Google’s Licensable badge should make it easier for photographers and image agencies to license their work – although one key obstacle stands in their way. 

Google is currently working on a new Licensable badge feature, which should make it easier to find and license images for use. 

As we discussed in our recent article on image downloading attitudes, many people use search engines – and particularly, Google Images – to find images they want to use, and many are prepared to download images directly from such searches. This is despite copyright warnings that have been present on Google Images results since 2018.

The Licensable badge feature is currently in beta, which means that some details may change before the feature is made public, although Google has revealed enough information for us to understand what this means for photographers and image agencies. 

We caught up with Doug Dawirs, Technical Advisor to the DMLA, to find out more about what to expect.


SmartFrame: How did you get involved with advising the DMLA?

Doug Dawirs: I’ve been advising the DMLA for the past 16 years. I was actually introduced to the association by Apple. I was working with Apple on the development of QuickTime, and they needed some help mastering a CD. I had purchased one of the first high-speed burners from Phillips in the UK for some ungodly amount and brought it over. They heard about it, and when the time came to create the alpha version of QuickTime for developers, they asked me to fly up to Cupertino to master the disc.

Later I toured the country with them, showing off their tech using an application I had developed called Fetch, which was later acquired by Adobe and is now known as Extensis Portfolio. During the tour I was introduced to PACA (a.k.a. DMLA), a trade organization comprised of companies who created and licensed stock images. I looked up the current president and, after a long conversation, realized it was a target-rich environment for me to help people. The transition from analog to digital was in full swing, and people were struggling with a variety of issues like color space management, bulk scanning, storage, keywording, etc. The web wasn’t even a major player at the time.

So I’ve been advising [the DMLA] on all matters technology-based for a while, and there are six distinct tech-based initiatives that they’re pursuing – and exploiting the benefits of the Google Images [Licensable] badge is one of the six. I’m on the Google working group, and talk regularly with Google about the badge and its rollout. In addition, we’re very committed to working with Google on new filters and UI modifications that assist with the image search process. For example, Google could add a new search parameter that would isolate images that fall into one or more of its current image categories (Products, Recipes and, soon, Licensable Images).

Making it easier for users to quickly find licensable images is our mutual goal, and the badge is a great first step. That, along with enhanced search options, could be a game-changer for how creative content is marketed globally.


SF: What would you say is the reason that Google is introducing this now? Is it because of pressure from the likes of CEPIC and DMLA?

DD: It was a smart move for a number of reasons. Think about it: when you go to Google, you have the world that you can browse, and then you see how they’ve carved out a section dedicated to images. By doing this they’re enabling users to rapidly consume massive amounts of information visually — a trend that’s been growing significantly. Google Images is becoming a magnet for creatives and commerce. And Google would be smart to capitalize on that reality.

We asked them directly if they plan on getting into the image licensing business and they clearly stated they did not — unless there was a demand to do. So I asked them why the push? And they said they wanted to bring more people into their environment for whatever reason, whether it’s for finding the best price for a TV, or planning a vacation, or looking for images – for free, and hopefully now for purchasing.

Google has been the go-to standard for people initiating an image search for several years, but it’s a hit-and-miss experience because there’s no clear indicator of whether something can be acquired legally through the interface. So it makes perfect sense to enhance the position by clearly designating licensable content via the badge. And I don’t disagree with that tactic at all. I think they have a very good chance of rolling up that market in a substantial way.


SF: Google doesn’t profit directly from this model, so it’s more that they want people to go through Google initially rather than start somewhere like Shutterstock or Getty, correct?

DD: Yes, that’s been their model from the start; they want to be the first place that people encounter the content, and then pass off the user to the individual agency for further research, or for the transaction to occur. The first thing you have to do is to capture the client, before retaining the client by continuing to offer these kinds of services. Later they can leverage that relationship in other ways, whether it’s through selling advertising to content providers or offering enhanced in-demand services like transaction processing and fulfillment.

And they’ve been very forthright with me about that. They’ve said that, right now, they have no plans to handle a transaction on behalf of a client, unless [the client] wants them to. But it could come to the point where these license providers say: “You know what? We need a PayPal-type solution for the entire creative community, so we’ll just push that off to someone like Google to handle that and give us our cut, and then we don’t have to deal with that aspect of our business.” It’s still very much to be determined, but I’m guessing it’s not out of the question that Google could someday offer transaction services and generate revenue from that.


SF: There’s been a delay with the introduction of the Licensing Badge because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, is that right?

DD: Yes, it was anticipated to have been introduced by now but it’s been delayed because of the virus. However, we anticipate it being available before the DMLA annual conference in late October.


SF: Panoramic Images has been getting themselves ready for the badge. Will they be one of the first to take part?

DD: There are dozens and dozens of agencies that Google has contacted regarding adoption of the badge. I can’t say for certain who has done it, but I imagine all of the major agencies like Getty, Shutterstock and Alamy will be there with bells and whistles on [at the start].

In terms of smaller niche agencies, Panoramic Images were probably one of the first anywhere to incorporate the badge, but we can’t actually see it working until Google turns on the switch and the badge manifests itself on their site. But all of our internal testing suggests that it should work.

Right now, I’m being contacted by other agencies around the world, and they’re asking me if I could take a look at their site to see if it’s set up to handle it. So I spend some time digging into their site to see if they have all the data in the right places. It’s going to be the major agencies that come first. The smaller agencies typically have fewer resources, so they may struggle for a time figuring out how to get Google to index their images in addition to getting their image SEO strategy nailed down.


SF: Can you explain why?

DD: There is a “site:” search prefix you can use to find out how many pages are included in the Google index of your site. You just add site: and then your website into Google, and you can see how many pages it has indexed. In a perfect world, each image should have its own page, but if every image page is dynamically generated out of a database, there’s no static page for Google’s crawler to organically discover and index.

So I thought I’d go audit the 80 or so agencies that make up the DMLA and to see how many are correctly configured to be indexed by Google. I was surprised by what I found. A substantial percentage of member websites are not properly configured for image indexing. For example, I discovered one niche agency with 1,200 of their pages in Google’s index. Not terrible, but I wanted to find out what percentage of their total collection this represented. [At this point, Doug demonstrated how the site in question had over 167 million images!] This not only shocked me beyond belief but it also exemplifies why the badge is so important.

Before there was no real incentive [to get your images into the index], because even if you did manage to do it, it wasn’t clear which images were actually licensable. But now, because the Licensable badge is a conduit to making licenses obvious, everyone wants to be a part of it. So everyone is trying to work out how to attach the metadata to their content so they can trigger the badge – but what they’re forgetting is that they’re not even in Google to begin with.

So there are three parts to succeeding here. The first part is attaching the metadata to images, or marking up the page containing the image, so that it triggers the badge. That’s typically the easiest step because most stock agencies are experienced with embedding IPTC metadata into their images. The second leg of the stool is to get into the index, which you’re not doing if you’re not generating the necessary information (ie sitemaps) for Google to index your dynamically generated preview pages. And then the third leg is SEO; even if you get into Google, the SEO of your image pages has to be good enough to rise to the top. Unless you do that, all that other work will be for nothing.

And it’s something you have to be doing every day; it’s not like you figure it out and you’re done. SEO is constantly changing, and the way Google weights the images, and the signaling on the different data points … SEO is kind of like black magic. For example, my testing indicates that aspect ratio plays a role in search ranking. Images with “normal” ratios close to 3:2 or 4:3 get promoted above whacky vertical or horizontal ratios. It kind of makes sense, unless your company is called Panoramic Images.


SF: So, with regard to IPTC data for images, my understanding is that you need to define the creator, the copyright [licensor] URL information and the Web Statement of Rights. Is adding the Web Statements of Rights enough to trigger the Licensable badge?

DD: The two new fields you need are the acquirer URL and the Web Statement of Rights. You only technically need to add the Web Statement of Rights for the badge to appear, but you need to add a Licensor URL to direct people to the image. So you need to add both.


Related: What is IPTC metadata? Everything you need to know


SF: Would the keywords that you add as IPTC data make a difference to SEO?

DD: My guess is no. Google doesn’t have time to go into those images to extract that data to work out how to rank them. Ranking is likely based on the markup of the page, external references to the page, and one or more image attributes like aspect ratio and size.


SF: With respect to best practice, I know there are issues around structured data overriding IPTC data when both are used. As IPTC data stays with the images itself, are there any advantages to using structured data over IPTC?

DD: When there’s a conflict, structured data would win, yes. One application for using a structured-data approach is something I ran into a few days ago when I was working with a New York agency. They don’t own the images, they’re just a distributor. The images don’t even reside on their website. They’re pulling images from an affiliate organization and aggregating them into their website. So rather than go through the trouble of replicating the whole image collection for the sole purpose of embedding the IPTC data, it’s easier for them just to take the image as it is provided by the affiliate and use the markup on their page to trigger the badge.

But you’re right: if the image is then extracted from the page and placed somewhere else, they lose the benefit of the markup. But, for the most part, their benefit is derived from Google crawling their site and recognizing this, and showing the badge. That’s the only explanation I can give as to why people would go with markup. Anyone who is frequently updating metadata, and who is less concerned about the metadata moving with the image, would want to go with the markup approach.

Any company that uses imagery to generate revenue is the target for this product. In the same way that Google is now that standard for when people want to buy things, the number of people who are using Google Images to find products to purchase is exploding. Year on year, the number of people who are using image search in lieu of the organic text search is significant.

SF: So if someone wants to buy a new watch, for example, they will go to Google, go past the text search to Google Images, find the image that matches what they want, and then go to the web page from that image to buy that product?

DD: You got it. Google recently turned on a Product badge [on images] and that explains why. They’re trying to make these major categories easily available within the image environment. People don’t shop for watches by reading text descriptions in magazines; they shop for watches by looking at watches. And, of course, some of what you see here you can’t buy, it may just be someone showing off their watch. But with a button that says ‘Product’ it becomes a giant visual store. But [these websites] won’t get in there if they don’t have an image map [for Google to index their images].

SF: Would there not be a conflict with the Shopping tab?

DD: It will work by the filters. So if people want to buy an image, they will click on the option that just displays images that are licensable. If they’re there to buy a product, they’ll filter by product availability. But if they don’t specify, Google will just flip a coin and randomly decide which category to show prominently. The sorting algorithm will be fluctuating all over the place, but it will only get better as people specify exactly what they want to do.

Here’s an example: If I search for images of strawberry shortcake, Google thinks I want to make a strawberry shortcake, so the most prominent images will be linked to recipes. But if I want to buy an image of strawberry shortcake, I have to use the filters. So there’s a change coming. It’s a revolutionary change in how people interface with Google because of the tools that Google will make more available. And that brings us to the next part of the journey, which is search filters.

If you go and search for images right now in Google Images, Google exposes options like size and color. But when it comes to finding licensable content from companies who make a living producing, selling and distributing images, the wheels come off. Years ago, the Creative Commons organization created four licenses: labeled for commercial reuse with modifications; labeled for reuse; labeled for noncommercial reuse with modifications; and labeled for noncommercial reuse. And because they had this standard that everyone agreed to, Google chose to include this as one of their image search filters. But what people don’t understand is that this is all free. So, zero monetary benefit to content creators and sellers.

So I started thinking: how do we solve this? The royalty-free model is extremely popular, but no two royalty-free licenses are the same, they all have different restrictions. In order for Google to consider offering alternative filters for licensing content, the first step would be to agree on a universal royalty-free license. And that is the second of six initiatives that the DMLA is committed to, to work with industry leaders to bring royalty-free licenses in alignment with each other so that there’s a standard license model available to Google and others. The video industry did this years ago, and these are now used around the world. So we should do it for royalty-free images.


SF: What’s the third initiative?

DD: The third initiative concerns streaming. Years ago, video and audio were suffering from piracy. Then streaming came along, which made it much more difficult to steal a movie or song. So by adopting the streaming principle, it not only made it more efficient to deliver that content, but it clamped down on unauthorized usage. The DMLA wants to elevate still images to the same level as audio and video so that people understand that they shouldn’t be stealing this content, and that they need to pay for it. We are basically calling it streaming stills, and that’s what we want to push the industry towards. Everything I see on my screen right now should be a streaming still, not a static JPEG or TIFF file that’s easily taken. Streaming stills is the future.

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SF: And the other three?

DD: Not nearly as exciting! Preservation of metadata is one. We want to come up with some way of encouraging publishers who use this content on a massive scale and are institutionally in the habit of stripping metadata before publishing their content on their platform. Before there was little benefit to keeping the metadata – but now with the badge, it’s critical that they do.

Another is establishing industry standards for authenticating content to enhance user confidence and make tracking and copyright enforcement more practical, reliable and efficient.

The final one is establishing image-centric SEO best practices to level the field and allow everybody to participate in the wonderful new world Google is about to create.

We want to give Google their due and say that best practice is using the badge and making sure it’s an essential part of their delivery system.



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