Flickr Ban Raises Question of What’s Commerce, What’s Not

Sellers of handmade crafts post photos there. So do Amazon affiliates and fans of Tag Heuer watches. But when a search optimization consultant posted images to Flickr of products sold by eyewear retailer FramesDirect.com, and photos of people wearing them, the Yahoo-owned photo sharing site banished his account.

Like other sites prone to corruption by purely commercial exploits such as Wikipedia, Digg, or even Craigslist, Flickr has taken pains to rid its photo community of marketers who use the site simply to boost search engine rankings. And, like others, it has implemented no-follow tags to prevent misuse of the service.

“One of the techniques they frequently discuss [at SEO conferences] is if you have a Flickr account and post an image and a title to it, and a description, it’s just like having a Web page. The search engines will spider that,” said SEO contractor Richard Burckhardt, who writes “The Web Optimist” blog. Despite the no-follow decision, he continued using the Flickr account for FramesDirect.

Then, after about two years and about 50 photo uploads, the “framesdirect” account vanished.

In an e-mail to Burckhardt, a Flickr customer service rep cited his use of the site for commercial purposes as the reason for the takedown. The explanation in the e-mail mirrored the one in Flickr’s own guidelines: “Flickr is for personal use only. If we find you selling products, services, or yourself through your photostream, we will terminate your account.”

It was the only account Burckhardt claims he’s created for a client. “All of a sudden the account was gone. With no discussion, no opportunity, no warning, no chance to alleviate the problem, and no way to even retrieve the photos,” he said.

As social media changes the way people interact with one another and the world around them, it is also morphing the very definition of advertising. The FramesDirect/Flickr incident raises questions as to why some accounts remain on Flickr while others get the boot. And it exemplifies the widening gray area that exists between commercial and non-commercial, editorial and advertorial.

craftflickr.jpg

Bugsandfshes is a Flickr account with a profile page that links to Lupin, a shop inside the crafty commerce universe of Etsy. The Lupin boutique sells whimsical hand-stitched felt ornaments, brooches, pincushions, and other doodads. “I sell my work on Etsy ($), DaWanda (€), and Folksy (£) where I am known as LUPIN. Over on Flickr I’m known as bugsandfishes and I run the Crafting 365 group,” writes the crafter on her Flickr profile. The bugsandfshes Flickr account includes over 100 photos, some of items for sale in the Etsy Web shop.

“You’ve done it again!!! (made me drool and want to spend my money!!)” exclaimed one approving commenter on Lupin’s “Tasty Cakes” photo page.

The PenMachine Flickr account includes a composite image of several cameras, and links to a blog post on the PenMachine.com site, which mentions several camera models and links directly to Amazon.com sales pages for them. That account, as well as the Web site it links to, also feature lots of photos and topics with little or no connection to commercial items or brands.

A Flickr search for “Home Depot” generates a host of photos from people who just plain like the home improvement store (and some who don’t).There are shots of kids at Home Depot weekend workshops, images of the store in its urban settings, even close-ups of the retailer’s familiar bright orange shopping carts.

The Tag Heuer Ambassador Group account on Flickr displays photos of the luxury watches alongside images of British racecar driver Lewis Hamilton, an endorser of the brand. The account is clearly dedicated to Tag Heuer. In 2003, Tag Heuer-owner Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy reportedly launched a word-of-mouth marketing effort in the hopes of getting consumers to become ambassadors for the brand, but it’s unclear whether the account is associated with that campaign.

Then there’s the official Barack Obama photostream, created by his presidential campaign, where hundreds of photos reside. The Flickr profile page links to the campaign site, and features copy used on Obama profile pages seen on other social sites like BlackPlanet.com during the election season.

“That is contemporary advertising, and it’s all over Flickr,” said Dave Evans, VP of social media at social media strategy firm Digital Voodoo, in regards to such examples. “You look around Flickr and there are plenty of things that would qualify as advertising, especially if your definition of advertising includes social media, in particular content that’s contributed by consumers,” said Evans, also a ClickZ columnist.

When asked several times to comment for this article, Flickr parent company Yahoo declined, referring ClickZ News to the site’s guidelines. “Members should not sell products, services, or themselves through their photostreams,” stated Kryssa Guntrum, senior PR manager at Yahoo in an e-mail.

“Flickr and the other social sites can say that all day long, but they do want it and they encourage it,” said Evans. While he said such Web sites don’t want to become “a giant index of advertising,” he believes they appreciate commercial interaction on their sites because “it drives traffic and sells ad space. It’s their business model.”

Yahoo has tried monetizing Flickr by adding clearly commercial content to the site. Some photos, for instance, feature links to pages describing the camera used to capture them; those Flickr-created pages feature links to Yahoo product reviews and Yahoo Shopping price comparisons for the cameras in question, like the pricey Canon EOS 5D.

Burckhardt called Flickr’s choice to take his account down while leaving others up like the Obama photostream “selective.” Though he doesn’t plan to set up new account for FramesDirect, he suggested, “Perhaps they need to have some sort of facility for businesses or services within Flickr, even if they’re paid.”

“Around each one of these spaces, there’s a collective that is going to emerge and that is not the people who run it; it’s the people who use it,” said Evans. “It’s when the audience complains that it runs counter to their business model, and at that point, they’re correct in acting.”

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