How did an image host that brought us Sad Keanu become one of the biggest sites on the web?
You probably saw it last month: A photo of President Obama stepping off a plane, wearing his usual suit, black shades and a big, sh*t-eating grin. He’s pointing at something or someone; we just don’t know what or who. But in typical meme fashion, the version of the photo you likely saw had bold, white letters overlaid on top of it: “Sorry it took so long for you to get my birth certificate,” it says. “I was too busy killing Osama bin Laden.”
The photo probably found your eyeballs through a website called Imgur (pronounced “imager”), a two-year old photo sharing service that’s become one of the Internet’s most magnetic timesucks – and therefore, one of its largest websites.
In the past month alone, Imgur had over 6 million photos uploaded to it, accounting for 5 billion image views while commanding a hefty 700 terabytes of bandwidth. In the U.S., it has an Alexa web rank of 43 overall, easily beating out more famous establishments like eHow, Groupon and the Wall Street Journal.
The site’s massive, if unlikely, success makes its humble beginnings all the more incredible. Imgur was created in the dorm room of then-Ohio University junior Alan Schaaf, who first intended the service for use on Reddit when he launched it in February ’09. His total start up cost? Seven dollars for the domain name (he already had hosting on his personal site).
“People would post images from sites like Photobucket and ImageShack,” he says referring to Reddit, the popular link sharing community where he operated under the username MrGrim. “The problem that people were having was that when the image reached the front page, it would receive a couple hundred thousand views, causing the image host to take it down for using too much bandwidth.”
Enter Imgur, whose original iteration stressed function over form. In other words: no tags, no titles or descriptions, and no log ins. Just a simple, user-friendly upload box for posting your pictures.
“It was just a project that I was working on outside of class,” says Schaaf. “It was never supposed to be anything big.”
With page views in the billions, though, big is an incredible understatement.
Perhaps Imgur’s phenomenal growth can perhaps best be seen as a testament to the power of social communities on the web. Other than an initial posting on Reddit, Schaaf did little to promote his new site, which inadvertently taps into a philosophy shared by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (which I’m paraphrasing loosely): If it’s not a good product, all the marketing in the world wouldn’t do a thing to sell it.
“People started sending me donations because they liked it,” says Schaaf. “It was at that point that I realized I might really be onto something.”
His business partner and COO Matt Strader offers a more pragmatic take. “It was a genuine solution to a problem,” he says, who alongside Alan accounts for Imgur’s full-time staff (the rest are interns who work remotely). “That’s one of the big realizations [we had] about Imgur. There are 1,001 places that you can upload images. [Reddit] was a big deal for us because it’s such a close knit community that loves to share.”
But other than its simplicity – a less-is-more ethos so ingrained in the site’s DNA that it comes across in everything it does – what really separates Imgur from other photo services, like Flickr?
“I like to call Imgur a YouTube for images,” says Schaaf, referring to Imgur’s meme-heavy nature. “You go to YouTube to waste 15 minutes and look at videos. With Imgur, it’s like instant gratification.”
The claim is most evident in the site’s Gallery section, which organizes the day’s uploads into large, easy-to-navigate thumbnails. “You don’t have to spend five or ten minutes watching a video,” he says. “You can spend one minute and see 10 or 12 images.”
Naturally, when a site grows as quick as Imgur has, the question that inevitably comes up is this: How will it make enough money to survive?
“Advertising’s our primary revenue,” says Strader. “Our Pro Accounts [free of ads with unlimited uploads] have done really well. We’re also looking for interesting things we can do outside of that.”
However, the site’s been criticized by some of its endemic Reddit base for resorting to ads, while others understand it as a necessary evil that allow the service to continue operating.
Schaaf, however, is optimistic about Imgur’s future. “We’re going in the direction of becoming more of an entertainment source,” he says – a sentiment echoed wholeheartedly by his COO.
“One of the big advantages that Imgur has is all the fantastic content,” adds Strader. “We just recognize that it’s stuff a lot of people would enjoy – people from Reddit, from all over the Internet. I mean, who wouldn’t take a look at at Imgur’s content and get a kick out of it?”
A picture can be worth a thousand words, but in the online battle for user attention, sometimes a few clicks (and a few muted giggles) can be good enough.
(See Alan’s favorite Imgur photos from 2010 here. Number 5 is incredible.)
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