Visual Search: Will It Solve The Problems Stock Photo Customers Face?

Posted on 3/22/2016 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

There is a huge amount of focus on Visual Search and its potential for the stock photo industry. In my opinion Visual Search Will Not Solve The Problems Stock Photo Customers Face. Visual search can be very useful in finding an image that the customer has a copy of in hand. It can find all the uses on the Internet of a particular image, but that’s not what most customers want.

Stock photo customers are usually looking for something they have never seen. They may be able to describe in words some of the characteristics they would like the image to have, but usually it is very difficult to describe a specific image when all you have are some vague characteristics that the image must contain

In order to know if the image is right for a project the customer must see it. Visual search can find images with certain general characteristics, but it will never be able to determine what a customer will like or reject until it has a thorough understanding of what’s in the customer’s mind and what each unique customer liked or disliked in the past.

We’re a long way from offering that kind of search. I’m very skeptical that it is even possible.

Some customers like the same things others have liked. That can be a useful tool in offering up images for review, but it is of little value when it comes to new images that no one has ever seen or liked.

Experienced editors can help to narrow the options, particularly if they have some familiarity with the type of images certain categories of customers tend to use.  Or even better yet, a particular customer and that customer’s general needs. A couple decades ago many customers worked with specific editors who knew their collection intimately and helped the customer find the right images for their uses. That method of working with customers has generally been abandoned as too costly and inefficient.

Increasingly, it seems the strategy of many collections is to say. “we have no idea which expression or body angle you’ll like so here’s everything we shot. You choose.” No matter how good the customer is at scrolling this wastes the customer’s time. Particularly, if none of the images are even remotely close to what the customer wants. Visual search will give the customer all the similars, because they are all visually similar.

When going through a collection the customer may find something that “might work.” But is there something else that would be better? The customer can save that “possible” to a lightbox and move on, but the amount of time the customer has to devote to the search places a limit on the number of images that can be seen.

The customer may take that “might work” image and do a visual search with it, but more often than not it will take the customer in the wrong direction because it doesn’t have any of those additional characteristics the customer needs.


All this takes us back to the need for better curation. If agencies want to keep customers coming back, rather than chasing them away, they must provide better curation.
    1 - They must identify the images in greatest demand and give the customers the option of viewing them first.
    2 – They must stop offering tons of similar in the basic search. Assign an experienced editor to choose one and put some type of indication in the corner of that images indicating the number of similars of that particular situation that are available for review. If the image is of general interest to the customer then with one click the customer can review all of the similars.
    3 – Put less emphasis on acquiring tons of images, and more on editing.
    4 – Be willing to spend some money on editing.

Copyright © 2016 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:  


  • Sheron Resnick Posted Mar 23, 2016
    Dear Jim:

    I concur with your analysis. 20/20 Software has had quite a bit of experience with visual search. Over the years we have implemented it on four different websites, with three different technologies, and multiple strategies. We have used the "more like this" strategy and the "upload a sample" strategy.

    What we found was that, by and large, visual search was not that helpful to users. We tracked the amount of visual searches that users did, and it was never more than 10% of all searches, averaging about 5%. We did focus groups to see if buyers found it to be helpful, and by and large they did not.

    The strategy that worked the best was to combine keywords with visual search, so that, if searching for dogs, the resulting visual-search images were all of dogs, not cats, lions, tigers, and hyenas. A small percentage, people liked that the visual search gave them options other than "dog", but usually they were looking for a dog and were annoyed to get other animals. By and large, in our focus groups, people were more satisfied with narrowing by keyword than expanding using "more like this".

    Shutterstock is currently using the "upload a sample" strategy. This works best when you find an image on one site and want to see if it's cheaper on Shutterstock. It definitely works for that purpose. It will be interesting to see how this works for them.


    Don Resnick

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