When people ask me what I do for a living, I explain that I market images over the Internet. They don't understand what I mean, so I try to give them an example.
"Say you were looking for a picture of a couple on a beach, to use in an ad..." I go through the process of on-line research, on-line pricing, delivery of the image, etc. in most cases, their eyes glaze after thirty seconds and I move the conversation to more interesting things!
I wish they would understand the amazing complexity of even the first step of the process. If you want to share the range and depth of the problems we face in serving up "A couple on the beach," try that search on three major search engines: www.indexstock.com (my company), www.corbis.com (Bill Gate's company), and www.gettyimages.com (started by Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein, but now publicly-traded).
The Index Stock search returns 36,000 images. That is because it gives you couples + beach, couples, and beaches. (We give the customer the full set, and let them whittle it down.) The lead photo is:
An older couple dancing on the beach.
Corbis gives you a classic 1940s, black and white image (think waves crashing over you, as you embrace passionately...)
Getty Images tells you that "There were no images found based on your search. Please modify your search and try again." If I refine my search to be "a couple of people on a beach" it asks me if I want heterosexual or homosexual couples. Choosing heterosexual gets me about 1,000 images, with a girl in a red dress jumping in the air, next to a hunky guy who is blowing up a beach ball.
Why such different answers? All three of these companies are serving the same set of customers.
What is the right answer?
The different answers are probably because these are different companies. I know why we put the older couple first. We liked the shot and thought it was unusual. We wanted to challenge the viewer and give him or her something different to start with. I'd guess Corbis loved its shot, too. It is a gorgeous black and white photo--rich and full of symbolism. Why Getty has the red dress girl jumping in the air escapes me...as does the beach ball thing. (Something sexually symbolic?) But, I'm sure that there was equal care taken by all three shops in arranging the first twenty or fifty images.
The right answer? No single search string accounts for more than a percent or two of all searches. ("People" is the single most popular search--and kind of a strange one, when you realize that it is so broad that it is meaningless.) It is impossible to study all of possible searches and design "right" answers for them. What we have tried to do is to mix up the answers, so that there are a lot of different types of images on the first page. So, out of the first fifteen images, there are five older couples, five young couples, and five couples with children. Kind of covers the gamut, right?
Corbis has five sunsets, two closeups, and a fourple (a two couple photo) in the first fifteen. Getty has a mermaid, a black/white couple, and a beach fire scene, in its top fifteen. Isn't it amazing how many concepts and categories there can be, in just this one search?
The diversity and breadth of these on-line collections is endless fascinating to me. Maybe those people you meet at your next cocktail party won't understand it, if you tell them. But, please give it a try.