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Could Google Gag the Stock Photography Business?

This week, conversations surround talk of Apple’s new tablet and how it may help save newspapers and magazines. While a disruptive new technology is an opportunity for those who take advantage of it, it can spell disaster for those who don’t. And so, I am thinking about Google, and how . . . are you ready . . . how Google could significantly disrupt the stock photography business.

Indulge this hypothetical
Google is looking to expand the reach of its enormously successful Ad Words program. To give you an idea of the scope, Ken Auletta, author of Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, says Ad Words pull in equal annual revenue as all U.S. consumers magazine advertisements combined. Back to the scenario: So, Google decides that adding photos to their popular text ads will boost ad effectiveness. Google purchases Flickr from Yahoo and strikes a deal with photographers in the Flickr photo community to license photos, for a small fee, as part of their new photo Ad Words program.

Here’s how the scenario works
1) Google uses its massive search capabilities and cutting-edge image recognition capabilities to build an image library of all photographers who’ve opted into the photo Ad Words program.
2) When an advertiser builds their ad, they are given the option to add a photo, for a slightly increased per-click fee, and, based on their keywords, Google proposes a number of images matching the ad content. An ad for a running shoe company might pull a silhouette of a runner at sunset and a site advertising a trip to Bali would pull an image of a surfer at Kuta beach.
3) In true Google style, they track detailed analytics on which photo/ad pairings get the most clicks. Photographers only get paid when a site visitor clicks on the ad and images drawing the most clicks command a premium fee for the use of the photo.
4) Quickly, this program spreads from still images to digital video clips on YouTube. Amateur and semi-professional photographers and videographers make a few hundred bucks every month from licensing their content, and advertisers get more engaging ads without spending thousands of dollars for licensing photos or videos.

Sounds perfect, right?
Professional photographers, particularly stock photographers and stock agencies, find this to be a crushing economic blow. Already reeling from the decline in print media, distributing the creation of visual content from just professionals to a much broader pool of amateurs poses a serious challenge to professionals.

Closing thoughts
Serious issues of model releases, property releases and privacy concerns (which are certainly legitimate) aside, this could happen. While this hypothetical scenario may or may not come to fruition, this kind of thinking is sculpting the future of communication. These realities only underscore the importance of taking a preparatory, rather than reactionary, approach to the future. While sometimes a scary exercise, taking time to assess the “what ifs,” particularly related to technology, helps companies anticipate trends and adapt accordingly, so they can make their move before it’s too late.

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