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Selling Stock Photos: Search Rank, not Price

Friday, February 17, 2012

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Yesterday, I reposted an article I originally wrote in 2007, discussing the misconception that microstock pricing is what's driving down overall license fees.

I got a few emails that still challenged my assertion, and it appears I haven't emphasized strongly enough the most compelling arguments supporting this thesis.

All of my research supports the premise that the primary cost of licensing images is not the license fee, but the overhead associated with finding and acquiring the right image. The overhead and administration of a project that would involve photo licensing shows that the actual license fee ranks very low on the budget—hence, low on the buyer's priority list. My 2007 surveys of buyers showed that.

If the person responsible for finding images for a project is paid $60/hr, and this person spends 2-3 more hours looking for a photo just to pay $1 vs. $50, this translates to paying someone $120-180, just to save $50. People who control budgets know that the license fee for photos is negligible to the total cost of production, even at the traditional stock photo rates. The bigger the project, and lower the proportion of the license fee for the image(s).

Those who sell images are dropping their prices because they're looking at their competition, not the buyer. Further, there is absolutely no evidence to show that sites that have lower prices sell more images. There is definitely a perception that there's a correlation, but that's because people are comparing apples to oranges. Getty sales vs iStock sales are not apples-to-apples because the two entities vary dramatically in search engine results (and other important factors). People talk about microstock sites more, and they link to them (in blogs, discussion forums) and the quantity of images on microstock sites is rapidly growing. So naturally, these sites get higher rankings in search results. Search engines don't rank sites because they have lower prices. They rank sites by size (content), links, and a black magic formula that is best described as "dispersion of discussion in and around the net." In short, microstock sites have more content and get more attention. Hence, better rankings, which translates to more traffic, which attracts more photographers to submit images to them, perpetuating the feedback loop.

In my 2007 survey, those who indicated they were aware of—and use microstock sites—most don't go to them because the prices are lower; it's mostly because those sites ranked higher in search engine results, where the buyer starts.

Because search engine ranking drives traffic—especially the untapped (and unaware) segment of the global economy that doesn't use stock agencies—and because the greatest cost in photo acquisition is time, not the license fee, 90% of the time-savings is the image results the user gets on that initial search. If it takes the buyer to a stock agency site—microstock or otherwise—then the deal is nearly done. Price notwithstanding.

This is primarily why I have advocated for years that stock sites should focus their entire effort towards optimizing search engine rankings. While they could have done something about it in the past, the rise of social networks and the plethora of image-related websites and apps has made it impossible for agencies to rank highly on image-search rankings on their own. In today's market, they have no choice but to either partner with, or acquire/be-acquired-by a social-networking site.

The Getty<->Flickr combination is a very pragmatic example. Yahoo is circling the drain, and it needs to shed its non-performing assets and focus its attention on ... something. Whatever that is, it isn't Flickr, and there aren't a lot of buyers that would be interested in that asset, except for Getty or Corbis. The combined product would involve retooling Flickr to be far more socially active (to keep up with modern social networking trends), and to integrate licensing/acquisition into the user/social experience. Most importantly, to provide incentive programs for photo submitters to participate economically. (I've written a great deal about this in the past.)

Of course, perhaps Yahoo should just buy Getty. Facebook is getting into the game, which tends to lead one's eyes towards Google, but they are still struggling to play catch up in the social-networking arena, and their photo division is not run by someone with a disposition towards stock or an awareness of the economics of the photo industry. The company is more interested in building assets that support their advertising model. There's no evidence that "licensing" is on their radar—a pity because they would be on the forefront of the Web 3.0 economic model, where images would play a huge role. (See here.)

In the meantime, there's a $25B shadow economy in peer-to-peer photo licensing that's up for grabs. (See here.)

So, you ask, "how do you convince agencies of this?"
I've been trying since 1998.

(For fun, see this web archive of my site from 1999 discussing this topic.)

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