Surfacing Images For Greater Revenue

Posted on 3/31/2015 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (3)

One of the biggest problems for stock photographers is the percent of their images in major collections that haven’t been shown to any customer for years. I suspect that most of the major distributors aren’t even tracking this figure. If I had to guess I would estimate that as many as half the thumbnails in most online collections have not been viewed by any customer in the last two years.

This is not because the images are not properly keyworded, or because no one is searching for the particular keywords attached to those images. It is because the images are buried so far down in the search return order that no one gets to see them.

A few years ago someone at Getty said that customers almost never look at more than three pages of thumbnails before they change the search parameters or abandon the search all together. Most sites allow users to view 200 thumbnails per page. Three pages would be 600 thumbnails. For most customers if they haven’t found what they want after reviewing 600 images its time to move on to something else.

Alamy has over 56 million images in its collection. Two years ago Shutterstock had 25 million images and now they have over 51 million. Fotolia has over 37 million. Getty has over 10 million images in its Premium collection, 5.6 times the number of Premium images they had in 2006. And yet Getty licensed fewer Premium images in 2014 than in 2006 and at significantly lower prices.

The problem, of course, is that virtually any search on the most popular sites will deliver thousands if not tens-of-thousands of images in the queue. Will anyone ever bother to review the images in the middle of bottom of such queues?

Organizing The Queue

Most agencies are very secretive about the algorithms they use to organize search returns. But basically they are a combination of the number of times an image has been viewed, or actually purchased, along with showing a certain percentage of new images for a certain period of time. In some cases the algorithm looks at where a particular keyword is in the list of keywords for an image. If a keyword is first in a list of 20 or 30 for a particular image it is assumed that that word best describes what that image is all about. That image will be placed higher in the search return order than an image where the word is 10th on the list.

Given the number of images added daily it doesn’t take long for new images to fall below that magic 600 mark never to be seen again when a new customer uses that particular search term.

And, of course, many customers don’t even look at 600 thumbnails before they find something they can use, or move on.

Given the volume of images being added to collections, over time a significant percentage of them will buried so deeply in the search return order that they will never be seen. As more and more images are added the time it takes to reach the burial stage gets shorter and shorter.

Photographer will argue that can’t be the way search works because some of their images are licensed years and years after they were produced. I think that is usually because the particular image had some early success, or because it has some very unique keywords that no other seller happened to use and a buyer happened to stumble upon.

Is There Anything To Be Done?

Is there anything that can be done to give these buried images a chance at a second life, and a chance to earn some revenue?  Must photographers just accept that most of what they produce will have a very short useful life and they must constantly create more and more new images to replace those that are buried?

I think the agencies should be tracking the number of times each image has been on a page viewed by a customer and the number of times that image was chosen for use. They should also track the date of each page view and download. Most agencies are probably doing this. But then they should take a further step.

They should then go back and look at the images that have not been on any page viewed by customers in the last year or two. Rather than just putting these images at the bottom of the search return order and forgetting about them they should be separated out and offered in a different collection, probably at a lower price point. There is no evidence that any of the major agencies are doing this.

In this way they would have a premium collection and a secondary collection. I am sure there will be some very high quality images in the secondary collection. In order to be competitive in the current business environment agencies are lowering prices (or keeping them low) on everything they have in their entire collection. The two collection strategy would give them some justification for keeping prices high (or even raising them) on the premium collection while still offering their customers some very good quality images at lower prices. Eventually, the strategy might morph to three or more collections.

The stock photo industry doesn’t need more and more images. It will get more whether it needs them or not. What it needs is a better way of presenting to customers the images it already has.

Unfortunately, the agencies don’t care how far the customer goes in their search as long as they find something they can use. But their current strategy does not help the creator earn the maximum possible from the creator’s production efforts. In the run being able to offer premium collections as slightly higher prices while still being able to satisfy the needs of customers who need good images at lower prices could also benefit the agencies.

Copyright © 2015 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:  


  • Charles Cecil Posted Mar 31, 2015

    It all makes sense. Do you have a distribution list that will allow you to send a courtesy copy of this Selling Stock to the content manager of each major stock agency?


  • Danita Delimont Posted Mar 31, 2015
    So sad, so true. I did an overall search on our site for "Venice" recently and nearly cried as I reached the last page because there were so many outstanding images that I fear will rarely been seen. We did a re-segmentation to RF of some of the older analog RM images on our site (with the photographer's permission of course) and that brought some new life to many of the images. Still though, agencies that boast of so many images are only filtering more excellent photos to the abyss without much of a chance to sell. Nobody wins in that scenario.

  • Jaak Nilson Posted Apr 1, 2015
    It is clear, that placement is a king. Images, content quality is secondary. Unfortunately. Agencies should do a re-segmentation for their photos.

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