Stock Sales and the Algorithm.

image of program code. Stock photography and footage sales is big business. Many thousands of images and clips are licenced to clients every year making money for the agencies who sell the media and the creatives who produce it. The basic concept of stock is the agreement between the creators and the agent, whereby the creative’s work is licenced by the selling agent and the profits are split between the two parties at an agreed rate. This arrangement works wonderfully well because it allows the photographers and filmmakers to get on with doing what they like doing, that is to create and to leave all of the boring selling to the agent because they are geared up to do it really, really well. The sellers are really top-notch marketeers, constantly looking to get their wares, the creatives’ output, in front of the World’s media buyers. The thought of marketing for most creators is eye-wateringly dull so almost all are very happy to leave them to it.

The marketing tool of choice is of course the website where designers make it as easy as possible for the client to find what they want. On the face of it almost all of these sites offer up simple pages displaying nicely formatted rows of pictures to the client but these elegant interfaces hide deeply complex image delivery systems carefully managing the content the client sees.

A word we’re all getting familiar with now is ‘algorithm’. These are the programs that sit at the heart of those delivery systems behind stock websites and apps making decisions based on complex rules using known data to present what is believed to be the best ‘thing’ the viewer wants to see or indeed should see according to the people who operate the website. Algorithms are everywhere, in stock sites, on all of the social media sites, dating sites, probably almost all sites will be using an algorithm at some point even if it’s to decide what advert to show on the screen. A lot of brain power, time and effort will go in to refining the code to optimise the data delivery for maximum effect. The people who operate the website will carefully decide how the algorithm makes it's selection of what to deliver to the screen to ensure it shows the client what they believe to be most interesting and important.

Within the design of an algorithm there are decisions made on what the algorithm knows about the person it's about to send some ‘data’ to. (For data is what every website sends to your screen. News, images, video, it’s all data). The algorithm will be looking at the user’s account preferences, previous history, things they’ve looked at before, comments history, what their peers are liking and doing, what adverts the page should show based on that previous knowledge, etc. The algorithm makes it’s decisions and the data is delivered to the web page. It will show the optimum data content for that person at that time, based on what the website’s algorithm considers to be the best things for them to see. It’s impossible to say here what the algorithm decides the viewer sees as each site will all have their own agendas about what’s important but we can probably break it down to some basic sets. First, the actual thing the person wanted to see, so the article, images, music they wanted. Second, in order to keep them interested after finishing with the first thing and therefore making them stay on the site longer, are some suggestions for things they might like to see based on all of the computations the algorithm made and third, some advertising, the content of which was likely to also have been decided by an algorithm based on previous interests and what is being displayed on the screen during that session. Perhaps you'll have noticed how when you are looking at a certain subject, the adverts relate to that subject too. Also, the adverts might be related to things you've looked at on an e-commerce site and left some data in a cookie. If the site being accessed is able to review the contents of those cookies, this can influence the adverts you see. What’s obvious here is how powerful that algorithm is to the webpage, it's totally running the show.

So lets bring this back to the stock agent website. When a client searches for an image they enter keywords that trigger searches through the database of images to find those pictures that best match the keywords. For most subjects that probably means a match of many hundreds of results that could be displayed to the client. At this point the algorithm process kicks in and has to decide what images to display and in what order. Each image-delivery algorithm will be unique but there’s some things we can pretty much say they will all do, for instance, not displaying any images the creative has deleted, or where a territory limit has been applied. This will thin down the results to leave a still huge selection for the client. The next decision is critical for the sale of the image: sort order. What the client sees first in the first few pages of their search results is likely to be from where they make their selection. Of course some clients will scroll through many pages but it’s very important to be at the front of the results in order to make sales. Here then the algorithm has to make a very important decision, how to sort the results and what to put on page one.

The decisions in the algorithm at this point are closely guarded secrets because all sorts of corporate rules are applied here. For instance, when a website has contracts with other agents to sell their stock imagery, the images have to be dropped in to the search results at some point. There will be rules that decide where that is. What images have sold in the past and proved popular with clients? If people are buying these that’s a good indicator of the quality so they probably make it to the front of the queue. What the algorithm will be looking to do is deliver the best quality for the maximum opportunity of making a sale to the client. Which is really just good business practice and makes sense to me. The website and the creative are in this to make money, its 101 stuff.

"That algorithm is at the core of how they sell the work" However within those results, lets say there are a couple of hundred photos or footage clips being made available, there will be a lot that don’t make it to the front, only appearing further down amongst the latter pages. This demonstrates how beholden the creative is to the power of the algorithm. It goes without saying that image quality and creativity has to be paramount to make sales but ultimately the algorithm is making the decisions about what appears first and what is likely to sell.

How an image makes it to the front will be as a result of many factors including quality, sales and probably the performance of the creative’s other work too. No doubt there are other things that contribute to a successful photo or clip and I wish I knew what they are but these decision points form part of that secretive algorithm so I’ll certainly never be a party to them.

As commercial business strategy changes over time so the algorithm changes too so what might have been a successful image that landed on the first page could find itself sliding down towards the back and see sales dropping off for reasons best known to the redesigned algorithm. This is a frustration for the creative because they have no control over any ranking mechanism, only the quality of their work and the keywords they use to describe it.

Here then we see one of the problems with stock. The website wants to maximise the sales they make but they aren’t interested in seeing a return for the creative specifically, only getting the best most sellable work in front of buyers' eyeballs. If that includes the creative’s output that’s great but if not, well that’s too bad.

What then can the creative do to increase their sales in this situation? As they have no control over the algorithm the best they can do is look to maximise the exposure for their non-exclusive work and use as many stock agents as possible. All of these sites will use an algorithm but at least there’s more opportunity to be found and appear further up the list. Sadly though as with most things there are no guarantees this will work. It's probably one of those situations where it has to be tried to see if it works otherwise, how do you know?
How about creating a site to host their own images to sell as stock? This isn't too technically difficult nowadays but what is hard is getting a new brand name out there to attract clients to look at and licence the work. Any website comes up against more algorithms that control the results of the search engines. These too make big decisions about what does and doesn't appear on the search results. As with stock sales, appearing at the front of any results is always a sales advantage.

Stock is a risk business and not just for the creative. The business that sets up a website to sell stock imagery and footage also takes a risk and much the bigger one too. They have the expense and hard work of designing and building a complex sales site and then marketing it to get it off the ground with no guarantees of sales success. It’s risk all round. The website though holds all the cards when it comes down to maximising sales. That algorithm is at the core of how they sell the work they represent so it will always be designed to make the maximum profit for the site and the creative has to hope their work makes it in the search results often enough and high enough to make money for them too. There will always be winners and losers as there are in every situation. Some creatives will find the algorithm works in their favour making them money and some won’t. That’s the cold-light-of-day fact about stock.

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