What Google's Similar-Image Search Means to Traditional Stock Industry

Posted on 4/23/2009 by Julia Dudnik Stern | Printable Version | Comments (4)

The search leader continued expanding its image-related offerings with Similar Images, an experimental search feature from Google Labs. While Google did not pioneer the underlying image-recognition technology or image-to-image searches, the company’s increasing attention to all things visual offers insight into online image-consumption trends. For stock producers and marketers, this foreshadows both opportunities and challenges.


Google Image Search has been around for years but has never been seen as relevant by stock-industry insiders, who consider it ineffective compared to the highly focused search results delivered by stock Web sites. The search company’s leading technology was always dependent on the general public for textual information, such as image keywords and file names. While many stock-industry buyers used Google Image Search for inspiration and general research, most of them still ended up with photo researchers and stock agencies when seeking specific subject matter. Consequently, stock agencies did not see Google Image Search as a threat, because it was not a viable option for buyers looking for a very specific combination of image size, content, composition, availability and myriad other factors.

Though the opportunities offered by search engines to harness site traffic are universally recognized, the stock industry’s investment in this area has been limited. Yes, leading stock companies have invested in search-engine advertising and site optimization, but all such activities have been largely aimed at people searching for terms such as “stock photography.” Most stock agencies have kept their image catalogs inaccessible to search-engine robots for fear of ever-increasing online image piracy, preferring to restrict incoming traffic to their Web sites to only those visitors who search for “stock photography” and are willing to pay for it. In turn, this means that people searching for photos of specific subjects through Google Image Search get image results largely from online publications showing licensed images or from Flickr—and very few images that are available for licensing.

For example, a Google image search for “Capitol Hill Washington DC” returns images from Flickr in positions 1 and 7. The only stock image available on the first search-results page is from Alamy at number 16. Anyone who does not know what stock photography is—which is well over half of the world—will highly likely get this image through Flickr.

This has become a very serious issue for traditional stock agencies. Traffic to traditional Web sites is declining due to many factors, from the pathetic state of the economy to the rising popularity of photo-sharing and microstock photography. Agency and individual photographer refusal to make their images more easily accessible via search engines may prevent image piracy, but it is also preventing sales.

And Google’s new Similar Image search is about to shift the general public’s image-search traffic even further away from traditional stock companies.

…and now

Some photographers and agencies have already figured out that search engines and social communities are the way of the future. All of them make their professionally keyworded image collections available to search engines for indexing. Photographers and smaller players also use services such as PhotoShelter’s SEO-optimized Web sites and ImageSpan’s LicenseStream, both of which help the general public find images and conduct transactions outside of the traditional buyer-agency relationship.

Everything points to a continuous increase in the general public’s demand for images. Google’s recent launches of search by color and for similar images show that Internet leaders see online imagery as a growth area worthy of financial investment. Image-licensing transaction volumes keep growing, but the traditional-agency share of both transaction numbers and revenues is shrinking. The unavoidable conclusion is that new, non-traditional buyers are responsible for all transactional growth.

Most traditional shooters and agencies have yet to figure out how to put their content in front of this new audience. Worse yet, many traditionals do not even want to consider it, believing that selling to the general consumer necessarily equals bottom-barrel pricing, devaluation of photography and the death of all things they hold dear.

As evidenced by the recent demises of so many, including a top-three U.S. industry player, traditional agencies are becoming less and less relevant in a market where only a small portion of transactions is coming from the traditional image buyer—a trend that shows no signs of abating. Traditional agencies and the stock photographers they represent are competing for a shrinking pool of dollars.

Google is making it increasingly easier for every small or non-traditional stock outlet—Internet-savvy solo photographers, small studios, image-sharing Web sites and microstock businesses—to put their images in front of an eager pool of buyers. Google’s newest product is based on image-recognition technology and thus demotes the importance of keywords, which have been the stock agency’s greatest asset. As Google continues to improve its image-search engine, traffic will move increasingly toward the “right images”—those best indexed in the public domain—and away from traditional stock agencies who keep their inventories to themselves.

Copyright © 2009 Julia Dudnik Stern. 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


  • Fred Voetsch Posted Apr 23, 2009
    "...refusal to make their images more easily accessible via search engines may prevent image piracy, but it is also preventing sales"

    Very true. As an AdSense user I see how advertising via Google is holding up well even in the most serious recession in decades as advertisers move increasingly to Google's targetted and highly effecive ads to bring in customers.

    It may be possible to suvive and even prosper for established photographers without using the web and Google but the Internet is increasingly becoming the standard method for reaching image users of all kinds.

  • Ellen Boughn Posted Apr 23, 2009
    Julia...you have it nailed. The intersection of user behavior and search technology is close to making it possible for photographers with niche collections to license directly to clients who find them by google search.

  • Rohn Engh Posted Apr 24, 2009
    Google Images is a nice place to visit, but no serious photo researcher wants to live there. It will never be a threat to specialized stock agencies or independent stock photographers who specialize.

    But the standard everyday Google text search engine is a haven for photo researchers. Here’s why.

    As the Internet grows, it’s becoming clear that photo researchers for magazines, book publishers, graphic houses, corporations, etc. cannot afford the time to physically look through the growing mass of images streaming aboard the Internet. Not if they looking for a highly specific image to satisfy their customer.

    “The long tail search” has now been discovered by most photo researchers. And they’ve discovered that Google search and the other text search engines, MSN-Aol-Yahoo et al, can make life easy for them.

    It seems an anachronism to suggest that using a text to find a picture works better than searching through images themselves. But professional photo research is moving that direction and leaving Google image concepts and traditional image search facilities behind.
    Using the example in your good article, you chose ”Capitol Hill Washington DC”. In my Google Images search, I found 200 images or was it 2,000? But as we all know, we could shout out the window and a dozen photographers would come running down the street waving their great photos of “Capitol Hill Washington DC”.

    Photo researchers know they can find specific photos about Washington DC –and they know a standard Google text search (not Google Images) will supply them with just the lead(s) they are looking for.

    Let’s say you’re searching for “Capitol Hill Washington DC Amtrak Schedule Board”. Approaching your search through usual image search channels, you’re at the risk of suffering “tired eyeballs syndrome,” searching through inappropriate images at Alamy, PhotoShelter, Corbis and others. Or you may get frustrated time and again getting, “Your search yielded no results. Please try broadening your search criteria…”

    How to locate the source of such an obscure image?

    Here at PhotoSource International we work both with photographers and photo researchers. Back in 1999 we began building a website called The PhotoSourceBANK where photographers could enter keywords describing specific photos they have available (or could easily take). Each photographer can enter up to 3,000 keywords and phrases. The PhotoSourceBANK is free to researchers and now contains more than a million keyphrases (long tail search tags) and combinations of keywords and tags. We asked photographers to gear their keywords to what they think a researcher might enter into a Google text search.

    Despite valiant efforts to find a highly specific picture, many photo researchers who are up against a stone wall find the solution to their search is the PhotoSourceBANK. We advise them to include the word ‘photosource’ at the end of their search phrase. As our PhotoSourceBANK grows, more and more researchers are finding a “text” search is more convenient than an image search. We now have 3500 researchers on our mailing list.

    We’ve only been offering this service for ten years, but as the database grows from a million to a billion words, it promises a revolution in photo research, thanks to advances and improvements in Internet search.

    Try it.

    By typing a standard Google search for “Capitol Hill Washington DC Amtrak Schedule Board” a space, and then the word ‘photosource’ you’ll see that Google will provide a contact result where you can go to find a photographer who has your exact photo need and a deep selection of photos in that niche area.

    You phone, fax or email the photographer, ask for a LightBox selection of pictures to review, select the one you need, negotiate a fee, and receive a high-resolution picture of your choice in a matter of hours.

    The beauty of this system for photo researchers is that photographers who shoot in specific markets usually have a passion for that niche market, are up-to-date on the subject, and available for additional consulting on the subject matter. You can’t get that with across-the-board microstock or Flickr shooters.

    Do photographers enjoy keywording their images? No they don’t. “I’m a photographer, not a library scientist!” they shout at me. But once they get a taste of the amount of business a goodly amount of keywords generates for them, there are no more complaints about the tedious task of entering more tags and keywords. Plus the meta data can keep selling their images for them when they retire. The meta data will be useful to their heirs, and also make their image collection attractive to stock libraries, museums, historical societies or universities should they want to donate or sell their archives down the line.
    It all evolves around good keyphrasing!

    –Rohn Engh

  • Tom Morgan Posted Apr 30, 2009
    From another angle... The Google 'similars' facility opens up new possibilities for tracking commercial infringements of popular images. It also has the potential to help with the issue of 'orphan works', as similar works will be more readily findable/traceable, hopefully to authoritative sources.

Post Comment

Please log in or create an account to post comments.

Stay Connected

Sign up to receive email notification when new stories are posted.

Follow Us

Free Stuff

Stock Photo Pricing: The Future
In the last two years I have written a lot about stock photo pricing and its downward slide. If you have time over the holidays you may want to review some of these stories as you plan your strategy ...
Read More
Future Of Stock Photography
If you’re a photographer that counts on the licensing of stock images to provide a portion of your annual income the following are a few stories you should read. In the past decade stock photography ...
Read More
Blockchain Stories
The opening session at this year’s CEPIC Congress in Berlin on May 30, 2018 is entitled “Can Blockchain be applied to the Photo Industry?” For those who would like to know more about the existing blo...
Read More
2017 Stories Worth Reviewing
The following are links to some 2017 and early 2018 stories that might be worth reviewing as we move into the new year.
Read More
Stories Related To Stock Photo Pricing
The following are links to stories that deal with stock photo pricing trends. Probably the biggest problem the industry has faced in recent years has been the steady decline in prices for the use of ...
Read More
Stock Photo Prices: The Future
This story is FREE. Feel free to pass it along to anyone interested in licensing their work as stock photography. On October 23rd at the DMLA 2017 Conference in New York there will be a panel discuss...
Read More
Important Stock Photo Industry Issues
Here are links to recent stories that deal with three major issues for the stock photo industry – Revenue Growth Potential, Setting Bottom Line On Pricing and Future Production Sources.
Read More
Recent Stories – Summer 2016
If you’ve been shooting all summer and haven’t had time to keep up with your reading here are links to a few stories you might want to check out as we move into the fall. To begin, be sure to complet...
Read More
Corbis Acquisition by VCG/Getty Images
This story provides links to several stories that relate to the Visual China Group (VCG) acquisition of Corbis and the role Getty Images has been assigned in the transfer of Corbis assets to the Gett...
Read More
Finding The Right Image
Many think search will be solved with better Metadata. While metadata is important, there are limits to how far it can take the customer toward finding the right piece of content. This story provides...
Read More

More from Free Stuff