Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Search Engines

Phil Bradley casts his eye over image search engines.

I last looked at image search engines in my column [1] back in September 2000 , which in Internet terms is probably equivalent to several decades, so I decided that it was time to revisit the subject to see what has changed. Having recently become interested in photography, I know that I certainly use a lot of image search engines now that I didn't use then, but there are also one or two old faithfuls still out there. Consequently, I'm going to give an overview of different ways that you can find images, and my test subjects are 'Robert E Lee' (Confederate general in the American Civil War), because there are only a limited number of photographs of him and they're all very well known, so most engines should have a good collection of him; 'Tony Blair', as there are a huge number of photographs of him, and it's a collection that is constantly growing; 'flower' because you can't get much more generic than that; finally 'internet' because it's a nice abstract term for images of all types.

Search Engines

For many of us, a first port of call when looking for images is going to be traditional search engines. Most good search engines these days index images, and many will have a specific tag you can search under.


Google Image Search [2] styles itself as 'the most comprehensive image search on the web' which is a fairly confident statement. The interface, in case you haven't tried it, will be familiar and doesn't look any different to that found on their home page. There is an option for advanced search (which I'll come to later), a good help page and a preferences section with standard options such as language, safe search filtering, number of results per page and so on. My search for "Robert E Lee" resulted in 14,600 results and there were only 3 results on the first page that were not directly of him. Google also gives searchers the option of limiting searches by size - Large, Medium or Small. This is vaguely helpful, although if I was going to use an image I'd be able to resize it using a graphics package. It would however be useful if I was using other images though. Under each image is the filename, size (both pixel size and file size), and the site that hosts the image. Choosing an image creates a framed page, with a thumbnail of the image at the top, the hosting page underneath and the option of seeing the image full size without having to open the page up properly.

My search for the British Prime Minister resulted in 45,900 images. 3 images returned on the first page of 20 results were not on target, but several others would have been unusable, since they had cartoon speech bubbles. The term 'flower' gave me a whopping 2,640,000 results which wasn't unexpected and there was only one image in the first 20 that wasn't of a flower of some sort (it was a flower press, which I think is fair enough). The term 'internet' gave me 4,280,000 hits with, as I suspected, a huge variety of types of image - keyboards, charts, diagrams and a guy tearing his hair out (I know how he feels!).

All in all, I was happy with what I found at Google as far as relevance goes (I'm not overly bothered by the actual numbers themselves, particularly since I'm limiting my comments to the first page of results), but I did think it was disappointing that I couldn't narrow my search very much other than by size.


The Yahoo Image Search page [3] is exactly the same as the home page, which made me blink, since I was expecting perhaps slightly different treatment for a different type of search. However, that's my expectation, rather than anything to do with Yahoo! although annoyingly I wasn't presented with a different URL, which means that it's difficult to link to directly - I should in fairness point out that they do have a specific page [4] but it's not clear when looking at their home page. Advanced search functionality was better than that provided by Google, since I could limit my search to size (wallpaper, large medium or small, giving a further option to those offered by Google), by colour (colour, black or white or either) and importantly by type of site, such as .com, .edu or .gov. Now, I could actually do this in Google using the site: syntax, but equally I knew how to do that anyway, so a prompt by Google would be helpful for people who were unaware of the option.

My 'Robert E Lee' search gave 12,000 results, all but one of the first 20 being on target. Moreover, I was prompted by Yahoo! to narrow my search with different terms, by size or colour. The display options followed the same pattern as offered by Google.

'Tony Blair' gave me 32,254 and all but one were appropriate. However, what was interesting was that almost all of the them were 'sensible' images rather than some of the silly ones that Google provided. This is I think an important point - there's no point in getting thousands of results if they're not really on target, so relevance is in many ways more important with images than with webpages.

The term 'flower' gave 1,896,188 results and again, only one of the first 20 was not relevant (a flower girl at a wedding). Moreover, all the images were obviously of flowers, without some of the slightly abstract representations Google gave me.

The term 'internet' served up 6,481,220 images (a lot more than Google), and they were a mixture of cartoons, diagrams, photographs of keyboards and so on. Obviously it's a personal call regarding the question of relevance, but once more, Yahoo! did out perform Google, at least as far as I was concerned.

Consequently, while Google may well style itself as comprehensive, while in most of the searches it outperformed its rival, I did not feel the actual images returned were as appropriate as those found by Yahoo!

MSN Search

I next looked at the Microsoft offering [5]. Search options were limited, and I didn't find that they were particularly helpful. My Confederate general search gave me a very meagre 185 results, but they were all (with one exception) right on target. Once I'd run the search I also had the opportunity of limiting by three sizes and colour or black and white. Disappointingly however, many of the images were exactly the same, just found on different sites, so I had less choice of image in the first page than I did with the previous two engines.

The Prime Minister also didn't fare terribly well either, only having 7,661 images to his name. Most were again on topic, but subjectively were less useful than those I obtained at Yahoo!

My flowers search gave me 578,619 results and several of these were clearly from commercial sites using flowers as a logo, and I wasn't impressed at all. My final search for 'internet' gave 237,607 results, most of which were graphs or diagrams. All in all, a very disappointing set of results.

General Search Engine Results

Overall, the clear 'winner' to bring it down to very base terms was Yahoo! It's true to say that in most instances they didn't have as many images available as their major competitor, but in all cases I felt they were much more relevant. The main surprise for me was just how poorly Microsoft did; a small number of results and not particularly useful ones either.

As I mentioned earlier, all the major search engines do have image search capability, and I could have written my entire article just on those. However, I wanted to expand beyond these offerings to see if image specific engines would fare any better.

Image Search Engines

These have proliferated in the last year or so, and it's almost impossible to navigate around the Internet without bumping into them; I have a dozen that I'll use on a regular basis. However, due to time and space considerations I'll limit myself to just a couple.

The Devilfinder Image Browser

Devilfinder [6] came to my attention a few months ago and I've been using it quite a lot. Options are limited to safe search, number of images displayed in one go and viewing results in a new window; no advanced search functionality there! Images are displayed full size, which leads to slow loading of pages, even on a fast broadband connection. Devilfinder does provide an option to email the image to a friend, and to see a link to both the image link and the hosting site, which is not, I feel, particularly helpful. It does however offer a link to any videos of the subject of the search, which I did find helpful. All the results were on topic with my Lee search, although there were far more drawings than photographs. Unfortunately the engine doesn't tell you how many images it has found though. I was also slightly put off by the number of adverts on the page; they really clutter it up and reduce loading time even more.

The Tony Blair search worked well and did give me an excellent set of results with which I was very happy. Similarly, the flowers search worked well, but initially I didn't think that I had any results at all, as I could see the advertising, but no images. The reason for this was that the first flower image was very large and was placed below the adverts. However, they were all absolutely relevant; all pictures of flowers. DevilFinder also performed well with the abstract 'internet' as well, it pulled up the by now familiar mix of graphs, diagrams and computer images.

Overall, I thought the engine did provide good results, the main disadvantages being that it showed the images in full size and didn't give me any opportunities to narrow the search in the same way that the other engines did. However, it was also terribly slow, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone without a good broadband connection.


Cydral [7] is an engine I have only recently discovered. It had no options on the main search screen other than a family filter, and no help either, which always irritates me. The 'Robert E Lee' search returned a poor 41 images, and several of those were not on topic either. As with most of the other search engines, it did provide both pixel and file size. Confusingly, clicking on the image doesn't work; it's necessary to click on the 'info' button. However, one feature that Cydral does have is the ability to sort your results in terms of similarity. This worked extremely well, so much so that the first three images returned using this facility were exactly the same. Unfortunately it doesn't appear possible to define 'similarity', since I could have wanted pictures of the General returned ordered by photograph, drawing, black and white or colour. However, it's still an extremely useful feature and very helpful, particularly if you are dealing with a lot of images. A final helpful function was a link to a Web search which returned a goodly number of different search suggestions.

The Blair search gave me 362 images, most of which were relevant (though I'm not sure how the Aztec temple image crept in), but most of them were fairly informal photographs - I wouldn't have been able to use any of them on an official biography page for example.

My flowers search was less impressive though. I obtained 5,863 images, and while most of them were what I was expecting I did for the first time get an image that was vaguely pornographic. It's worth pointing out that I ran all the searches on all engines with the family filter turned off, and this was the first time that I got an less than wholesome image.

The search for my abstract term 'internet' was quite frankly awful. Of the 14,440 images most of the early ones were of a roleplay game and there was nothing on the first page that would have been useful if I'd been doing any sort of research.

In many ways, Cydral was a disappointment; it didn't provide a great many images, and the relevance was spotty at best. However, it is worth persevering with, if for no other reason than its ability to resort results by similarity. Having found at least one good image in a search this option did bring me back others further down in the rankings that were exactly the kind of images that I was expecting. It's an extremely interesting function and one that I expect the other major search engines will include before too long.

Other Useful Resources

It would be invidious not to mention a few other resources that the searcher desperate for images should consider using. I've only had time to scratch the surface of the subject here, but there were some other sites that I did want to mention, albeit briefly.


Flickr [8] is a user-driven site, where individuals can upload their own photographs. These can be collated into their own sets, or added to group pools of images related to a certain subject. Users can also 'tag' photographs in their own amateur classification/thesaurus/catalogue approach. Inevitably, because these are personal photographs you will get a lot of hits that are way off the mark, and I found this with all the searches that I ran (photographs tagged with 'Tony Blair' were almost always photographs of people protesting against him or his policies), but my flower search gave me some of the best photographs of all.

Fagan Image Search Engines

Michael Fagan has put together an excellent collection of image search engines [9] , covering a wide variety of subject areas - regional, historical, meta search engines, clip art, educational and so on. If you cannot find the images you are looking for from any other major search engines, it's always worth trying out some of the ones in his collection; if you still can't find it, then it probably doesn't exist!


The Technical Advisory Service for Images (TASI) based in the UK has a good overview [10] of some of the major (and a few minor) search engines. It is another good starting point if you are looking to expand your knowledge and understanding of image search engines.

Image Search Engines from My Previous Ariadne Article

I also decided to take a quick look to see if the search engines that I mentioned in my previous article [1] were still in existence. The AltaVista Image Search [11] function is still available, and for a search engine generally ignored these days. it did have a wide variety of search options. While not in quite the same numerical league as Google or Yahoo! I was very pleased with the results that it gave me. Another name from the past, Lycos Image Search [12] also performed quite well although the search options and results were fairly unremarkable. The meta search engine Ixquick [13] was wholly unremarkable, pulling in a lot of material that was either not relevant or only tangentially so. The Berkeley Digital Library Image Finder [14] is still in existence and provides access to a number of specialised search engines, and the Stock Photography site [15] is also up and running, providing the same service of identifying images that can be purchased as well as royalty free images.


If you are in a hurry, and you only have time to use one resource to find images I would have to say that in my experience, the Yahoo! Image Finder [3] is the best one to use. Yes, it doesn't have the same number of images that Google has, but the relevance (which I fully accept is very subjective) was far superior, at least for me on the searches that I ran. If you have a little more time available it would be worth trying out Cydral [7], and accept that you're going to have to re-sort your results to get close to what you're after.

Overall however, I was disappointed with the search capabilities of the engines that I looked at, since I was hopeful of a wide range of search criteria that I could use, but this didn't seem to be the case. It's clearly an area that is waiting for a company to 'do a Google' and take image searching seriously. I hope that when I revisit this area again in another couple of years we'll have just that.


  1. Bradley, P "Finding Images on the Internet" Ariadne 25, September 2000 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue25/search-engines/
  2. Google Image Search http://images.google.com/
  3. Yahoo! Image Search http://www.yahoo.com/
  4. Yahoo! Dedicated image search page http://search.yahoo.com/images?&ei=UTF-8&p=
  5. MSN Image Search http://search.msn.com/images/results.aspx?FORM=IRHP&q=
  6. Devilfinder Image Browser http://images.devilfinder.com/
  7. Cydral Image Search http://en.cydral.com/
  8. Flickr http://www.flickr.com/
  9. Image Search Engines http://www.faganfinder.com/img/
  10. TASI http://www.tasi.ac.uk/resources/searchengines.html
  11. AltaVista Image Search http://www.altavista.com/image/default
  12. Lycos Image Search http://www.lycos.com/
  13. Ixquick meta search engine http://www.eu.ixquick.com/
  14. Berkeley Image Finder http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/ImageFinder/
  15. Stock Photography site http://www.1stopstock.com/

Author Details

Phil Bradley
Internet consultant

Email: philb@philb.com
Web site: http://www.philb.com

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