Oh, how often do we hear those stories: “My agency has changed their search, so they show images of contributors they have to pay less.”
The most re-incarnation made me laugh: “Shutterstock is capping the number of downloads per day for contributors.”
Let me be straight: All of these theories could be true, of course. I have no proof that they are wrong.
However, I tend to consider the rational side of it. Search algorithms are a key to success for agencies. Microstock images are commodities, they are exchangable, and so are agencies. The differentiators are price/offer, marketing – and usability. The latter meaning how easy it is for a customer to get an image he can use for his purpose. Search result pages are a key element of usability.
Now where is the business case for compromising to show the best possible search results for the buyer? Well, in some cases there is a business case: You can see some premium images mixed in at agencies that have different price levels because they want to sell a higher priced image if possible.
In some cases, you could even argue for a business case suggesting that certain images (of lower ranked contributors) are providing less cost and a higher margin for the agency.
My personal assumption suggests that the potential savings are not big enough to justify a “worse than possible” user experience for the buyer, though. And most certainly not on Shutterstock: Their ranking system is very simple, and it’s not far fetched to believe that almost all saleable images are provided by contributors having achieved the highest or second-highest level.
So, why do people come up with ideas like that?
For one: Agencies do change their algorithms. Some constantly and slowly, some with intervals and higher impact. Google changes their search results based on your location, Amazon even changes their pricing based on the device you are using and your buying patterns. Likewise agencies are trying to change their systems constantly, trying to optimize every pixel to get to more sales.
Part of those changes can be the “type of images” that are being favored. Exclusive images, more expensive images, locally relevant images. And if you happen to provide mainly in one of those categories, you will feel that change. But I doubt there is ever an intent to harm or foster a certain group of contributors.
And then there is what I consider the main reason: Our brain and soul want explanations. They want reasons. They want to understand. And while our images are floating in an ever growing pool of 50 million others, being picked or skipped by buyers randomly, we want to see patterns. And we find them.