The Unfairness of Flickr’s Explore Page

Photography: Entrer dans le rêves

If you’ve ever felt that Flickr’s Explore page has been ignoring you, that your images deserve the attention the page brings and that Yahoo’s site just isn’t fair… you’re right. Flickr’s Explore page is neither fair nor intended to be fair. As Serguei Mourachov, an engineer responsible for the page’s algorithm, explained to us in 2008:

“The algorithm that populates Explore pages is not fair by definition. It’s not created to judge, but to find something that could be interesting.”

The probability of reaching the explore page, referred to as “PEP” by Flickr’s engineers, is based on the numbers of views, comments, and favorites an image has generated. Of those three, favorites are the most important, followed by comments, with views carrying the least weight. The relationship between the three elements though is changed several times each year to adjust to the “current climate of the Flickrverse.”

Photos also need to meet a number of conditions: they have to be public, safe and contain EXIF data. And they need to have passed a threshold, such as picking up at least two favorites, in order to be eligible for assessment by an algorithm which can be so important for any photographer looking to market their images on the Web’s most important photo-sharing site.

Crowdsourcing Isn’t Fair

The premise of the algorithm then is inherently unfair. Flickr doesn’t employ reviewers to assess each uploaded image, judge its quality and decide whether it deserves an airing on the site’s most important platform. Instead, it uses crowdsourcing, working on the assumption that images that the community has deemed popular are those that must be the most interesting.

Crowdsourcing though ignores the different ability of individuals to move crowds. When an image depends on the actions of others to push it through the Explore page’s algorithm, contributors who are as good at networking as they are at photographing are going to have a distinct advantage. Great photographers who prefer to shoot, then sit quietly while admirers tell their friends about their fantastic imagery will struggle to achieve results.

That might not be fair but it’s also the way the world works. Despite the importance of online portfolios and marketing, it’s still word-of-mouth and personal connections that bring in the jobs for most professional photographers. The same is true of attention on Flickr, a site that’s been known to bring in licensing sales, print purchases and even commissions.

Other apparently unfair conditions are worked into the algorithm too. The aim of the Explore page isn’t to show the best images submitted over a particular period but to show the most “interesting” images. If the algorithm were left entirely to itself, some photographers, particularly those who both shoot well and are well-connected, would inevitably dominate. Their images would be shown again and again at the expense of other photographers with equally good images but with perhaps less developed online social skills. A photographer like Rebekka Gudsleifdottir, who has been on the site since 2005 and whose images pick up thousands of views and hundreds of favorites within days, would be on the Explore page with every upload.

The algorithm then uses a number of calculations intended to reduce the benefits of either deliberate marketing or the massive popularity of some photographers. Submitting images to more than 15-20 groups reduces the PEP score, as does entering them in groups set up specifically to bring in comments and awards. Groups that have a high number of unsafe submissions are also treated with suspicion.

Photographers Are Excluded at Random

To maintain variety and ensure that newer photographers have a chance of being profiled, the algorithm introduces a random element each time the PEP is calculated. It might exclude a particular picture that would otherwise qualify, or it can even choose to ignore all of the photos of a particular user.

Most importantly, Flickr also limits the appearance of photos shot by the same photographer so that they’re are only shown at intervals of several days.

“The problem we try to avoid is typical for our Last 7 Days page,” Serguei told us, “where sometimes you can see the same photos after page reload.”

There is then an element of unfairness built into Flickr’s Explore algorithm. Using a system that looks only at the numbers generated by an image rather than the image itself gives an unfair advantage to photographers who are good with people rather than — or as well as — skillful with their cameras. Good images can also be ignored because the photographer has been successful in the recent past — or for no reason that has anything to do with the image at all.

But those quirks in the system are there for a reason. Excluding photographers at random allows other photographers with lower PEP scores but equally interesting images an increased chance of hitting the Explore page. Reducing the scores of photographers who submit to lots of groups means that popularity has to be gained over time and with a portfolio of images rather than with a big push on one photo. Most importantly, both those conditions help to ensure that the Explore page is genuinely interesting and varied.

For photographers looking to pick up the benefits of the massive exposure that a hit on the Explore page can bring, the strategies are clear enough:

  1. Make friends. Comment on people’s photos, take part in group discussions and use the site for networking as well as photo-sharing. Those friends will look at your pictures in return, boosting your PEP score.
  2. Upload at intervals. You should only be uploading your best pictures to Flickr but if you can’t hit the Explore two days in a row, it might be worth waiting before you share your next Explore-worthy image if you’ve just been successful.
  3. Shoot great pictures. It doesn’t matter how good your networking skills, the currency on Flickr is good photography. Without good images, you’re not going to win the favorites and comments you need to boost your PEP score.
  4. Don’t take it personally. Hitting the Explore page is not a judgment on your abilities as a photographer. It’s the result of an algorithmic calculation based on the reactions to your image.

“Explore pages are for viewers and not a photography popularity contest,” says Serguei. “Many great photos of excellent photographers never made Explore because of various reasons. And it does not mean they are bad.”

Learn more about Flickr and its ability to generate sales for photographer in our book The Successful Flickr Photographer, available from Amazon.

22 comments for this post.

  1. William Beem Said:

    I think Flickr's Explore page does exactly what they claim that they don't want to happen - the same photographers get included over and over again. Getting posted on the Explore page is a form of networking itself, which leads to more of that photographer's images being included on Explore.

    Explore isn't fair. It usually isn't even interesting. It's what happens when engineers let an algorithm do work that was meant for human interpretation.

  2. Robert Said:

    All of this makes sense except the condition that the images contain exif data. I can't see how this is relevant -- and it's also annoying because I always strip mine out!

  3. valerie Said:

    Fair or not, this is exactly why I don't care about explore, and also why I've become less and less interested in the entire flickr experience. Uploading a picture and not submitting it to 'animated gif groups' doesn't guarantee you won't get the random nonsense comments, the ego comments (look at my stream) and so on. Usually to ensure you both get a chance at explore. And trust me, I don't want to get there. It only generates more nonsense activity on your photo. I call that noise, and it's a waste of time, and I'm quite fed up with the whole ego trip on there.

  4. Dave Said:

    Why exactly is Explore unfair? It's not a measure of photographic quality - it's a statistical algorithm that measures concentrations of social activity. Nothing more. It can be gamed, and the explore algorithm has been adjusted in response - just like Google's search algorithms are regularly adjusted.

    If your images 'deserve attention' they'll get it from your network on flickr - if you have one. If they don't get much... either your network isn't as good as you think it is, or your photos aren't as good as you think they are.

  5. Philippe Said:


    I agree in saying that Flickr's explore should just be considered as what it is: a measure of your networking skills. I never had any photo on Explore until recently (and was not necessarily looking for it) but, as a curious person, decided to do some "experiments" in order to see how the whole thing work.

    I started with a modest photostream (about a 100 photos) and a small network (about 20 contacts). I then uploaded some pictures I liked (and I judged being potentially appealing to people) and managed to comment many pictures (understand hundreds) in a personalized way (meaning I did not only post "Nice!" or "I like it!" as many people do). The results was that, 3 days in a row, the pictures I uploaded daily made it to explore. I got a significantly higher number of comments on these photos but also older ones on my stream and my photos/stream view count exploded. In parallel I posted the photos in few groups (3~4 maximum) then most comments came from my "network".
    Of course, many comments were "noise" as mentioned above. But, surprisingly, some were quite personalized and constructive.

    The conclusions are multiple:
    - it is possible to anybody to make it to explore providing you have some good enough or appealing pictures (nonetheless they don't have to be outstanding). But of course, if you make it several times to explore you will have a greatest advantage since more people will follow your stream.
    - it is only about networking and flattering, both aspects can be independent (even if flattering is a good way to get somebody visiting your stream, criticizing can also work and might bring some more valuable comments on your photos).
    - it is very superficial. You have to drag attention to your photostream (just by posting comments, no advertising) so that people will come. All the noisy comments you will receive will only exist because people will think "this guy let me a nice comment, I will be polite and do the same". Nonetheless, some interesting conversations started through some of these comments.
    - I am not specially proud of what I did. I don't feel like a better photographer now. The only positive point to me is that I got more exposure but many other people would deserve it as much or even more than I actually do...

    I wanted to make a blog post out of this story until I realized I don't have a blog. This article is then a good opportunity to share it ^^

  6. dusanmal Said:

    I second Robert opinion: EXIF data requirement is a bad choice. It does not make images better or more interesting. It is not a part of the image. Worse, people may want it stripped for privacy. Seeing recent privacy problems in tech' world it might be advisable for Flickr to remove that requirement for user sake.

  7. Brian D Reed Said:

    Flickr "Explore" is just a whole lot of CRAP!!!!! There is absolutely no "valid" reason why anyone should want to try and proclaim credit for being featured on the Flickr Explore page because it is completely and utterly useless. If that is your "Claim to Fame" as a photographer then you should seriously consider getting out of the field of photography. Then again, there are those who have such low self-esteem that being featured on the Flickr Explore would be the equivalent to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. For folks like that, GO FOR IT!!!!! I have been ways of getting out there and "Networking" with folks than some piece of SH*T website like Flickr and trying desperately to get myself on its "Explore" page.

  8. Patrick Smith Said:

    Yes, it is not fair, but what is fair when it comes to evaluating art? So the next best thing is an angorithm that summerizes interest.

    And it tries to be fair. To use me as an example, I get at least as much interest as Rebekka mentioned above and average over 600 faves on my uploads. But I have not been on the explore page in over 6 months, probably because I was #1 every time I uploaded. So they took me out. And I follow all the rules about few groups etc.

    However, my photos often still end up being the most interesting when you do a keyword search. And even then, Flickr has it set so that the most recent 'interesting; photo will replace an older one. So they slide down the list after a week or two.

    I think that it is about as fair as it can be even though lots of good photos get bypassed inclding mine. And if you become too fair, you end up with mediocre shots at the top, which is not fair either!


  9. Kat Said:

    I have seen all of this work, the unfairness of flickr. I was on flickr (still am of and on) and was in a group of photographers that was on explore all the time. We "faved" one another all the time, commented on each others work and therefore we were often featured in explore. After a time i left flickr. I came back, not having the same contacts but the same work and now i find it very hard to make it into explore. Interesting if you ask me.
    I like flickr but have to take it as it is..pretty work that you may or may not make it in to. If we like what we do then who cares what flickr says?!

  10. john lund Said:

    Fair or not, I think a better strategy to get your work seen is to take more control by making your images available on your own site and exercising good SEO!

    John Lund (AKA The Stock Photo Guy)

  11. Thomas Hawk Said:

    And then of course there is the actual blacklisting that takes place.

  12. Sean Molin Said:

    Groups: Explore also hates on swamping groups. If you really want to be in Explore, keep it to under 8-10 groups... and make sure they are extremely relevant. They also know when a group is a "feedback" group that awards random shiny stuff or mandates feedback.

    EXIF: Never understood people who purposely strip EXIF data. What are you trying to hide? Arrogant much? Get over it. No one is going to steal your work by knowing your settings. There is more to a photograph than the camera. To me, as a professional, there are no secrets. I'm willing to share everything I know.

    My experience: I've had 12 images in explore, one was even front page. My front pager isn't that interesting to me... and I've found that more than half of the images that found their way to explore, I didn't even try to get them there... and part of me thinks that's because of groups. When I don't care, it doesn't make it into as many groups... and groups are a big turnoff for the Explore Algorithm.

  13. Jim in Destin Said:

    I enjoy my own photography. I quit worrying about Explore a long time ago. I know I do quality work, and I have made thousands of dollars as a result of people seeing my photos on Flickr. I'll choose the money over Explore any day of the week!

  14. JVLIVS Said:

    Wow. Some photogs and I was talking about "Explore" last night, and most of my explored pix came from either camera phones or point and shoots. Only one photo-which I customized on picnik-that got explored was one that I took with recently purchased DSLR, and I have taken countless photos since then that have shown very exceptional improvment and they have yet to be explored.

    It's gotten to the point where I pretty much gave up on it. To quote one photog. from last night, it's pretty fickle. Petty as well...

  15. Muzz Said:


    I suppress my exif. I left it available for many years in case anyone could use it. But I grew tired of the photo being more about the gear than about being itself. As you say, there is more to a photograph than a camera, yes, and much more than the exif.

    If anyone asks I will tell them how I made a photo. But I'm tired of gearheads and brand hacks and so I prefer to downplay the exif.

  16. Susie Said:

    I've noticed that I will get a number of photos on Explore and then, nothing for a few months, and then, quite a few. It's a mystery to me, because I don't do anything different. I can only assume it's when they change the algorithm. Of course, if you ask in the group dedicated to it you are accused of caring too much about Explore, even if it's just idle curiosity. How dare anyone actually want to have a photo in Explore!
    I don't really care, it's just one of those, hey, that's another fun thing that happened today things. But then I'm not making money on my photos, it's just a hobby.

  17. shibu lekshman Said:

    I have given up on explore long ago. Some times you could not really keep yourself from wondering does Yahoo even care. Flickr has done a lot to further photography and sharing of knowledge, but explore is not one of its strong points.

  18. Paul Glover Said:

    Really the only one of these conditions I take issue with is the requirement for EXIF data. I'm a film shooter, so beyond what the scanner puts in I don't have much data there without taking extra steps. I can guarantee I won't go to any trouble to make it accurate were I to do that. I used to, and it's a needless PITA.

    Besides which, I work with computers 8 hours a day. If Flickr wants me to choose between being a social networker or a photographer, I'll choose my camera over a keyboard every time.

  19. Linda Said:

    I recently came across this FlickrRooster site,

    It lists the top 100 photographers in Flickr. Today there are 15 people in there with over 10 pictures in Explore just this week! If their algorithm is honestly trying to show variety then it fails miserably. How are they showing variety when of all the people on flickr, one person can have 17 pictures in Explore in one week, of which several are of the same subject just taken from different angles.

  20. Dave Jones Said:

    Well I must agree with Brian D. Reed (5th May 2011) above. Far too many people 'wet' themselves when they get 'Exlore Award'.

    Some people in a local camera club here get really excited when they've been 'Explored' and can't wait to tell one and all about it ... they really need to read the article above (and others on the subject) and Mr Reed's response closely.

    It doesn't mean your a bad photographer but it certainly doesn't mean you're a good one either ... just "interesting' ... according to some software !

    After finding out it's all down to an alogarithm, and no real human input as such (apart from the programming !) maybe it should be called the "Interesting Award" ?

  21. Miroslava Sotakova Said:

    I had a couple of pictures in Explore, and those were very uninteresting imo. They got in at the time I actually cared and tried to network. Since then, my skills have improved but I care much less - hence, no photo in Explore in a long time. Some time ago I wrote a few scripts to get a sense of the flickr network and of the distribution of explored images in the photographers' domain. If my laptop wasn't stolen in the meantime, I'd be able to provide some numbers.

  22. Chao Cui Said:

    When I took over control of a relatively large group (of aruond 30k members two years ago, now nearly 50k), I noticed that the discussion forum was always occupied by "post/comment or fave" threads in that group. Going by your article, this type of post/comment group or thread can easily create a false positive of interestingess. I think that this causes a massive fallibility in Explore.

    What I do find concerning is that Explore is often misconstrued as "exceptional" which as you have clearly mentioned is a myth. Sadly it does tend to cause silly trends, and overall I feel hurts the integrity of photography as a whole.

    I wish that flickr would really work hard on developing a means to really showcase exceptional work which really deserves credit.

Click on a tab to select how you'd like to leave your comment

Leave a Comment

Copyright ©2017 New Media Entertainment, Ltd.