What we can learn from Flickr

Paul Boag

Once we wrap our heads around the fact that we should be focusing on our content rather than our website it offers some interesting new opportunities.

This years dconstruct really inspired me especially the talk by Tom Coates. It challenged my perception that web design is all about the website. Instead, as website owners, we need to start thinking about what content we hold rather than the method by which it is delivered.

These days the web is becoming less about websites and more about content delivery in all of its various forms. Once we wrap our heads around the fact that we should be focusing on our content rather than our website it offers some interesting new opportunities. However, instead of talking in theoretical terms lets look at a real world example; the photo sharing site flickr.

Alternative delivery mechanisms

Flickr realized very early on that they were about photos, not running a website. Central to the Flickr philosophy is empowering users to share their photos. It doesn’t matter to Flickr how their users share their photos. What matters is that they are exposed to the biggest audience possible. By opening up their content via an API Flickr photos can be accessed through a huge variety of methods including (but not limited to)…

  • The Flickr website
  • Mobile devices
  • Desktop widgets
  • Digital WiFi photo frames
  • Third party desktop applications
  • Third party websites
  • Even printed material (such as moo cards)

In short, Flickr has let go of the concept of driving traffic to their website and focused on putting their content in front of as many people as possible.

You maybe asking yourself how this applies to your website. After all you are not flickr and don’t share photos. However, the principles can apply to most content types. Take for example the humble blog. A blog is made up of individual blog posts. Each of these are content items that could be delivered through almost all the mechanisms mentioned above (with the possible exception of digital photo frames). Equally you might be a university who holds a database of all of your courses. Again, why limit that data to your own website? It could just as easily be delivered to a much wider audience.

Amazon get this idea. They have had an API since the dawn of time and are more than happy to push their product lines out beyond the confines of their website. Of course by doing so they loose some level of control over their content but that is offset by the many more potential customers who are exposed to their products and their brand.

However it isn’t just Flickr’s API that should impress you. Its also how they navigate and organize their content.

Take a look at your average Flickr photo. It contains a lot more than the photo itself. Each photo has associated with a mass of additional information (known as meta data). Just some of the data held on a photo includes…

  • A title of the photo
  • A description of the photo
  • Comments on the photo
  • The photoset the photo belongs to
  • The user who uploaded the photo
  • Tags for the photo
  • Notes on the photo
  • The copyright restrictions
  • The longitude and latitude of the location where the photo was taken
  • The type of camera used to take the photo
  • Settings used when taking the photo

However, what is interesting is not the amount of data available about the photo, but the fact that it is possible to navigate by almost all of those criteria. You can search on title, description, tags and pretty much anything else. You can click to see the photos of a user who has commented or even see all of the photos that have a certain copyright restriction. You can view photos geographically via a map and even look at photos taken with a specific F stop!

This richness of navigation really helps when navigating a huge amount of data (such as the 1 billion photos in Flickr). It enables users to quickly and easily find what they are looking for as well as exposing them to content that perhaps they would have never previously found.

Again there is a lot that we can learn from this. In particular there are real benefits here for ecommerce sites. Building up rich meta data around products and allowing users to navigate via that, will expose them to many more products and allow them to narrow their search much quicker. For example on an ecommerce site users could choose to navigate via customer ratings or brand name as well as more traditional categories. With our blog example from earlier users could navigate posts by tag, author, or even number of comments. The possibilities are endless.

Of course, this approach is not without its risks. Without the kind of clean simple design implemented by Flickr users could quickly be overwhelmed by all of these options. However, it does not need to be that way and with some careful visual hierarchy a site can be both meta rich and easy to use.


The key to this approach is to start thinking beyond the page metaphor and to start looking at your content in terms of data types. Obviously this approach does not apply to all content types (for example I don’t envision pushing the about us page to third party applications) however most sites contains some form of key content to which these principles apply. The trick is identifying what they are.