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Do buyers use search engines more than agencies to find images?

Friday, November 17, 2006

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On Nov 16, 5:55am, s.mcdade@btinternet.com wrote:
I am a bit worried about whether buyers actually use google and search engines to license images?

While there have been no bona fide studies on the subject, one can extrapolate an answer by looking at the volume of traffic that the agencies get, vs. that of image-search sites, like images.google.com. And while you could argue that not everyone that goes to image-based search engines are necessarily looking to license photos, I would argue that the sheer volume of such users would yield a higher total number of buyers, even though they might represent a much smaller fraction of the total traffic. For example, if only .1% of google searchers would actually license an image they found for a given search, the fact that the site itself gets hundreds of millions of searches a day, even the tiny .1% that might convert into buyers would still yield a higher total than what all the photo stock agencies yield.

This all leads to one of the major assumptions that most photographers get wrong about the internet and photo agencies: that stock agencies are the only way to go, or at least, the "best" way to sell your images.

Yet, while it's clear that more potential buyers use search engines over stock ageny websites for photo searches, the other side of the coin is that there are millions of more people with photos on their sites that search engines choose from, versus the thousands of photographers usually represented by a stock photo agency. The question then becomes, are your chances of getting traffic converting to sales higher on search engines, or if your photos are with a stock agency?

The two most important variables involved in this answer involve your willingness to actually make and maintain a website, and your desire (and perhaps skillset) in managing the business side of self-representation. If your thinking on these both issues is "NO" then you might think that a stock agency is for you. The other side of the coin, again, is the presumption that an agency will do better, or at least as well as you. But first, let's not stray too far from the main question at hand: "do buyers actually use search engines to license images?" If the answer is yes, then this may tip the hand over to the do-it-yourself side of the question of where your images should reside.

To use my site as strictly anecdotal evidence, I get 20,000-30,000 visitors a day, and of those who license images, only a small handful even knew that "stock photo agencies" existed in the first place. My point isn't to suggest that your site can also get that kind of traffic--it's merely to point out that of the large amount traffic I get, a small fraction of these people are aware that formal "stock agencies" exist. And while this is anecdotal evidence not to be construed as "proof," it lends credence to the premise at hand: that search engines are used more than agencies by the masses, rather than focused publishing and advertising communities who are the primary buyers of images from agencies.

Because of the increasing inventory of images from photographers of all shapes and sizes (most of them being non-pro consumers), agencies now make up only a tiny fraction of the overall inventory of available images, which has had an effect on competition in both price and quality. Therefore, most of the top-tier stock agencies are migrating their "core" business models away from online stock licensing to that of custom assignments and full-service branding. For example, an agency would seek a contract with a major car company to produce a full set of photos for an ad campaign in preparation for the roll out of a new auto model. Sure, these agencies maintain their online stock business because, let's face it, it costs next to nothing, so the margins are very high, even with lowering prices and a diminishing percentage share of overall image searches. But, it doesn't make sense to shut down these venues, even though they are loss-leaders. It's a great way to leverage otherwise dead photo assets to yield some kind of income. Using the previous example, by the end of the year, all those photos the agency took of the cars can now be turned over to the online stock pool, so as to pick up some extra cash in the aftermarket. So, just because competition is high and prices are coming down doesn't justify shutting down these business units. It just means they've directed their real attention to many *other* things. Do individual photographers notice this? Apparently not--they still fill the photo discussion groups as if stock photo agencies was the only way to go.

The real question is, where is the dividing line for a photographer between submitting images to an agency, and making one's own site. The trade-offs are those discussed at the beginning of this article: the time and effort necessary to implement it. Because of that, there are places like Alamy appear appealing for photographers. The larger question is how long that will continue to be the case? As the web develops, and the tools for creating online businesses continue to get easier and less expensive -- and more importantly, that photographers become AWARE of these tools and trends -- Alamy may find it harder to compete. That is, buyers will rely on them less and less, as they migrate more and more to individual photographers' sites that they find using search engines.

So, while it's the case that buyers are using search engines instead of agencies to find images, and that photographers are also migrating to the web to represent themselves, the elephant in the middle of the room that I have so far intentionally avoided is this fact: the key to anyone's success in the online photo business is search engine RANKING. You're never going to make a whole lot of money unless your images come up high enough in search results when people do a search. If you have photos of Monument Valley, it doesn't matter how good they are unless your site comes up in the first page of search results when people search for that term. Clearly, this (search engine ranking) is the holy grail for any business, not just photography, but it's the *only* thing that matters for an online photo business. Indeed, not everyone can expect to rank highly for every image, or every topic. So, it's not a black and white problem to just say you should have your own website because buyers use the web more than agencies to buy images. It's a spectrum. The challenge with the agency is similar: you have to be high on *their* search results as well. So, while you have less competition being at an agency (thousands of photographers, instead of millions of them), you also have fewer buyers who visit agency sites.

One thing that would tip the scale towards the agencies is if they themselves ranked well with image search engines. Yet, they don't. All stock photo sites rank relatively poorly for image searches. The main reason for all this is that these companies never really understood the internet in the early days, and really treated it more like an online portfolio than an actual, bona fide business. And while they NOW realize it's a potential treasure trove, they still don't "get it" when it comes to how to optimize their rankings. This has resulted in an interesting period for photography on the internet. Mainly, that there are huge numbers of individuals and agencies filling the net with images, but extremely few of them have taken the time to learn about Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Whether agencies or photographers, whoever starts to actually *optimize* their search results is going to be the ultimate victors (perhaps not as individuals, but as market segments). So, Alamy could ultimately do very well if they were to find ways to make *their* images come up in search results ahead of John Q. Public's images. If this were the case, then not only would it make sense for photographers to go with Alamy, but this would act like a feedback mechanism, where new content would further increase their rankings, further propelling them higher with more content. But his hasn't happened, nor does it seem to be in the offings. But that doesn't mean it may not happen. Sooner or later, someone's going to "get it."

This is analogous to the days when domain names were not perceived to be very valuable because no one knew the internet would be such a valuable commodity. The New York Times had an article in the mid-1990s about how amazing it was that such simple domain names like "jeans.com" and "cars.com" were still sitting there, untaken, simply because the consumer retailers just didn't "get it" that the internet was the place for doing business. Today, I believe that the next big change for photography will occur when people finally "get it" and start to leverage SEO techniques and begin to actually "own" photography segments, rather than reap the business that happens to come in due to arbitrary and volatile rankings where their sites pop up now and then for image searches.

And it will all be propelled by the simple fact that yes, Virginia, more buyers use search engines--not agencies--to find photos to license.

In summary, I still think that the photo market is an open window, but closing fast. Individuals "can" get online and make good stock photo sites, but one must learn SEO techniques, and be very diligent about sticking with it. It's an investment of time because there is no immediate result from work done today. It's like planting a seed--you won't reap fruit from the tree for years to come. It's not hard, but time-consuming. If you're not "that" serious about putting that kind of time or attention into it, you can certainly join agencies like Alamy, but expect your income to pay for dinner out and movie once a month, and then diminish to lunch and a matinee.

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