Interview: Imgur’s Path to a Billion Image Views Per Day
Starting an image-hosting site in 2009 seemed like a silly idea. It was a commoditized business, with lots of competitors. A basic utility service was unlikely to inspire loyalty or give rise to a community that would make people stick around.
And hosting images could get expensive if any of them became popular. Also, it would be hard to make a lot of money.
That all was true then — and it still is now — but the three-year-old image-hosting site Imgur has succeeded to become a profitable business with a growing community, one of the top 100 most-visited sites in the world, with a growth curve that’s making venture capitalists drool.
Imgur gets one billion image views per day, up 1,200 percent from a year ago. A typical visitor looks at 11 pages per session.
Imgur (pronounced “imager”) was started by Alan Schaaf when he was an Ohio University undergrad. It’s not a photography site. The images it hosts are a mix of photos that have been manipulated in Photoshop, drawings, screenshots and memes.
The only time Imgur has ever been in the red, Schaaf said, was the $7 he paid for its domain. Since then the site has cost all sorts of money, but it has stayed ahead through advertising, donations and pro accounts, and keeps itself running with the help of EdgeCast’s content delivery network.
That advertising is notably restrained: a maximum of one ad per page. And most page views show no ads. Imgur allows users to link to images directly, so when viewers show up on the hosting page they only see the picture itself, with no metadata or ads surrounding it. Because that feature is so popular, the site has the ability to monetize less than 10 percent of its page views, Schaaf estimates.
“We’re not complaining about that at all. We love that,” Schaaf said in an interview on Monday. “We like allowing things like that that make users happy.”
Schaaf said he thinks the key to Imgur’s success has been this sort of irrational attention to what people want at the expense of what’s good for him and the company. That, and Imgur’s symbiosis with the Reddit community.
Back in 2009, Schaaf was a computer science student and a Reddit user frustrated with the user experience around image hosting. Redditors who uploaded their images to sites like TinyPic, ImageShack and Photobucket would get cut off when they drove too much traffic. (And driving a lot of traffic on the vote-driven service was sort of the point.)
Schaaf announced his new tool with a post on Reddit: “My Gift to Reddit: I created an image hosting service that doesn’t suck. What do you think?”
It took off almost instantly, jumping from a thousand hits per day to a million total page views in the first five months.
Reddit continues to be Imgur’s top source of traffic, and Imgur has become Redditors’ preferred image host. The sites share similar demographics; their audiences are primarily in the United States.
One wrinkle of the Reddit community is that it’s unusually attentive to linking to source images and crediting original content. This can hurt Imgur, which like many user-generated content sites has copyright issues. For instance, Imgur is banned in the section of Reddit devoted to Web comics out of respect for artists who would prefer that Reddit link back to their own sites.
Of course, Schaaf thinks that’s great, too. He’s all for proper attribution and sourcing.
I asked him if there has ever been any sort of setback on this happy growth curve. Has Imgur ever gone through a user backlash? Schaaf said he can’t think of one — maybe when one of the site’s ad networks accidentally included units that automatically played sound. But those were quickly removed.
Imgur’s bare basics business model is plenty to support a staff of five, now based in San Francisco. The site has never been anything but bootstrapped. “We would take funding if we needed it, but we’re not strapped for cash,” Schaaf said.
The Imgur staff is doing more than just keeping the site up. They’re working to develop social tools like direct messaging and replies for the Imgur community, who call themselves “Imgurians.” (Though Schaaf is careful to say he doesn’t want to compete with Reddit — he wants Imgur to be a YouTube for images, continuing its informal alignment with Reddit.)
The company is also adding native mobile apps (20 percent of traffic is now mobile), some direct ad sales, commercial versions (Stack Exchange is a customer) and content creation tools.