Getting To The Top Of Search Returns

Posted on 4/6/2018 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

The biggest problem for stock photographers today is not what to shoot, but how to get their photos near the top of the search return order. There are way too many images with the same keywords in all the major image collections. If your photo appears at the 4,746th spot in the search return, there is not much chance that any customer will ever see it -- let alone buy it. In fact, it has been determined that very few customers will look at more that 500 thumbnails before doing a different search or going somewhere else.

A few photographers may have come up with a scheme for getting their pictures near the top of the search return, although I have no clear evidence that the strategy results in more sales.

Many customers try to organize their search returns so the “most popular” or “most downloaded” images are shown first. The theory is that if other customers have found a particular image useful, it may be useful for their project as well. We do know that a small percentage of the available images get used over and over again by different customers for different projects.

While a few customers want unique images that no one has ever used before and even fewer that want exclusive use of the images they choose, the vast majority of stock photo buyers are unconcerned about who else might have used a particular image as long as it works for their project.

AdobeStock allows customers to organize search returns by “Popularity” or “Downloads.” Shutterstock allows its customers to organize images by “Popular” or “New.” The problem is that there is no clear definition of what these terms mean with the possible exception of “New.”  And with Shutterstock adding 1,380,029 new images a week the top 100 “New” images in popular searches may have only been new for about 15 minutes and will be buried below 500 in an hour or so.

How is “Popular” determined? Is it the images most downloaded in the last hour, day, week, month or year? Is “Downloaded” organized by the most downloaded over a period of time, say a week, month or year, or all time? Or if has been downloaded once in the past is it just randomly included in the download category? In looking at some of the images that come up in the first 100 thumbnails I can’t believe they have been downloaded anywhere near as frequently as some of the other images much further down in the pack. Are subscription downloads counted the same as single image downloads where the customer pays a higher price to use the image?

So What’s The Scheme

I have done some searches on AdobeStock and Shutterstock on “Faces People.” (See the list of searches below.) I believe many customers are looking for this general category of imagery based on what I see regularly in print and online. With this search AdobeStock returned 2,644,698 images and Shutterstock had 4,902,766 images.

Then I added other commonly used word like “Young” so the search was for “Faces People Young.” Most of these searchers still produced way too many results. The vast majority of the imagery will never be seen by anyone. Thus, in order to make sales it becomes critical for the photographer’s images to be among the first few hundred offered of they won’t be seen by the customer.

What a few photographers have done is add “downloaded” or “downloads” to their list of keywords. This narrows the search dramatically. With “Young” for example AdobeStock only had 178 images shown and Shutterstock had 620. See the chart below where I added each word one at a time to the two words in the first row.

The next row shows what happens if you add the word “Downloads” as a fourth word to each of these 3 word search terms. By adding the word “Downloads” to a search for “Faces People Young” the customer might think that they would see only the images that have actually been downloaded. With the 4 word search they get a very manageable group of images to review.

Looking at the images being offered in these 4 word searches it seems highly unlikely that most of them had ever been licensed of downloaded, but the fact that downloaded is in the keyword list brings up the images. The fact that the word is in the keyword list has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the image has ever been downloaded, or not. Adding this word may not produce any sales, but at least, in some cases, it will insure that the image is seen.

As more and more images are added to the collections it becomes harder and harder to insure that each image gets a chance to be seen – at least occasionally. It would be very helpful if agencies would begin reporting the number of times that each image in the collection has been reviewed by a customer (on a page actually seen by the customer) in the last month, 3 months, 6 months or year.

The current system is not serving customers or photographers, and in the final analysis not serving the best interests of the agency either. Continually adding more images is not the solution. Agencies must find a better, more efficient way to allow customers to sort through the images that have been deemed most popular by other customers.
AdobeStock   Downloaded   Shutterstock Downloaded
Faces People 2644698 236   4,902,766 986
Young 2072819 178   3,909,254 620
Happy 1474931 189   2,778,141 350
Adult 1461260 99   2,733,886 460
Smile 1157623 93   2,546,119 337
Children 454602 36   807,565 34
Business 435062 29   697,483 326
Black 375831 8   885,064 180
Sitting 309986 46   373,858 184
Standing 259421 3   460,689 154
Professional 229884 6   391,244 136
Asian 216521 17   527,955 305
Corporate 146281 1   198,446 85
Phone 117988 87   205,301 550
Technology 116486 155   243,596 830
Manager 103741 4   177,272 259
Computer 79874 75   108,131 337
Sad 74889 3   196,419 13
Senior 69010 4   122,153 1
African 60640 1   142,939 9
Hispanic 43972 45   89,837 132
Team 40339 1   59,194 62
Afro 27969 0   44,135 2
Satisfied 27721 0   39,505 2
Teamwork 20903 1   27,270 65
proud 8844 0   15,189 1
Elated 322 0   1,681 0

For additional pricing ideas see these Stories

Multi-Tier Pricing Model    3/22/17

Raising Stock Photo Prices     3/6/17

Stock Photo Prices: The Future     9/28/17

Thoughts On Ways To Improve Search     7/27/17

Copyright © 2018 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:  


  • James Domke Posted Apr 26, 2018
    Buyers don't want photos that have never been purchased? Even though it might be better than the more frequent photo that everyone has seen? I remember how newspapers hired staff photographers so they would get a different photo, pull readers to buy the paper.

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