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.