs, because they would make a lot more sales than if the image was just in the general file. At that time, photographers paid for their positions. Many customers only looked at print catalogs, and 90% of sales for many agencies were of catalog images. Customers liked catalogs, because an editor had carefully sifted through the agency’s files and selected the best images to put in the catalog. This saved the customer time.

The catalog images were way less than 1% of all the image variations that were in the general file. Tony Stone used to say that all he needed was 5,000 images to fulfill the needs of all customers. Customers had a good idea as to what others were buying, although they did not know how many times a given image had been sold.

In the microstock environment, by searching based on downloads the customer has the benefit of the combined intelligence of many editors from all over the world. And best of all, the customer has the choice of using this creative intelligence or using a different search parameter.

Who should we satisfy?

Photographers or customers? It is not that Getty Images, Corbis and other traditional agencies are trying to satisfy photographers, but they could do a lot more to satisfy customers. And it may not be just about lowering prices.

Somewhere between 1% and 2% of all images licensed are rights-managed. The fact that more than 95% of transactions are microstock or subscription cannot be solely because they tend to be less expensive. The big rights-managed and royalty-free distributors have cut prices so much that they often sell such images for less than some of the images available through microstock distributors.

Part of the trend toward microstock has to do with its quality improvement. Another test is to do almost any search on Getty and then go to iStock and do the same search with the returns organized by downloads. Take a look at the first 50 or 100 images on each site and ask yourself, “How many of the images here are of the type that I am seeing used in ads and brochures.” If you’re objective, Getty will not come out on top. Sure, there will be some very artistic and unique images on Getty, but they are not what the customers want to use. Instead of starting on Getty, customers are now starting on microstock sites. Only if they cannot find something in microstock, will they go to Getty or some other traditional agency. In most cases, they find what they need on microstock—and the search is so much more customer-friendly.

It may be too late for the macros (anything other than microstock) to change strategies. Customers have already switched. Now it is not enough for the macros to adopt the micros’ search strategy. They have to win the customers back, and that will not be easy. Those who expect rights-managed sales to come back should not ignore this factor.

Copyright © 2010 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Fred Voetsch Posted Mar 10, 2010
    I'm sure you'll make a lot of people angry with this article but I think there are a lot of good points made.

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