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The next frontier in digital revenue is the yet untapped landscape of the millions of photographs uploaded and shared everyday. Photographs are considered by many to represent more than  75% of the internet real estate, yet no one has yet successfully cracked  its full revenue potential. With almost unlimited resources, both technological and financial, it is puzzling to see that even Google has not yet successfully monetized it.

It is not for lack of trying. But its strategy, for now, has been more about herding users then capitalizing on them. First with Picasa, which started as a desktop photo file management solution and has now expanded to a hybrid desktop/cloud solution, Google tried to corner  photography by controlling its archival needs. It got quickly overtaken by Flickr, Smugmug, and  later by Facebook and Twitter when Google failed to quickly understand that people were more interested in sharing than archiving. Even making Picasa desktop  sync with an online version was too little too late. It needed a social network that took years to  build and even today, seems to lag behind the others. G +  is entirely built around sharing photography first and Google is making large  efforts in trying to attract photo buffs in the hopes it will attract everyone else. Yet, for all its relatively successful attempts, we are very far from any signs of monetization here. Eventually, they will follow Facebook’s lead and start adding featured posts. But it’s not photography they will be monetizing directly, only the network around it.

Another way to attract photographers is to offer them cool tools. Editing tools. From Nik Software ( sets of pro tools) to Snapseed ( free mobile editing) and most recently G + editing tools, Google has been hard at work to attract anyone who takes pictures by luring them via cool filters, effects and enhancements. The idea is that if you help people make their images look better, thus getting more likes, shares and  more popularity, they will love you for it and stay faithful to your services. A page from the Instagram insta-success book. The recent hiring of John Nack form Adobe Photoshop fame shows that this is a path that Google intends to intensify. All those, however, besides Nik Software, are offered for free. Even if Google were to switch to a paying model, it is very doubtful it would succeed as more and more, consumers see them as obvious free tools. They would just use something else. Rather, these are another set of lures to herd  photo takers into the Google universe.

Interestingly, Google has already a quasi monopoly in the image space. That of the search. Google Image search is by far the most used tool on the internet by people looking for photographs. Wether it is to use an image ( legally or not), or to discover something/someone they have heard or read about, it has become the central virtual repository of all things image. It is estimated that more than 58 billion photos have been indexed since its launch in July 2001 and its growing fast. Not as fast as the hundreds of million of images uploaded daily however. Part of the reason is that billions  reside out of its reach behind protected walls, like Facebook ( 250 Billion photos)  or Instagram ( 16 Billion photos) . Another is the sheer volume of new URL’s created daily.  Google could easily monetize Google Image search, the same way it has very successful monetized is text search. Adding Sponsored search results as well as relevant text ads on the side bar based on image recognition or keyword matching. However, there is a massive catch. The intention behind a text search and an image search are not the same. We do a text search to discover and proceed to a url that will provide us with the information/product we need. We do an image search either to use an image or to see something we had read/heard about. All those can be done directly from the search result page. No need to click to the source URL. Because of this difference, the advertising model used by Google on its text search would fail horribly on its Image search as the CTR ( click Through rates) would be catastrophic. For now, Google is just offering what the people want, larger previews, similar image search, free image filter so that it can keep its market dominance. It has, however, a treasure chest of extremely valuable data on what kind of image people are searching for as well as what image are the most successful, data that companies in the business of licensing images, like Getty or Shutterstock, as well as pro photographers, would kill for. But no revenue.

Google has recently entered the connected camera competition with the Nexus line, but has yet to be seen as a serious player in that space. While controlling the whole vertical of photography, from creation, editing, sharing and archival seems like what Google is after, they seem to be still very far away from having an impact in the production aspect.

They have other options, however. They could, for example, purchase a massive image library like Getty Images ( ~ 4$ billion) . Rather then license images the traditional way, which is cumbersome and labor intensive, they could offer them for free. In exchange they would get the right to advertise on all the photographs. Since these represent some of the most published professional images worldwide, the total viewership would be in the billion views/months. Not bad for an ad network.  However, there are barriers to this. First technological. How to easily distribute the right ads to the right place. Image recognition is evolving fast but is still far from being able to accurately identify objects in photographs. They would either have to rely on human added metadata or/and human curation. Both are not fool-proof and laborious. Furthermore, there are rights issue. Photographs can be a mine field of hidden/protected rights that can quickly backfire. For example, Getty shoots frequently for the sports leagues ( NBA, MLB, NHL,..). They would  not appreciate seeing ads on pictures of their players without their authorization (and compensation).

They could also ignore completely the pro market and offer and adwords for photography to everyone taking and sharing their images. With 500 million images  taken and shared a day across the top social networks and many more outside, the viewership is beyond anything experienced today. It would be the most formidable ad network ever created. Google has expertise in monetizing the long tail, as it has demonstrated with adword/adsense. W=Extending it to the photography space would make sense.  However, here too the trappings of rights management create a challenging barrier. How to advertise on photographs without enduring nightmarish legal issues as well as technological challenges. Who do you share revenue with ? The publishers of the image or the photographer ? Or both ? And how do you confirm copyright ownership ? Furthermore, how do you match the right advertising to the right image ?

Where does that leave Google in their attempt to monetize photography on the web ? In a difficult position. They certainly are not yet ready to take advantage of it . However, in the mean time, they need to maintain their pressure in controlling where and how pictures are published and consumed so that when they are ready to turn on, they are in a still in a dominate position. They also need to make sure that rights issue are as unrestrictive as possible, something they are currently doing with heavy lobbying. Finally, they need to prevent that they do not let a  new Google  grab the opportunity before they do. And that could be the hardest part.


Author: Paul Melcher

Paul Melcher is the founder of Kaptur and Managing Director of Melcher System, a consultancy for visual technology firms. He is an entrepreneur, advisor, and consultant with a rich background in visual tech, content licensing, business strategy, and technology with more than 20 years experience in developing world-renowned photo-based companies with already two successful exits.

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