New Approach to Picture Research

Posted on 8/20/2008 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (5)

As image collections have grown, finding the right image quickly has become an increasingly difficult problem for customers.

Back when the industry delivered 35mm transparencies, customers could call a picture agency, describe their need in detail and a researcher would delve through hundreds of images to find the few best. These selects were then shipped to the customer for final consideration. Internet search has changed all that.

While some customers like the more hands-on control provided by Internet search, many overworked art directors in today's pressure cooker environment want assistance in narrowing their search.

Agencies have tried to solve this problem by offering digital research services similar to those they provided with film. Customers call, describe their need and a researcher is assigned to go through the online collection and create a lightbox, which is emailed to the customer. Usually, a single researcher is assigned to a particular request. This can result in overlooking an image the customer would have liked to use because the researcher didn't like it or think it was appropriate. In addition, many customers have a problem with the lag time between making the request and getting images.

Better keywording has been offered as a possible solution, but when keywords are used to narrowly define a need, there is the risk that the specific keyword may not have been attached to a very appropriate image. Thus, that image will not be found. In the days of plastic sheets of images in file drawers, categories tended to be broad.

Given the need and the problems, some in the industry have given customers the option to order the images in the search return based on the number of times they have sold or been downloaded. Thus, customers can benefit from the research done by other professionals, or in Web 2.0 terminology, "the crowd." It's unclear which agency first introduced this system, but it was probably iStockphoto.

A disadvantage of using "search by download" exclusively is that new, quality images tend to get buried because they have not been downloaded previously. Thus, this system of ordering search returns should be one of several options available.

Traditional Sellers Ignore Benefits

The strangest aspect of using the crowd to supply research services is that traditional sellers have not adopted the idea. It is purely a microstock phenomenon. Traditionals acknowledge they have a serious problem with too many images in any given category. No customer has time to look at them all. But they refuse to give the customer the option of organizing the search return order to bring best sellers to the top.

Perhaps traditional sellers are embarrassed to let customers know how few times their images have been licensed, but they could still organize them by the number of times purchased and not include the actual numbers, as most of the microstock sites do.

Another possible option is to organize the images by the number of times a preview has been downloaded. The big problem with this strategy is that it could be easily "gamed" by photographers, who download their own previews many times. However, the problem could be diffused by using an algorithm that compares downloads with actual sales. Images with lots of preview downloads, but few or no actual sales, would be pushed down in the search return order, thus discouraging gaming.

As I pointed out earlier, "search by download" cannot be used exclusively. Customers must be given options. Different customers have different needs. But if the object is to serve customers microstock, sellers have a much better search strategy than traditionals.

Copyright © 2008 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:  


  • Steve Pigeon / Masterfile Posted Aug 21, 2008
    You said "...traditional sellers have not adopted the idea. It is purely a microstock phenomenon..." - but you are wrong!

    Masterfile introduced "People's Choice" sort order to its website in June 2007 (as reported in your Random Thoughts 151 - July 2, 2007). It is a sort order that combines a number of factors, including sales data, to weight search results by popularity.

    As your article implies, a pure "sort by number of times sold" would result in a self-fulfilling prophecy and would get stale in a hurry.

    We don't use "People's Choice" as our default sort order because we still believe in the value of applying the knowledge and experience of professional editors.

    Steve Pigeon, President
    Masterfile Corporation

  • Jean-francois Cardella Posted Aug 21, 2008
    Back in March 2005 we launched a new feature for our Data Archive software called "Image Weight" which was beta tested from October 2004 on Construction Photography (which is part of our business). This is what we wrote at the time in our press release:

    "The search results are primarily ordered by image weight. Images increase in weight when users add them to a lightbox or a cart or open an image preview or large preview. Each action has a different weight. Images also decrease in weight when they are removed from a lightbox or from the cart etc. A complex algorithm calculates in real time all these parameters to give each image a constant updated weight. We have also included the upload date and the keyword relevance to refine even further the algorithm."

    Our customers have now a direct influence over the image results as most relevant and popular images are returned first. The process is fully automated. It is not just a sound sales strategy but a fair decision for all our contributors!" says director Jean-Francois Cardella."

    The idea then was followed by Alamy I believe a year or two later(?). So this "people Choice" is not news to us. Obviously we have since made vast improvement to our weighting system with very clever refinement and the ability for our editors to overwrite weighting on a batch or on single image. RF and RM can also have different weight algorithm depending on your sale strategy.

    Avoiding "photographers gaming" is fairly simple since we can exclude IP adresses. Easy for traditional sellers since contributors would have a fixed IP (if not, the system can detect the dynamic IP at login time, store it for six months and exclude all stored IP addresses associated with this contributor). Crowd / microstock contributors would be more likely to have a dynamic IP and surely they must use a similar system.

    And finally for good measure you provide two search modes for your clients, with or without weighting. Simple.

    Jean-Francois Cardella
    Managing Director

  • Gerard Fritz Posted Aug 21, 2008
    Crowd sorting sounds like a web based version of the old phenomena of photographers copying successful stock images. This would result in everyone having "copies" of what was originally a great shot, and then the resulting devaluing of those very images due to over exposure. How long will buyers find the "popular" image desirable...especially for legitimate advertising and corporate uses?

  • Jean-francois Cardella Posted Aug 21, 2008
    Almost forgot: Search Engine Robot searches are a significant issue - search logs get swamped with Search Robot entries. We are currently beta testing our Search Engine Robot IP filter which is extended to the weighting system (our detail info page add to the weight so we needed to avoid this).

    Jean-Francois Cardella

  • Rohn Engh Posted Aug 24, 2008
    The answer to this dilemma is for photographers to begin to supply a long-tail keyword phrase for each photo they own, either on their own website or those they submit to agencies.
    It might take a complete generation of new photographers to lead the way in this quandary.
    This is especially true for editorial stock, because machine or disinterested keyword agents cannot do it.
    The Internet is in the process of asking photographers to also be library scientists. No wonder old-school photographers resist the invitation to keyword (properly) their images.
    Why should photographers submit their own keyphrases?
    Because they know the details. And because that’s how buyers have discovered it’s the way to search for the source of such a photo. They submit their search engine requests like this: boyhood home Jimmy Carter Plains GA
    This is a typical search we receive at Photosource International where researchers are up against a stonewall. You won’t find the location of this simple, unassuming request on any of the major search engines.
    Try it – you won’t find this selection on Alamy, Getty, Corbis, or Jupiter. Try it before they read this post and dispatch a photographer to Plains, GA.
    Yet we all know this image(s) exists, especially in Google Images. But researchers are gun-shy of the administrative hassles they’d encounter if they dealt with the non-pros at Google Images.
    So the task is back to photographers. “Ugh! Keywording! I’m a photographer not a librarian!”
    But the payoff is worth it. Otherwise a photo collection that is not keyworded by the person who made the photos, the collection will be almost worthless.
    Once the photographer who keywords with a long tail search each important image, – when that person retires, he or she will be able to pass on their collection as a valuable monetary annuity to their spouse, grandchildren or museum –all keyworded in 21st century style. Now that’s a nice gift to pass on to your heirs ! . . .

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