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Reviewer Mike Swope visits the Stock Photography Now web site and files this review:

Stock Photography Now

Needs re-defining, re-building...

tock Photography Now, as the name implies, sells 6,800 royalty-free stock photographs in 28 categories by subscription rather than the per-photo model of the stock photography industry. Categories include but are not limited to abstract backgrounds, birds, boats, Christmas and New Year's, flowers, glass, landscapes, medical, nature textures, rain, trees and water. The site claims to be "the best source of top quality visual content for graphic and web designers ranging from the novice to the creative professional," but it falls short of this goal in user-friendliness, usability and content, and in the end fails to earn the visitor's trust -- and a portion of the visitor's stock photography budget. Despite these severe problems, it is possible for Stock Photography Now to succeed.

User-Friendliness & Usability

The site, targeted at graphic and web designers, is harsh and forboding, with dark collages (some abstract, some not) for banners at the tops of all pages, and a black page background which frames the white content area. There is also a pink abstract placeholder for advertising on the left of the main content area.
      Navigation appears at the top of the main content box and is checkered white and dark web-safe green with black text links and thin black arrows pointing to the links. Overall, the site is all sharp edges and divisions, with poor contrast, hindering readability, particularly with the navigation bar.
      This same theme is used throughout the site, with only the banner changing at the top of each page. The site also ignores conventional web wisdom and makes poor use of precious screen real estate. The abstract banners at the top of every page take up more than 1/3 (exactly 190 pixels) of the vertical space, forcing much of the content on each page below the bottom of the browser window when viewed at 800x600, currently considered the industry standard. Since only the site name appears on the left, and no other feature or function is found in this banner space, this space is severely underutilized. This is just a bit surprising since the site is clearly designed to fit the width of the browser window at an approximate and inflexible 680 pixels wide. The too-tall banner at the tops of the pages also thwarts conventional navigational wisdom, because clicking the site name in the banner, instead of customarily taking visitors back to the home page, it creates a bookmark (only in Internet Explorer for Windows, incidentally).

Links throughout the site are likewise confusing -- they are black and therefore not clearly differentiated from the page contents. Pages in the site are very long, requiring more scrolling than might otherwise be necessary if the site were built with the visitor and his/her Internet habits more in mind. (One good point for the site is that it at no point in my exploration did I have to scroll to the side to view content. Vertical scrolling was all that was needed.) Paragraphs, bullet points and tables are stacked one atop another so that, for example, the home page alone serves up 7 different topics

While there isn't any getting around long pages for FAQs, the photo library pages are equally long, requiring considerably more scrolling than other stock photography sites, because photos are arranged in only two columns with rather large thumbnails. The long pages expect the visitor to take only one path (top to bottom), and in some cases almost force this path upon visitors. All pages have at least one link at the bottom.

Navigation

Site navigation also ignores conventional web wisdom. Not only are the links undifferentiated from content, and the top level navigation difficult to read, the act of navigating to the photos to make a purchase is likewise more difficult than necessary.
      Once visitors have chosen to go to the photo library, they must then choose from a category list of 28 text links and then another shorter non-descript list of photo series -- i.e. Abstract Backgrounds Photo Series 01, Abstract Backgrounds Photo Series 02, and so forth -- to finally view photographs they can purchase.
      Backing up one level to choose another series is similarly difficult. Visitors must return full circle -- photo library > category > series -- or scroll to the bottom of each page of thumbnails and click the black text link there (recall the forced top-to-bottom path identified above). The visitor will never see this link if the visitor doesn't scroll to the bottom of the page.

Contentstock photography

The content of the Stock Photography Now web site also undermines the site's purpose -- to sell photographs.
      As a new visitor having read the home and FAQs pages and scrolled down all the way to the bottom of these pages, I don't know what to do next. No clear direction has been given, except to bookmark the site at the bottom of the home page. The textual content talks and talks and talks, but the information the visitor needs is not immediately provided. The visitor must do the work to get the information needed to make a purchase: how much, how is the photograph retrieved, and how can it be used. This information is spread across the order and FAQ pages, pages that are generally ignored until an order needs to be placed or the visitor has a problem of some kind. The person who has come to make a purchase must first put together the pieces of the puzzle. That's an awful lot of work.

The site's textual content also undermines the visitor's trust.
      The content assumes that visitors are unfamiliar with high resolution royalty-free stock photography, and their concerns and questions are addressed first. The top content of the home page is a bulleted list of advantages of the photographs offered by the site -- a classic sales approach that tells visitors what they should think about the photographs because they may be unable to discern the advantages themselves.
      The first bullet in this list briefly defines what high resolution means and why it is useful; the second bullet defines what royalty-free means. The FAQ page follows the same assumption and defines stock photography, identifies purchasers of stock photography, discusses ownership and copyright, defines royalty-free and usage rights a second time, discusses forms of payment, and assures visitors that their credit card information is safe when used at this site. All are questions and answers for the uninitiated, for those who have never bought stock photography before, those who do not have experience buying over the Internet. Which contradicts the site's purpose.
      To sell royalty-free stock photography to "graphic designers, magazines, book publishers, advertising and design agencies, television and film producers, government and not-for-profit organizations," all customers likely to be familiar with buying royalty-free stock photography over the Internet and issues related to same.

The photographs

The photographs themselves also do not always live up to the expectations set forth in the first sentence of the home page: "top quality visual content for graphic and web designers."
      With these standards, one expects a first-class site with first-class images. As we've seen, the site's design and usability fall short of these lofty expectations. Unfortunately, the photos themselves do not always meet these self-imposed standards. While many of the photographs fulfill expectations (as much as those on any other small stock photography site), many do not and leave this visitor unimpressed. The first series in the first category (abstract backgrounds) -- likely the first photos most visitors will view -- for example, yields many similar dark photos of trees that appear to have been taken at the same location during the same period and time of day with only minor and/or insignificant differences. But Series 2 and 3 are much more interesting, much brighter, much more colorful, much more diversified, and much more useful. This inconsistency weaves throughout the entire photo library.
      Some photos can be used as-is; others, however, like the abstract backgrounds in Series 1, are dark and gray, perhaps shot on overcast days, and will need considerable adjustment to be truly useful.
      The subject matter, quantity and quality of the photographs also falls short of expectations for "the best source" of royalty-free stock photography. While most stock photography sites have 100,000 or more stock photographs with a wide variety and depth of subject matter, the subjects of the 6800 photos on this site are restricted to nature -- trees, flowers, rocks, water, sky, clouds, sunsets, mountains and the like -- and a few common everyday objects -- drinking glasses, boats & yachts, spices, money, and medical instruments. As noted above, some of these photos are interesting and potentially very useful.
      Missing are some of the most sought after images -- photos of people, business and office, and buildings and cities. The omission of people as subjects, of course, is easily rationalized. Models and beautiful people cost money and require releases. Objects and nature are often "found," much less expensive, and don't require signatures. But the omission of business/office objects and buildings and other city/town landscapes, scenes and objects is harder to understand. They would seem a natural fit with the other subjects on the site.

Three missing features

There are three missing features from this site found in other pay stock photography sites that likewise make this site fall short of expectations.

  1. First is the inability to view a larger image. The thumbnails in this site are relatively large (170x113 pixels), but most viewers expect and prefer to view larger images to see photos more clearly to make their best buying decision.
  2. The other missing feature is a true e-commerce capability in which the buyer may pay for their subscription or individual photo and immediately begin downloading photos. This e-commerce system would naturally be more costly and complex to build than the existing site has been, but if this venture is worth pursuing, an e-commerce system is worth investigating and likely implementing. The current pay-now-we'll-contact-you-later model is outdated does not match with the business name, Stock Photography Now.
  3. Also missing is the ability to search on keywords. With any large resource site such as this, a search feature is the means by which most visitors locate the photograph they have come to purchase. They are not just browsing, looking around. They are likely shopping. For a particular photo.

Next: Solutions for this site...

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