The Google Way — and How It Devalues Photography

Robert Thomson, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, recently said something that was spot on in describing Google’s impact on photography.

“Google devalues everything it touches,” Thomson said. “Google is great for Google, but it’s terrible for content providers, because it divides that content quantitatively rather than qualitatively. And if you are going to get people to pay for content, you have to encourage them to make qualitative decisions about that content.”

Quantity Over Quality

This quote is right on for two reasons. First, by virtue of its success, Google has become a standard that everyone follows and copies. Most photo agencies these days emphasize the size of their archives and the speed of their search results rather than the quality of their content.

It used to be that photo agencies only represented top talent, regardless of quantity. The content provided was never available elsewhere, and clients were guaranteed a certain level of quality.

These days, everyone is representing just about everyone else, and most content can be found elsewhere. A search on any of these mega-sites returns a hefty volume of images, hoping that the customer will find the right one somewhere in the pack. No effort is made to separate out the better images. Creativity is trumped by productivity. A photographer producing more has more chance of being sold than one who has great talent.

Rarity and Value

The second part of Thomson’s quote is even more revealing: “And if you are going to get people to pay for content, you have to encourage them to make qualitative decisions about that content.”

The more content you have at your disposal, the more each and every unit of that content is worthless to you. If you have thousands of pairs of shoes, what do you care if the one you are wearing got scratched? You will probably throw them out, regardless of who the designer is.

It is part of human nature to associate rarity with quality. The same goes with photography. These mega-sites, offering millions if not tens of millions of images, are really just saying that their content is not that good, but they have a lot of it. Since their search results do not even offer a quality filter, every image is treated like the next one.

This approach is fine for microstock sites, which brand themselves as cheap discounters. No one expects to find a Cartier-Bresson in there. But the strategy is not so smart for the rest of the industry.

And yet, that is where everyone is headed — if they’re not already there.

If you want your customers to pay for quality, they have to feel that they are purchasing something special. The product has to be packaged and presented in a way that shows its value. Photography does not escape this rule.

6 Responses to “The Google Way — and How It Devalues Photography”

  1. I agree. These days anyone with a dslr can set themselves up as a professional photographer no matter how good or bad they are.And someone is there to buy what they produce no matter the quality.

  2. One of the reasons why I gave up a lot of photography -- the quality no longer matters, and the price no longer justifies the time spent. When I croak, my kids can sell the negative files off as a historical archive, and that may be the only use they now have...

  3. Your last paragraph hits it squarely on the head. You have to create something special in order for consumers of photography to really want it.

    Today, more than ever, something special means developing a niche, focusing on presentation and marketing it to the right segment of buyers.

    As much as we would like to place blame for the fall of traditional methods of selling photography keep in mind the level of empowerment the internet has offered each individual photographer to sell themselves in a niche they love without the aid of a third party.

    Your post reminds me of a great essay on the the internet by Kevin Kelly. It's not Google, it's the internet that values quantity over quality. Kelly makes this point brilliantly here:

  4. I partially agree with your opinion on this. But can this not be compared to the digital revolution in photography? A lot of photographers were afraid of the fact that a lot of would be photographers would 'contaminate' photography by producing a lot of photographs, not looking at the quality. In the end, quality will be spotted and the current professional photographers need te be more creative in selling their work and not being driven by the fear of loosing customers or potential customers. Good photographers will be spotted and if companies want to use stock photographs which everybody already has seen on Google images, it will be their choice for being mediocre...

    Let it happen act by delivering the same quality and things will turn in favor of the pro´s and those who take photography serious.

  5. Google also allows competetors to use their name as keywords, for example, you search for getty and shutterstock comes up as sponsored link?

    Is this correct?

  6. Now we know that Google and WalMart have some things in common...and I do not mean something good.

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