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Alamy CEO: AlamyRank "not disadvantaging specialist contributors"

16 November 2006 - EPUK

Alamy CEO James West has defended the introduction of new algorithms after contributing photographers saw their images dropping further down Alamy search results.

Photographic forums have been dominated over the last week by discussion of Alamy’s new search algorithms, which have changed the order in which search results are presented to a buyer on the photographic library’s internet site.

Specialist subject contributors, for whom Alamy had become an important part of their business, found that images which had previously been returned at the top of search results were now being returned only on later pages, which are far less likely to result in a sale. Photographers spoken to by EPUK say such a change in the search results could mean a drop in royalties of a thousand pounds a month

>> Privately owned UK-based stock agency established in 2001

>> Popular among both professional and amateur photographers for no entry charges, and is open to all who meet its technical requirements.

>> Offers royalties of up to 65% on sales, well above the industry average

>> Has currently over 7 million images on file, up from 4 million a year ago

However, Alamy CEO James West told EPUK: “I would also be cautious about judging how the system is behaving based on test searches that are thought to be representative of customer behaviour. The only way to objectively measure the impact of AlamyRank will be after enough time has passed to build a realistic picture of what is happening. Of Alamy’s seven million images, can anyone really say how many belong to specialists and how many of those have been adversely affected?”

“Sudden drop” in sales

His comments are unlikely to reassure specialist photographers and libraries. In various photographic discussion forums, including EPUK’s discussion list, many are reporting a sudden drop in prominence, with badly or irrelevantly keyworded images heading the search results

Many specialists also hold images on their subject taken by other photographers. Alamy calls these subsets “pseudonyms” and the specialists found that these pseudonyms were far better placed than their own work, an effect which some photographers feel can only be explained by AlamyRank having penalised large collections compared to smaller sets.

Alamy’s policy of allowing contributors to keyword and edit their own images has led to criticism from buyers that search results can produce large amounts of very similar images before finding anything useful, and that many images are excessively keyworded with irrelevant terms.

In response to this, Alamy’s solution to make search results more relevant is based around taking into account the past “success rate” of each contributor. The patented system, named “AlamyRank”, works by assigning each contributor a rank built up from their past performance over the last few months.

Every time a picture is viewed but ignored by a buyer the photographer or agency’s rank is reduced by a tiny fraction, whereas when a buyer shows interest in an image by clicking on it, the contributor’s rank is boosted by a rather larger fraction. So contributors who fill the pages with near identical images or who appear in every search because they have – in the words of Alamy CEO James West “stuffed the dictionary into the file” – lose rank compared to more disciplined photographers.

How AlamyRank works

“The new search order is controlled by three components: the search engine, AlamyRank, and the Diversity Algorithm.” Alamy CEO James West told EPUK. “The search engine works in exactly the same way as before AlamyRank and is concerned only with returning images that are relevant to what the customer types in the search box.” Alamy say that there is no manual intervention into the system which is purely based on automatic analysis of buyer behaviour.


Alamy’s James West illustrates example AlamyRank calculations at a recent meeting with contributors Photograph: Pete Jenkins

“AlamyRank is used to score collections of images according to the number of times images from a collection (defined as all the images that are associated with a pseudonym) have been clicked or purchased in proportion to the number of times they have been seen.”

“This is currently based on 9 months of customer activity and will be updated at intervals to be determined by what we learn in the coming weeks.”

The final element, the Diversity Algorithm, shuffles the order of the images. West told EPUK: “We first order images by the highest combined score for relevancy and rank. The diversity algorithm ensures that the images in the results are mixed up rather than dominated by the contributor with the highest combined score.”

AlamyRank “will educate buyers”

West told EPUK: “Customers on average look at 2,000 images per purchase. That’s a lot of pages of thumbnails. It may turn out to be the case that AlamyRank will, in time, educate customers that they don’t need to drill so far down in the results. In reality I think that for the system to manifest itself as a dramatic improvement for the customer, it must first be much more interactive with our contributors so that the overall quality of submissions and metadata improves over time in response to what AlamyRank is telling them about their pictures.”

This does little to comfort those who are seeing their Alamy income, built up over several years of fitting their workflow to Alamy’s needs, drop by hundreds or even thousands of pounds a month. It is difficult to reconcile Alamy’s long term failure to provide effective tools for contributors to manage their large image collections with their desire for contributors to be more interactive and improve the quality of their submissions. Many experienced specialist stock professionals with the agency are now doubting whether Alamy has a real commitment to their work.

EPUK is keen to hear from any Alamy contributors who have been affected by the Alamy search algorithm change – contact us at the editor’s email address below left

Want to contact the EPUK Website editor? editor@epuk.org

Comments

It could be that the specialists in question ranked unfairly high under the old system, and that the lower ranking is a result of a more equitable distribution of images.

Photographers who signed up with Alamy early on tended to rank higher under the old ranking system, penalizing newer photographers with better collections.

Another factor to consider is that specialized collections are by definition specialized. They will be found when customers enter a specific set of keywords. It makes sense that these collections, (which often have low returns per image), appear below images with a broader appeal, when the search terms entered are more generic.

I personally have seen my ranking go up quite a bit since AlamyRank was introduced. I used to rank very much near the bottom, despite having quite decent image sales on my modest collection. Now my images have much more prominent placement, somewhat above average I’d say, probably in line with how marketable my images are.

I think the new system seems very fair. Certainly much better than what we had before, where some contributors would block up four-five pages of results with huge numbers of similars.

Comment 1: Fabian Gonzales, 17 November 2006, 04:12 AM

I average about a sale a day for each day of the month, both before & since AlamyRank introduction. Some contributors are already hacking AlamyRank by using a multitude of pseudonyms. Couldn’t all this keyword spamming be stopped by cutting the keyword limit from 856 characters down to, say, 300 characters? Can a Yank join EPUK? That’s what I am, a Yank.

Comment 2: Jeff Greenberg, 17 November 2006, 05:04 AM

I can understand that photographers who had the first page of a serch covered with only their photos are dissatisfied now. For me, who had a mediocre ranking in the old search engine, the new Alamyrank and especially the diversity algorithm seems like a big hit (for me). Now I at least have some photos on the first page in every search. I think a lot of photographers are happy to get a decent chance now. Maybe it is to early to say how sales will end up in the long run, but since the day of the new search engine, my number of sales have at least doubled.

Comment 3: Stefan, 17 November 2006, 07:30 AM

“Can a Yank join EPUK?”

We have members all over the world – as long as you are a professional photographer who works for editorial titles in the UK or Ireland, you are eligible to join, no matter where you are based.

Comment 4: The EPUK Website Editor, 17 November 2006, 08:08 AM

I personally feel that my sales are up recently, and that my images do better in searches than before. It’s a bit early to make a final judgement but so far it seems good for me. I’m not a specialist in a very narrow sense but the majority of my images are landscape or outdoor pursuits.
I suppose in any change there will be winners and losers and if the new system penalises the ‘keyword spammers’ and the ones who dump dozens of near-identicals on the site it should be of long-term benefit to the vast majority of genuine contributors.

Comment 5: Jon Sparks, 17 November 2006, 08:22 AM

People always complain and are afraid of change. But change is neccesary and inevitable. People will have to wait some time to see the real results of AlamyRank (do I have to put a trademark here!).
As Darwin puts it, only those that can adapt to their environment will survive.
paulp :-)

Comment 6: paul prescott, 17 November 2006, 10:41 AM

So apparently Alamy buyers need to be educated that irrelevant search results are good. Try searching on “cat” and you’ll see how well AlamyRank performs in putting the images buyers are most likely to want at the top. Unless of course they actually want an image of a whale, a frog, or a rabbit but just don’t know it.

Comment 7: Mark, 17 November 2006, 08:30 PM

I am a relatively new Alamy contributor and had been with them for about a year when AlamyRank came into effect. Prior to the change, my sales were steadily increasing each month as my collection grew. This September, I had some respectable earnings and I was optimistic about the direction things were going.

But, since AlamyRank arrived, my sales have been next to nothing. I don’t know if maybe it’s a coincidence, but such a drastic change in sales has left me scratching my head.

I suggest it may be a coincidence because my images were not ranked especially highly before AlamyRank and they seem to have stayed in roughly the same place. But for some reason, even though my ranking is not substantially different, my sales are.

Comment 8: Darby Sawchuk, 18 November 2006, 10:08 PM

I am newbie to keywording and Alamy. I would suggest that Alamy rank a picture based on the keyword it was searched for rather than only using clicks and views.

1000 click and views for CAT
1000000 views for CAT
1000000/1000=1000.

The only drawback being, it could take a few months for buyers to make the entire system really effective. DRAWBACK=TIME

Comment 9: Sullivan, 23 November 2006, 04:11 AM

I have a wide ranging collection of around 6000 images on Alamy. I only shoot “Stock” earning all of my 6 figure income this way.
Before AlamyRank I was making on average a sale a day. Since AlamyRank I have seen may sales drop by 100% NOT A SINGLE SALE !! NOT HAPPY !!
Until this problem is sorted out I’m not going to be sending any more of my expensive to produce imagery to Alamy, instead I will send it to my other outlets: Getty, SPL and Jupiter Images.
I know it’s a buyer’s market and Alamy want to keep the customer happy, but they need to remember that the contributors are there life blood, if we are not happy they will have a big problem a few months down the line.
I’m lucky in that Alamy only account for 10% of my turnover, It’s going to be tough on those who rely more heavily on Alamy for there income!

Comment 10: Steve Allen, 25 November 2006, 04:48 PM

the problems with alamy searches started at the very begining with a poorly thought out search policy and poor search engine coupled with a very bad keyword and description policy for contributors, type in “ski” and see how many skiing images come up in the searches.alamy could learn some lessons from the microstock libraries, who probably have the best search engines in the business.when an image library hits 7 million images without any control on keywording and descriptions and this can be as simple as employing someone to check what gets entered for every image. the system will fall apart, as is now happening.for an idea of how a superb image search engine should work checkout istockphoto.com this will scale to millions of images and remain acurate with lots of options for buyers to refine their searches.alamy will have to come down hard on keyword spammers and limit amount of keywords or they are gonna be in big probs in the future.

Comment 11: jason evans, 27 December 2006, 06:58 PM

My results are also positioned better since the introduction of AlamyRank though I currently have few images in my collection. I will now add more images as I feel that the new ranking system is based on a fairer method.

By the way, the poor ‘cat’ search is simply due to a single agency, ImageState, incorrectly keywording all their images. Search for

cat (not Imagestate)

and the problem goes away.

I expect someone will inform Alamy about this specific problem as it may be an error by the agency. In future they could see their overall ranking harmed by this error, so its in their own interest to correct it.

The earlier poster Sullivan is correct in his point that it could take a long time for the ranking to reflect what customers are looking for, in fact this process will never stop and will be a continual evolutionary process. The results of this ranking will never reflect what the photographer thinks is a good or relevant image, but will rather reflect customers views.

Comment 12: Paul Freeman, 30 December 2006, 06:30 PM

It must be pointed out that Alamy has always encouraged abundant key-wording: ‘If you think it is relevant, include it.’ I take a lot of time (about one hour/image) and care over key wording – anticipating lateral modes of thought as well as obvious searches – and I would be concerned if this suddenly became a liability within the new algorithm.

That said – and with my designer/image buyer hat on – it IS tedious to run a search and find dozens of (inappropriate for my use) images by a single contributor ‘clogging’ up the head of the results.

I am a specialist travel photographer and have seen a drop in sales over the last couple of months. Time will tell whether this is algorithm-related.

Comment 13: Jim, 3 January 2007, 10:16 AM

I used to buy images from Alamy, but it is getting harder and harder to find waht I need. Alot of this seems to do with how search results are ranked. I started buying from IStock and have been more than happy with the images and prices.

Comment 14: Ted, 5 January 2007, 03:18 AM

Alamy Rank will prove over time not to work. I am not just saying this, because it has damaged our sales, but because it is based on a false premise, and was let lose while still being developed: you should give well selling images better visibility, not the contributor’s whole collection. This is what clogs up searches with irrelevant boring repetitive images. Furthermore the visibility of such well selling images should be dynamic, ie constantly updated in response to demand, not staying static over months and months, as is the case at present. Very disappointing and frustrating.

Comment 15: Lisa Valder, 12 March 2007, 09:42 PM

we found that the initial ranking in the old system, greatly effects our current ranking under the new system. this, to our opinion, is the greatest unfairness of AlamyRank. if you had a low rank in the old system, you have started in the h=new system with a disadvantage: your images appear low in the results so it’s harder to move up, even if you improve on your collection. another thought we like to share: Alamyrank is only updated what? once a year? why not real-time?

Comment 16: jan bowl, 18 July 2007, 12:37 PM

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