Keywording And Image Search

Searchers 2001


The perfect picture is only a click away, says the marketing blurb.  But users of on-line libraries, and the libraries themselves, know there’s a lot more to it than that…..

 The way creative people search for images has become a matter of intense research as libraries compete for on-line customers.  They are up against ingrained work practices, the foibles of new technology, and  lack of on-line experience in some user groups.  Are libraries getting it right, or are creatives still cursing as large numbers of irrelevant pictures load at snail’s pace onto their screens?

Tony Stone, founder of Tony Stone Images, and an innovator in the field, has strong views on this.  “ It’s an uncomfortable way to look for pictures. Most libraries have more than a hundred images on-line for every one that’s ever likely to sell. Standard image searches almost invariably call up huge numbers of irrelevant images. Poor image editing and clumsy search systems guarantee searches which are long and inefficient.”

Creatives who search on-line are happier than you’d expect, though they use a variety of methods to reach their goal .  Keri Powell, art buyer at Masius, wouldn’t search any other way. Like other regular users she is adept at using search terms, has got used to the systems of the larger libraries, and likes going one-stop shopping.  “They are all really good” she says, though if she wants pictures from a specialist, she’ll pick up the phone as  “They are way behind with search engines and keywording.”

Regular users like the simple keyword search, which they  refine using category and advanced search options, and associated keyword function. Keywords entered by clients are often monitored against the success of the search, so that client feedback becomes part of an evolving keyword system.

Concept  keywords, though seen to be useful,  have a mixed reception. Meredith Duke, designer for a fashion retail company, says this. “ If we enter words like ‘love’, ‘beauty’, ‘sensuality’ we sometimes get bizarre results. One person’s idea of ‘beauty’ is not everyone’s. ”    Derek Ferguson, who monitors customer feedback at Corbis  understands the problem.  “We have a team of people evaluating the images as they come in – so it’s not just down to an individual view.  Design users need access to a broad search which can be refined. Using concept keywords really opens up a collection to the user. ” 

With so many images now available on-line, it is clear that users will need ways of filtering out the irrelevant.  Alamy , a new portal site, has approached this in a novel way – by hand-picking editors from various parts of the industry to put together collections relevant to their clients. The idea will be extended to include collections relevant to end-usage, like calendars, book covers and so on, and is an interesting take on the problem of numbers. 

Alex Bortkiewicz, an ex-Stone editor, now at Alamy,  says : “ At the moment people are still doing very literal keyword searches. But you get similar results from the same keywords from all the agencies, even though some of them have put huge resources into their keywording. There have to be other ways to find images. Customers want a good choice on-line, but they also want editing. That’s a challenge for on-line systems. “

Maria Storey  is Marketing Manager at Science Photo Library, which has done extensive keywording and categorising work for its on-line service. But she thinks that too much intervention in the search process can sometimes be counter-productive:  “Clients are not looking to be spoon-fed when they come to our site. Many of them are thinking creatively already. It’s a more subtle process, which they want to do themselves by searching in the web environment. People will be inspired by seeing a certain type of picture, see other keywords attached to it and think  - I want more like that.”

Customers tend to agree. Sarah Thomson, art buyer at Abbot Mead Vickers nearly always searches for something specific “If I’m given a conceptual brief I try to reach more specific ideas myself. Searching conceptually is so wide of the mark, I normally don’t get what I want.”  Are there too  many images? “Sometimes, but I rather have more than not enough. I can usually refine the search enough myself to make it manageable.”

Steve Conchie, designer at The Chase Agency, agrees that the number of results can be frustrating, and would like to see new ways of whittling down the numbers. As with most creatives, time is of the essence, and he often does a search himself while getting his favourite agencies, Stone and Photonica, to search at the same time. “Sometimes they come up with other options”  he says.

Although picture users like to access several collections in one hit, they agree that branding is useful, as it provides an extra indicator of style, an attribute difficult to define in words. You can talk about a ‘Photonica’ style for example, but how would you describe that in keywords? Smaller libraries come into their own here, if they can get their brand noticed by creatives . Travillion Picture Library, specialising in designer images for book jackets, is a case in point.  Michael Trevillion says “ A lot of our images are unclassifiable, but as our collection is small, it doesn’t take long to flick through all of them. We have a very distinctive house style, which people know.”

Can the on-line experience replace the use of catalogues? Users are divided on this. Some have thrown away their catalogues, while other use them regularly, though perhaps in a different way. Meredith Duke says “ If I get frustrated I leave my computer and look at one of the books.”  Could the on-line experience mirror the function of the catalogue at some stage? “ Some people are trying to do it with galleries and portfolios, but they’re not working very well at the moment. “ Catalogues clearly have qualities missing on-line -  the feel, the look, the smell of a book is something people still like.

The books also offer a random path through images which are often visually as well as thematically linked. Tony Stone comments “There’s nothing on-line which emulates the experience of finding pictures in a good catalogue. A catalogue offers opportunities for serendipity. I don’t think anybody has thought out how to do it online, but I believe it can be done.” 

Many researchers are still reaching for the phone - prompted either by lack of time, or because library researchers can add something to the search. Robert Harding’s on-line service allows for 24/7 search and download, but he knows his customers still value the in-house search  -  he estimates that around 70% of these are for non-specific or ‘woolly’ briefs, where the experience and visual memory of in-house staff can be a real help.

What improvements would users like? Most image buyers simply want more speed.  Aside from that, they can tap away happily in the knowledge that the competition out there is fierce, and libraries are constantly on the look out for new features to make the on line experience a better one. As Meredith Duke says, “ You need someone who knows the way you’re thinking involved in the programming.  It comes down to the people working at the image library, and what kind of design eye they have.”

(c) Sarah Saunders, Electric Lane
Published in Creative Review 2001