December 10, 2005

Webshots and Flickr: A (Possibly) More Thorough Analysis

Posted in Community, Software at 2:52 pm by mj

I am way late on this, but here we go. I’ll try not to say anything that can get me in trouble at work, but since I’m so late, who’s going to read this? (For those few reading who don’t know me, I’ve been an engineer at Webshots for over 3 years. I’m hardly unbiased, but I’m not blind, either. Not yet, anyway. End of full disclosure.)

On November 25, Eirik Solheim posted a graph of the Alexa numbers comparing Flickr and Webshots. The same day, Thomas Hawk amplified the message with a bit more analysis. Before we go into any analysis, let’s look at the graph in question.

Webshots vs Flickr Alexa numbers

This graph shows two things: first, that, since December 2004, Flickr has gone from virtually no reach, to approximately 0.4%, as measured by Alexa; and second, in the same time period with the same measurements, Webshots has gone from 0.8-1.0% to just under 0.4%. The conclusion? That Flickr’s “Web2.0-ness” has cut Webshots’ reach in half.

But that’s not the whole story. It’s part of the story, certainly, but there are at least three other factors at work.

First, increased competition for Webshots’ largest demographics has come from MySpace and Facebook. Remember that Webshots’ primary audience has never been the “prosumers” or the extremely technologically savvy. (A mistake on Webshots’ part not to court this crowd.) Moreover, MySpace and Facebook have not only taken away from existing customers, but they’ve grown the pie. Take a look at a similar Alexa graph comparing Flickr and MySpace:

Flickr versus MySpace Alexa numbers

You’d think MySpace has grown for the same reasons Flickr allegedly has: a clean UI, extensive use of tags, and an open API. But that turns out not to be the case. They have a good social networking apparatus that caters to a predominantly young, zealous crowd. But if “Web2.0” means anything at all, I’m not sure you can lay MySpace’s success at the throne of “Web2.0.”

(It’s true that MySpace and Facebook are not “photo sharing sites”–until recently, at least–but who really believes that simple “photo sharing” is the end goal of consumers? Usually, it’s in the context of other social activities that have some significance outside the internet. See my previous entry Tools for communities… for some related thoughts.)

Second, Webshots has stagnated. How long has it been since Webshots launched a cool new feature in its community? (NOTE: I originally wrote that before this week’s member homepage redesign.) Regardless of the “Web2.0-ness” of any features launched by our competitors, just the fact that our competitors have new features, and introduce them periodically, is enough to hurt us. Add to this that some of our competitors are new, with “reimagined” UIs and business models, and entirely new PR campaigns.

Third–and I’m not giving away anything anybody doesn’t already know, as evidenced on Webshots’ blog–Webshots has had some serious growth issues. It’s not easy going from 80M to 300M hosted photos in a year, or more than tripling your daily pageviews, but we haven’t done a good job at keeping on top of our scalability issues (to put it mildly). Judging from public feedback, customers and free members are pissed and leaving as a result of having problems uploading or sharing their photos. (But as we know, there is a difference between public threats and private behavior. How much of the public criticism has resulted in true defections is something I can’t say. Not that I have all the data at my disposal, anyway.)

This is just to say: even without Flickr, Webshots would be feeling the heat right now. Webshots has shot itself in the foot multiple times. My hope is we turn it around in 2006, but I am not going to risk getting in trouble by indicating whether or not I think we’re even on the right track.

Back to the game…

By Sunday, Narendra Rocherolle responded with his own analysis. Narendra corrected some misconceptions (including the availability of high-resolution images to free members). His contention is that Flickr’s growth has less to do with the “Web2.0-ness” of their feature set, and more to do with public photo hosting/sharing going mainstream. I think this is a valid point: the market has exploded.

What I’m a little less enthusiastic about embracing is Narendra’s later comment:

my general interpretation of open API’s is that they are an affiliate program and can have limited impact on driving traffic. Webshots has employed “keywords? for years and extensive commenting. Flickr’s innovations around tags and groups are nice, but my basic premise remains: they offered a robust product with a clean (no ads) interface and generated a lot of word of mouth and were happy to host photos for blogs (something livejournal and others stayed away from because of the cost structure). Flickr built a great product and generated heaps of PR, they never created a full-fledged business because Yahoo bought them before big cost issues set in.

The core of his point is simply re-iterating the point above: that photo hosting/sharing has gone mainstream, and that Flickr was ahead of the game in exploiting certain market demands (posting to blogs, e.g.) that others (including Webshots) did not see as profitable. The same is also true of MySpace and Facebook, with different market segments.

But I’m certain Flickr would not have gotten as much publicity as it has were it not for their use of newer technologies to create a richer user interface, and it surely would not have been as compelling to early adopters. Photo sharing sites have come and gone. Most fill a niche and that’s it. Flickr offered something that was innovative in the field of photo sharing.

Now Narendra is a far smarter and more successful person than I am, so maybe he knows or sees something that I don’t, but I’m a little perplexed why he’s poo-pooing tagging and dynamic groups, especially considering what his new ventures are (apparently) focusing on. The keywording and community features offered by Webshots are simply not as compelling or useful as what’s offered by Flickr and other, newer sites. They were good enough five or six years ago, but they’re not now.

I love tagging, not least of which because it simplifies some problems in information retrieval and provides a conveniently compelling user interface (see my previous entry What is search? for a bit more on my thoughts there). I also think it’s clear that Flickr is further along the “second generation” social networking journey than Webshots (see this previous entry on communities and social networks). These aspects account for Flickr’s amazing growth as much as the exploding market demand. (I do share Narendra’s skepticism that their APIs have a lot to do with it so far, though.)

Of course, what Flickr has done with tagging, clustering, social networking, and so on, can be improved upon. No doubt Flickr and their competitors (including Webshots) are looking for ways to provide even more compelling user experiences. But sometimes “improved enough” really is “good enough” to seize a significant market opportunity.

So my conclusion is twofold: that Flickr’s growth can be attributed to their “Web2.0-ness” in conjunction with their ability to exploit underserved markets. Either one of these alone would have seen much slower growth, I believe. But: this is mostly irrelevant to Webshots’ dropping numbers, which has much more to do with Webshots’ business decisions and new upstarts competing directly for the younger, non-technically-savvy demographic. In this respect, it’s not that Webshots is a “Web1.0” company, but that Webshots is an established company that has rested on its laurels.

Just my analysis. I am not an economist, product manager, lawyer, or public relations expert.


  1. eirikso said,

    To quote yourself:
    “Just my analysis. I am not an economist, product manager, lawyer, or public relations expert.”

    You might not be, but you have some seriously good points here. Well done!

  2. Tara said,

    I would like to see who is looking at my webshots. I keep getting disturbing messages, and would really like to be able to see who is looking at my albums.

    Please advise.



  3. […] Webshots and Flickr: A Possibly More Thorough Analysis  A nice commentary to the above two posts from a Software Engineer at Webshots. […]

  4. […] I can’t get WordPress to show individual post stats beyond the past two days (*sigh*), but, simply by sampling my stats page, my most popular post, by far, is last December’s Webshots and Flickr: A (possibly) more thorough analysis. […]

  5. Mike said,

    I can agree with you to a certain extent. After a long search for a good photo site, I have signed up for webshots. This site gives me the most space and convenience. I predict that Flickr will eventually be discarded by the masses when they realise the actual storage space limitation of the site. The web 2.0 segregates the sites that fulfils demand from the ones that do not. My demand is not satisfied by Flickr and neither are my friends. webshots is the site that comes closest to satifsfying my needs. I am both an economist and a computer scientist…

  6. John said,

    It’s worth viewing the deluge of negative blogs since the Webshots ‘update’ at the end of August. I, like so many were astounded to see the ‘launch’ of this product the day after viewing a highly buggy beta – it was the same! even said ‘beta’ on the home page! This beta version was available for viewing for ~3 weeks prior to this, itself attracting much criticism about the look and feel in general and a multitude of bugs in particular. I am not aufait with web 2.0, market strategy, photo-sharing demographics etc. etc. but I know an inferior program when I see one, and this is in parts dreadful and in need of real attention. I suspect in the coming weeks Webshots will lose part of it’s user base as much due to dissatisfaction than the lure of greener pastures at flickr etc. (Webshots is still the best for me).

    For those interested, you will find the blog(s) on the homepage (there are quite a few – they are closed every 2/3 days due to having too many entries! (or maybe Webshots thinks what people can’t read, people won’t know about..). Webshots are of course ‘addressing these issues’. Many also feel, as I do, they are out to attract another kind of user – but that’s another story – read it in the blogs

    An Webshots engineers’ viewpoint is most welcome, highly desired even, lol.

  7. embed said,

    It is always refreshing to read a self-critical post like this. Nice work

  8. embed said,

    There is also a lot to be said for bringing out new features. Hard to keep up with a competitor who can do that.

  9. […] Webshots and Flickr: A Possibly More Thorough Analysis A nice commentary to the above two posts from a Software Engineer at Webshots. […]

  10. Flores said,

    I am a free Webshots user. I Love Webshots more than all the rest. Webshots is my idol. Why do I keep using Webshots and love it? Webshots allows me (with free account)to upload more than 5.000 (five thousands)pictures. I have a free Flickr account and flickr allows me to upload unlimited but only allows me to view/see 200 pictures. What a hell is that? It is sucked. I also have a free account in Photobucket, but again they just allow me to upload maximum 1 GB, which means less than 300 pictures. Another reason I love Webshots is that, Webshots has Blog, that those professionals will give us some tricks and tips on photography. Do you consider also Dot Photo? I have a free account there. DotPhoto allows free members to upload unlimited numbers of photos. Unfortunately, there is no comments or the like among members. Ciao

  11. Ann said,

    I have been at Webshots for years-paying Premium Membership and am throughly disgusted with the changes in the last year-the daily pics are not changed daily. the lastest change that has been the last straw for me is that (due to stoopid spammers) we now have to enter a different code for every single comment .I have written the Editors and that use to be a benificial process.No more…I am currently shopping around for a much more enjoyable Photo sharing experience.

  12. mirlen said,

    Now the spammers have broken through webshots new unbreakable security ;-/ I and others had suggested they block all outside linking ( hot links ) and they did try it for a short time . They dropped the idea for some reason probably because they didn’t do it correctly ;-/ Now they have that annoying two word security that is really bugging everyone ;-/ And it didn’t work somehow the spammers have gotten around it . Any ideas about how they are doing this ? The customers are running away in masses .A lot have went to where they can sell their stuff . Not a lot of sells there though ;-/ I’m thinking Flickr is looking better all the time . BTW AG interactive owns webshots among many other companies and they are a really nasty Co.

  13. Brilliant website, I hadn’t noticed before in my web searches

    here are a few words of chaos:
    What talented phrase

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