What's Google Up To?

Posted on 11/10/2009 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (5)

One of the most interesting things to happen at the recent Picture Archive Council of America International Conference was the presence of Google product manager Matt Zitzmann, who focuses on image-search monetization. As one of the speakers, Zitzmann demonstrated the latest developments in Google’s image-search algorithm.

This was the first time anyone from Google had attended the conference. Zitzmann said: “I’m here to learn more about this business.”

Clearly, Google wants to do everything it can technologically to improve the efficiency of the search of the more than 500 billion (yes, billion) images in its database. The company would also like to include more of the quality images represented by PACA members in its database. However, most of those are currently behind firewalls, as professionals fear that making them available on Google would lead to unauthorized uses.

Beyond its interest in image search, there is also a floating rumor that Google wants to purchase an unspecified large stock agency. I don’t give this much credence: It would not be beneficial for Google to purchase any of the major agencies, given what the company would get for what it would likely have to pay. Google would be better served by simply building on what it already has and setting a separate and independent operation.

What might Google have in mind, and how could it affect the stock-photo industry?

It seems highly unlikely that Google would set up a separate section of their site for images that need to be licensed. The company would want to integrate the professionally produced images with its existing images to simplify the search for their customers and give the appearance of a better-quality offering. To make that work, it would be necessary to give professional suppliers reasonable confidence that their images would not be stolen.

PicScout’s Image Exchange offers an interesting solution to that problem. Every image registered in PicScout’s database would carry a small “i” icon in the upper right-hand corner, indicating that licensing is necessary is someone wants to use the image. If the user clicks on the icon, he or she will be taken to a location where the image can be licensed. If Google were to offer such a service, every professional image creator would immediately be tempted to participate.

The next issue Google would have to deal with is who handles the licensing. Should Google be the one issuing licenses or should the customer be referred directly to the image creator, or that creator’s primary representative, to handle negotiation and collection? By contract, Google would then require the seller to pay a percentage of every sale referred to them by the company and avoid the hassle of building an in-house team that understands the value of stock images. If this were a feature of the Google service, and Google’s share of the gross sale was a little less than what Getty Images and Corbis take—which is not hard to accomplish—everyone would jump ship from the current industry leaders and go with Google.

If Google were to go this far, it could also enhance sales by putting all the images with the “i” at the beginning of its search-return order. In addition, Google could also give customers the choice of searching for just the images without the icon—essentially free—or both with and without, randomly picking from both pools.

If Google were to do all of the above, it would quickly take commanding control of the stock industry—at very little additional cost to the company.  

Such a system would also likely be of tremendous benefit to image creators, since the current system of licensing through agencies has two major flaws:

  1. Dramatic discounts. The biggest companies, who license most of the images, are too focused on volume. As a result, these agencies regularly dramatically discount prices to compete with each other and end up giving away a huge percentage of the images they license for prices that are far below what would be reasonable given the usage. This is not to say that nothing should ever be sold for $1 or $2; there are some very small uses where low prices are reasonable and all that is justified. However, a commercial use that should command $500 to $1,000 should not be offered for $50 or $5. If an individual creator controls the price, volume will seldom be an issue and thus the creator will have no reason not to ask for reasonable prices and occasionally refuse to sell to those with unreasonable expectations.
  2. Numerous middlemen. The other big issue is that there are too many hands in the pot. In many cases, the gross fee paid for a license is cut two, three and sometimes more times before the creator gets his small piece of it. With the technological advances in communications, every creator—or someone on his or her staff—should be able to handle every negotiation, anywhere in the world. If a dominant player like Google managed the database, there would be little reason for most creators to have other representation. Couple less discounting with direct negotiation, and the seller’s share of sales is likely to become significantly higher than it is today.

Only time will tell what, if anything, Google plans to do. However, if the company chooses to get more involved in the stock photo business, it would not necessarily be a bad thing for creators.

Copyright © 2009 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 www.selling-stock.com, 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: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Paul Melcher Posted Nov 10, 2009
    This entry has may flaws:
    The future of search is exclusive content. Google knows that their search technology will not hold forever against existing or new competitors. After all, that is what they did to Yahoo. Thus, if they want to keep their edge, they need to be the only ones to perform search on closed territories. The Professional Photo licensing market is certainly one of these spaces. If they can keep it closed to other search companies, its even better.
    Furthermore, Google has long gone beyond being a simple search company. From Video, to books, news and recently music, it offers content. It also currently offers Photography , albeit in a very poor way. Google is a giant Media company offering content, not just search results. The next step is to offer exclusive content. That is where it makes perfect sense for them to purchase a big photo agency that owns its content.
    Picscout ImageExchange has clearly declared that it will not be free. If their technology becomes a standard, you can be sure they will suck all the profit from being a de facto monopoly. And that will NOT be good for image creators (otherwise known as Photographers)
    If Google or Picscout become the sole distribution channel, don't you think they will not be a "Volume player"? That is what made Wal Mart what it is.
    The last point of too many middle men ( women ?) completely ignores the human interaction. If you think technology will solve all the issues around licensing images in every country, you are greatly mistaken. That is what Getty or Corbis used to think before they realized they needed a lot of people to handle all the aspect of licensing images.
    It is a myth to beleive that just because an image can be found it will sell. Many currently bankrupt companies could testify of the opposite, a lot who had invested heavily in technology.
    Finally seeing how Google currently interacts with their current customers (adwords or adsense)it is deplorable that you might even think for a second that this would be a beneficial option for photographers...brrr
    as always.

    Paul M

  • Martin Borek Posted Nov 11, 2009
    In the end, when I remember the rumours at the PACA meeting in Miami and at UGCX in New York,who isgoing to buy getty: is it Google ?
    The money they would have for it, and a large amount of fine pictures they would get.
    Jim, do you really think that Google will help Photographers to make better business with Google? That will make many people from our industry very angry. And ff that is true, in the future you can concentrate on writing news only about Google. That`s going to be quite boring. Best, Klaus P.

  • Jim Pickerell Posted Nov 12, 2009
    I can’t quite see where Paul is going with the exclusive content argument. If we’re talking about the editorial side then Getty does own a lot of that content, but on the Creative side they own very little and it would probably be an impossibility for Google to get exclusive control of all the images belonging to Getty’s image partners. Also, I can’t quite see Google wanting to get into the image production business as would be necessary if they took over the Getty’s editorial side. Given what it would cost to purchase and operate Getty Images, I can’t see it being a profitable venture for Google.

    Human interaction is an interesting issue. I agree that there will always be some need for human interaction in negotiating usage rights and servicing customers, but a lot of what takes place now could be replaced in even a better manner by direct contact between the photographer (image creator) and the customer. I think more and more of the role that local distributors play is being taken over by technology. It will never be 100%. But, at some point, and it may not be too far off, the cost of transacting those few sales that require human interaction may be greater than the revenue they generate. At that point people will have to decide if losing money on every sale is really worth it regardless of the revenue that might be generated in this endeavor.

    I can see why agents and other middlemen (women) should be concerned about what Google could do to the industry. But from the photographer perspective there are way too many cuts being taken today before the photographer gets his/her share. Google could hardly make this situation worse.

  • Paul Melcher Posted Nov 12, 2009
    Exclusive content: I had explained it on one of my entries a while back.http://blog.melchersystem.com/2008/05/23/the-waters-are-retreating/

    Currently, Google's ability to sustain itself is by indexing content. But that, in itself, is limited, even on the internet. Thus, to survive, it will have to index new, compelling, original content.They will need to control those who are doing so. They will need to "own" content. Not in the traditional way of owning, but like the Youtube way of owning. And for the same reason they purchased Youtube, for much, much more than they would ever have to pay for Getty, they will start purchasing content creating companies. One in the photogrpahy space makes complete sense.
    Human interaction: Your point is denying any value in the services currently performed by a photo agency. It is also giving too much credit to photographers being able to license their images by themselves. Finally, what seems to be missing here is the understanding that Google is about huge volumes, not quality. Google cares about Google and nothing else. If photographers are concern, today, that their images appear on page 3 of an Alamy search, just imagine what would happen under a Google empire. Page 354 ?
    It is not reasonable to think that Google can be a photogrpahy friend. Not the way they have been and are treating photography ( Google images, hot linking, Google books, and more to come). If anything, the idea you propose above would be the death of all, including this brilliant newsletter.
    Many respect
    Paul M

  • Peter Bennett Posted Nov 12, 2009
    My guess is that Google would be more interested in tapping into the personal use aspect of image licensing. Currently there is no way for a customer to find an image for personal use or small uses other than scanning the dozens of micro sites out there. First off they might know of many or any of them, and they probably wouldn't have the inclination to do so if they did. But Google is familiar, and to have a central data base of images available to everyone for a nominal fee would be a gold mine. I don’t see Google getting into the professional licensing business, they have always been more interested in the mass market, and they have the power to do something no else can do by aggregating images for mass consumerism. Just a thought, Peter Bennett

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