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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Searching When You Don't Know What You're Looking For

Searching the Net is not unlike detective work. More often than not, I find myself following a convoluted trail of clues, with success often requiring not so much ingenuity as sheer dogged determination.

A few days ago, for example, I needed to reference a style of art for something I was working on. I could envision several images that I thought typified it. Art from the Soviet era. Larger than life portraits glorifying salt-of-the-earth peasants and stoic workers toiling toward a common good. Scenes from a silent movie: a huge factory wall, cogs and gears conveying the mechanistic, soulless nature of industrialization. But do you think I could remember the name of this evocative art style, or the famous movie in question?

Where to start? I headed for Wikipedia, and typed in art style glorifying russian revolution, and got zero results. Way too specific for Wikipedia (which is an encyclopedia). I headed to Google, and retried the search, changing my query to art style glorifying workers OR labour OR toil. Bingo! That was easy. The very first link was to a Wikipedia article about Socialist Realism. The article was comprehensive, with lots of images, including some great examples of this heavily stylized communist art form. I was part-way home, but still had found nothing about movies.

Back to Google. This time, I tried cinema workers OR toil OR factories OR industrialization. Nothing promising. Changed it to movies workers OR toil OR factories OR industrialization. Jackpot. The fourth hit down referenced Fritz Lang's famous silent movie, Metropolis (1927) the name that had eluded me.

Wikipedia again. This time, I typed in Metropolis. Nope. That's just about big cities. Then, I noticed a link labelled for other uses, see Metropolis (disambiguation). I clicked through to a list of other Wikipedia entries for this word. Part way down the page was a link to a detailed page of information about the film. Getting warmer. I had my movie, but was it socialist realism?

Turns out I had it totally wrong. On reviewing the Metropolis wiki entry, I learned that the film's focus on massive architecture, mood, and symbolism was a nod to German Expressionism. The Soviet-era Socialist Realism style of art and the brooding futuristic cinematic treatment in Metropolis are poles apart. And, once again, the Web set me straight.

Google Strategies for Finding the Unknown

The Google queries shown above worked because of the boolean OR operator. This operator allows you to instruct Google (or any search engine that supports boolean language) to return documents that match any one or more of the words typed. Without it, Google defaults to a logical "AND" condition, returning pages that contain all the words typed (likely too narrow a result in this case). Here's more on how to use this operator, along with some other strategies to try the next time you find yourself wondering what to search on.

  • Use Google, as I did here, for highly specific searches or for queries that contain lots of words. Start by brainstorming a list of words that describe the topic you are researching. Use boolean ORs to string together your list of words. ORs widen the search results and can be useful when you're not sure what you're looking for. Just type all the relevant words you can think of, separated by ORs. Be sure to type the word OR in upper case, with a space on either side.
  • Once you've identified your research concept (as in my socialist realism example), give Wikipedia a try rather than wading through Google results looking for definitive information sources. (Keep an eye out for Wikipedia entries in Google's results lists. They often appear at or near the top.)
  • In Google, save time with multiple sets of ORs in one query, such as cinema OR movies OR film workers OR toil OR factories OR industrialization. Think carefully about where you place the ORs. If there is no OR between two words, assume there is an implicit "AND," as between the words "film" and "workers" above. (Google does not recognize the AND operator because, in effect, there's already an AND there.)
  • As you start to refine your search, combine words and phrases as needed. The query "german expressionism" cinema OR movies OR film workers OR toil OR factories OR industrialization, for example, produces a highly targeted results set. Use double quotation marks to signify a phrase.
  • Don't hesitate to link multiple phrases with ORs, as in "socialist realism" OR "german expressionism" cinema OR movies OR film workers OR toil OR factories OR industrialization.
  • Bear in mind that Google has a 32 word limit.
  • Use parentheses, if you like, to group terms, as in ("socialist realism" OR "german expressionism") (cinema OR movies OR film) (workers OR toil OR factories OR industrialization). Google ignores them, but it can make it easier for you to understand.
  • Try Google's whole word wildcard. Another useful strategy when you don't know exactly what you're looking for, this special character — discussed here earlier — lets you try a "fill in the blank" approach.

That's it for now. Hope you found these musings useful. As for me, I'm heading over to eBay to pick up a copy of Metropolis.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Blogger Categories Redux

Stumbled across yet another way to compensate for Blogger's annoying lack of categories functionality. This topic has been well covered here in the past, but in the interests of thoroughness, check out David Nicholson's Blogger categories hack. Me, I'm happy with my Labelr solution.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Major Victory for Canadian Freelance Writers

Yesterday was a pretty exciting day for freelance writers in Canada. The long-awaited Supreme Court decision in the landmark Heather Robertson vs. Thomson Corp. dispute finally came down — in writers' favour. It's been a long time coming. Canadian freelancers have been waiting ten years since Robertson first launched her $100 million class action lawsuit on behalf of an estimated 10,000 Canadian freelance writers against Thomson newspapers for copyright infringement.

Financed out of her own pocket, and helped by donations from writers, Robertson took Thomson to task over the unauthorized duplication of two articles she wrote for the Globe & Mail. These were reproduced in various online databases and CD-ROMs, along with the work of thousands of other writers (including yours truly), without her knowledge or consent.

The issue of electronic rights has been a contentious one that has profoundly impacted the livelihood of freelance writers. The heart of the conflict has been whether freelance material is covered by Canadian copyright as individual works, and thus owned by the writer or — as publishers claim — as part of a collective work owned by the publication.

Canadian writers have watched developments in the US (such as Tasini vs. the New York Times) with interest, waiting on tenterhooks as this case worked its way through seemingly infinite appeals. Debate in all of these battles has tended to center on whether online databases merely constitute a form of archiving, as publishers argue, or whether they represent a new distribution medium. These articles are re-sold on a subscription or pay-per-download basis, and creators argue that they should have the right to share in profits generated from subsequent uses of their work.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced its ruling, in a split decision in favour of writers (except on the CD-ROM issue, which they ruled was a different matter). For more information, see the PWAC web site.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Microstocks Shake Up the Stock Photography Market

Royalty Free Images For some time now, I have been selling photos and artwork online through a new brand of stock photography site that is shaking up this highly traditional marketplace.

At sites like Corbis and Getty — which have long dominated the industry — professional photographers sell their work for payments ranging into the hundreds of dollars per image.
Now, an emerging army of micropayment stock photography sites is creating serious competition for the traditionals. Still a relatively new phenomenon, the microstocks allow people to buy images on a subscription or pay per download basis, for as little as 25¢ each. You make up the difference on volume, at least in theory.

There are dozens of microstocks, with new players emerging every day. I have been experimenting with some of them for several months now. Here's what I've found:

  • DreamsTime: Sales are sluggish, though this site pays the best of the few I have played with, at up to $10 per image. Purchase available on a subscription or pay per download basis. Slow approval response time (5-10 days). Moderate rejection rate (18%), for sometimes arbitrary reasons. They have rejected two images that are best sellers on other sites.
  • Shutterstock: This site is my favourite, hands-down, even though they only pay 25 cents per download. Due to the volume of downloads, however, I have earned almost ten times the income generated by the other micros I use. For some reason I cannot fathom, my images sell like hotcakes here. SS turns around approvals speedily and, so far, I have enjoyed a 100% acceptance rate! The one time they rejected an image, it was accepted after I fixed the problem and resubmitted. Shutterstock works on a subscription basis only, which may be the key to their success.
  • Fotolia: A new player, originating in France, this site caters to Europe and North America. Pricing ranges from $1 to $3. Approvals are fairly quick and rejections minimal (5%) though, like DreamsTime, they sometimes reject images for seemingly arbitrary reasons. Sales through this site, which are on a pay per download basis, have been slow.
  • iStockPhoto: The grand-daddy of them all, this site is also the most picky and demanding in my experience. In fact, I gave up shortly after submitting my first batch of images. iStock rejected every single image, either as not suitable for their audience or due to defects that the other micros didn't see. iStock pricing ranges from $1 to $5, on a per download basis.
  • 123RoyaltyFree: 100% acceptance rate, but abyssmal response time and only one sale so far. It takes weeks for uploaded images to be reviewed and OK'd at this site. I have stopped uploading, but maybe it will work for you. 123RF is well spoken of in some of the microstock discussion groups. Pricing works on a subscription or pay per download basis, the latter at $1.20 per image.

Though many professional photographers deplore the microstocks, debate in some of the online microstock discussion groups tends to suggest that some pros are experimenting with this new marketplace. More than a few people predict that the new market economics — why pay hundreds of dollars when you can get just as good an image for $1.00? — will spell the end of the traditionals. I wouldn't be surprised to see the big players launch their own microstock brands within the year.

For me personally, the microstocks have not been a fast track to wealth and fame, but they have generated a nice little income supplement. Be warned, though: you need a fairly high volume of images accepted to see any real return. Keywording is tedious, but vitally important. Get a good FTP utility, and save time by storing descriptions and keywords within images (look for tools that support EXIF/IPTC data retrieval); these fields will then populate automatically when you upload.

For a good introduction to microstock photography sites, see Stephen Finn's excellent guide. For more microstock and traditional stock photography resources, see the WebLens image search page.