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It’s Rank! Alamy's Punters Get Their Algorithms In A Twist

Be careful what you wish for. Professional contributors to Alamy have long complained about the size of the agency’s seven million plus picture collection, and in particular the perception that their work is buried among other, lesser, images in search returns. For over a year now rumours have circulated about the agency’s plan to introduce a new ranking system, which many felt would go some way to solving the problem of search returns. Put simply, the good stuff – that’s all of mine – would rise to the top in the new system, while the bad stuff – that’s all of yours – would sink to the bottom.

The launch of AlamyRank in early October – like much else about Rank the exact date has become obscured by the fuss surrounding it – did indeed produce an immediate and dramatic change in search results: but not what many had anticipated. Imagine the reaction of those who discovered that Alamy’s new algorithms hold them in considerably lesser regard than they do themselves, as their pictures were overnight moved so far down the search results as to become invisible at the bottom of a 10 million strong pile.

It’s been extremely hard to find any professional Alamy contributor with a good word for Rank: reactions have ranged from initial nervousness through increasing concern to outright fury and rather entertaining paranoia. But professionals bitch about everything, and anyway they’re not the only – perhaps not even the majority – contributors to Alamy: a substantial number of the agency’s 15 million images are produced by amateurs.

So in the interests of balance EPUK sent a reconnaissance team into the world of the Alamy Lists, a universe with an atmosphere so rarefied, inhabitants so alien and opinions so fantastical that an Alamy executive once commented that he could only bear to watch while hiding behind the settee. Like the agency itself, the lists are populated not only by professionals – hence the rather avant-garde opinions – and may therefore give a more accurate picture of how all Alamy contributors view the changes.

Sadly the Alamy lists seem to have had an attack of normality since we last visited. There was a disappointing lack of discussion on how to fiddle taxes, fake model releases and cheat on keywording: Rank however had certainly made an impact. Almost inevitably the ill-named AlamyPro list launched a poll on members’ opinions of the new ranking system. Given that it’s far too early for Rank to actually do anything this was a pretty pointless exercise: rather like reviewing a car you haven’t driven or a movie you haven’t seen yet.

Nonetheless the poll is revealing insofar as contributors at AlamyPro are so far largely in favour of the new system: 64% for and 26% against. That’s certainly the opposite of elsewhere, but not especially surprising given AlamyPro’s membership profile. What was surprising was that the vote certainly didn’t reflect the comments being made at the forum, which were mostly unfavourable.

It was largely the same elsewhere: contributors weren’t just upset, they took the changes distinctly personally, which is pretty odd when what we’re talking about here are computer algorithms. Some even took to poring over the Rank patent application seeking clues on how to outwit the cunning geekery. “So much for my keywording” was a common refrain, ignoring the possibility that perhaps the keywording in question was the source of the problem. And of course in true elephant in the living room fashion there was one thing no photographer dared say out loud: perhaps, after a nine-month trial by people who actually buy photographs, Rank had concluded that their pictures sucked.

Not that Alamy themselves are blameless for the some of the confusion: contradictory statements from the company only served to heighten the bewilderment and frustration evident amongst contributors. Alamy CEO James West has on more than one occasion publicly stated that tools will be made available for contributors to tweak their keywording and improve their ranking to enable their work to fight its way up past 100 million others. However when one photographer inquired about these recently Member Services told him that there was no such tool, but that, rather helpfully, his suggestion for one would be passed on to the relevant department.

And the company even seemed unable to decide whether Rank is now complete, or still a work in progress. On the same day last month the same member of staff managed to tell one contributor that Rank was the final version, then told another that it wasn’t. This being the internet, within hours both contributors – and a few thousand of their closest colleagues – had read both versions and were left scratching their heads.

But in the long term the most interesting recent development at Alamy may turn out to be something entirely different from the new search algorithms. In the midst of all the ranking around one Alamy contributor apparently confused Alamy’s homepage with Google when looking for an alternative agent and searched ‘Corbis’. Guess what popped out of Rank? Tens of thousands of images apparently from Corbis, but hosted and sold by Alamy.

The sudden appearance of huge numbers of images from a supposedly rival agency would certainly help explain Alamy’s rapid expansion to a collection of 500 million images, but is also likely to give individual Alamy contributors further cause for concern.

Of course whether or not anyone will be able to find any of those Corbis images amongst Alamy’s one billion strong collection is another matter.

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