How to build the ultimate photo sharing website

At the end of 2007, I wrote a post on about how to build the ultimate photo sharing website. It has gone on to be one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written. Even now.

On the back of recent articles about how Flickr is getting things wrong, I went back to it this week and found it badly needed refreshed, and as Photografr is now completely about sharing great photographs, I decided to post the update here on Not Nixon.

Photo sharing has blown up over the past few years, first with Flickr and now again with Instagram. These services are far from perfect, but they are currently the ones that are at the top of the pile.

I think there are five important factors when creating a photo sharing site. The photographs, the community, the publicity, the mobile experience and the innovation. As such I have split this post into four parts.

The Photographs: People visit photo sharing websites to look at their own, and other people’s photographs. They want to see detail, usually without clicking through to the original size. The photos uploaded must be nice to look at. I would suggest a darker background, or a good quality light-box viewer like Flickr.

Just because Flickr’s background is white doesn’t mean you need to follow the herd. There is a reason that Photoshop tools use a dark grey background…the photos look better and are easier to work with. Conversely, make sure your site isn’t dark and foreboding. You must strike a good balance.

Uploaded photos must be re-sized well. It’s very easy to do a quick re-size, but these can look really bad. They will need a bit of sharpening, but not too much.

Make it easy for users to tag and geotag their photos. Tagging should be comma separated. Space separated is a pain in the neck (see Flickr) if your tag has more than one word. Geotagging should be made simple through a tool like Flickr’s. They get it right. It’s easy to search for places, you can drag multiple photos on to the map, and you can easily see which photos haven’t been geotagging. The ultimate photo sharing website would use Google maps, because they are a very good standard, and the quality of the satellite images make it much easier to find places you don’t know well.

Make it easy to upload photographs. Have a great uploading tool, but even better, make sure the multi-site up-loaders work with your site. Get in contact with the builders of these tools. Why not have them make a special version download-able from your site with your site as the default upload destination. Make sure when your users upload their pictures, ALL the data they have put in on their desktop application transports onto your site. All that well though out tagging becomes a complete pain in the arse when you have to do it more than once.

Make your site play well with other photo sharing sites. Your users should be allowed to transport their photo to and from other sites. Interoperability is key. The photographs belong to your users, and you should not place any restrictions on where they want to put them. If you make it easy for your users to transport their photos across to the other guys, then the other guys are much more likely to reciprocate. If they don’t, then let you customers know, but don’t restrict your users as a result of the other guy not seeing the potential.

People want to see their data. Make sure it’s easy for users to see their exif data as well as traffic date. It’s important for photographers to be able to refer to this. Flickr give pro users some basic data about photo visits, and where the traffic has come from, but these are pretty low level stats. New competitors would do well to improve on this.

The Community: The reason photographers upload their work to photo sharing sites is to make connections with other photographers, either to gain an audience, or to get ideas from others. You need to get photographers on the site from the start. All your staff should have decent quality cameras, and be regularly taking photographs and posting them to the site. It shows you care about photography. You and your staff should be commenting regularly on good photographs, and publicise the best ones on your blog. Make sure your best photographers become your most popular photographers. You want the good stuff to float to the top rather than being buried like they are on photo dump sites like Photobucket.

You need to tempt photographers across to your site, so that when they visit, there are already good photographs to look at, comment on, and fave. Why not have a photography contest with quality prizes? Get people to upload their five best photographs to the site, and get your users to vote on the best every month. Most photographers I know are also photo bloggers. Make it easy for photo bloggers to get votes from their readers, getting them to visit your site too.

You need to make it easy to connect with other photographers. Kris Tate’s Zooomr Zipline was a brilliant idea. Of course, it was far from original, but putting it on his site so that his community could communicate turned a fractious site into a team. As a result of this I regularly chatted with the best photographers on the site. I got hints and tips, had a laugh, and even now consider many of what were my my Zooomr contacts to be friends. I have met very few of them but would jump at the chance, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual.

Make it easy for people to find their existing contacts who have already signed up, possibly using their gMail, Hotmail, Facebook, Flickr or Twitter contacts. People joining any social web site often find it very lonely trying to start up, and very often drift back to where they came from. People are always going to use Flickr. You need them to use your service too.

Until you have an established community, your site IS in beta (in the old fashioned sense rather than the Flickr and Google sense). Without the community, you are not yet doing what you set out to do.

The Publicity: You need to make sure that people know your site exists. Like I said, many photographers are also bloggers, so make it easy for your users to blog their pictures, linking back to your site. Allow them to put slideshows of their pics on other sites. Link up with somebody like Animoto to make these slideshows funky. What about automatically uploading the slideshows to video sharing sites…all wrapped up in lovely publicity for your site.

Make sure your site works for you everywhere. Build a good Facebook app so that your user’s contacts can see what shots they are sharing, and where they are sharing them. Make sure pictures show up easily on Twitter and other micro-blogging utilities. You want the cool kids to see what you are doing.

I think it’s a good idea to restrict who can sign up for the site initially. Make people join a waiting list, then give them invites to hand out when they get in. It seems nowadays that restricting membership is the best way to steadily grow a community. It means that your users will probably know at least one other person on the site when they start. It also allows you to grow at your own pace. Charge for a pro membership with unlimited uploads, but give away pro memberships free to bloggers who promote your site. Make sure your best users feel appreciated.

The Mobile Experience: Instagram has changed the photo sharing landscape, and Picplz is not to far behind it. Your new photo sharing site has to compete on this front too. Make it easy for people to upload their photos from an easy to use smart phone app. A selection of filters is always welcome, but me sure, like Picplz, this is non destructive so that people can always get back their original photo.

The Innovation: Ahhh! This is where you’re on your pretty on your own. This is the difficult bit. It’s all very well me telling you where the other guys are getting it right. But you need to come up with a killer idea. Do something that the other guys aren’t doing. I don’t believe there is anything massive that hasn’t been done already, but photographers like features…even if they only use them every now and again.

Be smart. If features aren’t working, withdraw them and try again with something better. Constantly innovate your site and always look for features on other sites (not just photo sharing) that you could borrow and make your own.

So there you have it. Follow these simple rules and you’ll be the next Flickr. Take my word for it.

In reality you are going to need a lot of hard work and a lot of luck to even get on the radar for many photographers. While it’s not perfect, Flickr have done an astounding job on bringing photography to the main stream. They are the bench mark for now, but don’t feel you have to copy them. Just make sure their users feel at home on your site.

What do you think should be included in YOUR ultimate photo sharing website? Post a comment or reply on your own blog.