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Picture search: how does an image finder search engine work?

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Now that we have modern picture-search technology, does that old adage still hold true? 

All indications are definitely. According to surveys by companies like Forbes: “91% of consumers prefer interactive and visual content over traditional, text-based or static media.” On the Web, as everywhere, one-dimensional text descriptions will never rate against majestic landscape photos or hilarious-pet snapshots. People are clamoring for pretty pictures of everything from nature to hot products, and their attachment to images and image-search technology is only growing. Mobile-device-toting young folks (like millennials and especially Generation Z), in particular, have become addicted to the joy of instantaneously locating cool or relevant images.

Those not yet tuned in to the advancements in image search can still simply enter a word or phrase to search. But the results are the same: you can pull up hundreds or thousands of pictures, with image retrieval subcategories for deep diving into every variation. You can even find out where an image originated on the Web.

“J-Lo green dress”

Only a couple of decades ago, the concept of image search, so ingrained today, was no more than a glint in Google’s eye. 

In 2001, a huge bunch of ravenous Jennifer Lopez fans were entering text queries in Google’s search box with the hope of laying eyes on a unique dress the singer had worn at the Grammys in 2000. Google execs noticed the frenzy, and the (green) lightbulb went on. They realized that they must immediately launch an image-focused version of their budding text-based search tool. 

The rest is history: now, anyone searching for photos of stars wearing jungle dresses or anything else has the luxury of using image-finder search engines to scour databases for just the right picture. The search-engine options range from big-name text search engines that also accommodate searching for images to image-only niche engines that “reverse search” (which we’ll talk about in a bit) to niche image-finding and -oriented apps.

And because people have been uploading images to the Web in droves for years now (300 million photos are uploaded to the Web every day), there’s no shortage (bazillions, to be exact) to choose from. Some photo libraries are continually updated with new content, while others are “complete” collections of images available for the searching, but in any case, the odds of finding the perfect image are nothing short of awesome. 

What’s an image search engine?

Let’s start with the basics: an image search engine is a search engine that lets you specifically look for and download images on the Web to use for any number of purposes, such as illustrating a blog post, livening up a home page, conveying a thousand words in an overly texty report, zeroing in on a fashion or home-decor item you want to buy. You can search in various ways: by typing in a keyword or phrase describing the image you want, or by choosing among image topics on menus; you can also paste in an image if you want to find similar ones.

How does an image search engine work?

An image search engine works like a text search engine does: it pulls up a bunch of images based on the keyword or image you provide.

How are image searches processed so that you can get your most relevant results? As when searching by text, an image search considers patterns and points you to web sites based on matches. 

A visual search is done using advanced algorithms. If you ask Google’s image search feature, for instance, to find something similar to the image you’re providing, it analyzes the image to collect details like color and texture, then creates a query to match with other (billions of) images for the best and most similar matches.

The text associated with an image, such as its file name, can also play a role in the image search and discovery process. A search engine confirms that an image is related to the keyword, which involves checking out the data on the web page on which it appears. In many cases, you can find an image based just on its file name and the context you want.

Depending on the broadness of the search query, an image search engine may also provide you with a cluster of images that have matching content, and you can then identify the specific context in order to drill down and find the exact right photo, drawing, painting, or other type of image that you need.

Types of image search engines

An image search engine is one subtype of search engine, and there are also various subtypes of image search engines. The main image search engine types include (and sometimes overlap):

General image search

This is what it sounds like: the big-name search engine you’d visit to start browsing for a straightforward, likely available in many variations, image, like that of a bouquet of flowers or a famous athlete. A general image search engine is likely to present you with a wide variety of options.

Stock image search

A stock image is one that’s been photographed (or created in some other way, such as illustrated), edited (possibly retouched), and then made available in a website database to be downloaded for corporate or personal use. Stock images are mostly copyrighted, but they can be licensed (you make royalty payments), royalty free (you pay a one-time fee), free, but with the requirement that you credit the photographer, or completely free (and possibly free to adapt for your own projects), without attribution required.

Reverse image search

If you have an image and want to locate others like it, or see who is using a photo you snapped or artwork you created (with or without your permission), or learn where an image originated on the Web, or do any number of other interesting-to-know things, reverse photo search is your friend. You just paste the image file in as the search query and get search results pointing you to the image’s origin or items related to it. Nifty, huh?

Impressive image engines

There are a large variety of image search engines that you can check out and decide to use based on your image needs and preferences and in terms of how you like to use features to search (e.g., browse through lots of pages of general categories or use filters to immediately be more specific).

Search engines aren’t typically rank ordered by reviewers, as they’re all slightly different and unique in terms of their offerings, interface functionality, approach toward fees or royalty freedom, and advantages. If you ask an amateur photographer, graphic designer, or web content creator, they’ll probably tell you that there’s no single “best” image search engine, then mention the one they prefer, and why.

That said, by conventional standards, there are some pretty clear front runners. Here are a few image search engines that are widely viewed as winners.

Google Images

No surprise here. Just like regular-old text-based Google, Google Images is the cream of the crop when it comes to finding a ton of photos and other types of images online: the hands-down-best image search experience with the most comprehensive collection of possibilities, plus the most outstanding ways (a powerful interface and loads of filters) to track them down. 

If you’re on a budget, you can sort your found image treasure according to usage rights. Google Images also has an advanced (via settings) option for helping you get specific. And it also provides great reverse search functionality. You can’t help but be in good hands with Google.


Want to skip over the front runner and give the competition a try? Visit Microsoft Bing’s image search engine, which houses the next largest database of images. Its pluses include a super colorful interface (whereas Google shows you just the search bar to start), large thumbnails, prominent filtering options, trending items, excellent video search functionality, and the ability to watch videos slightly more quickly, without being forced onto YouTube. 

Some people think that for various reasons, Bing Images is superior to Google Images. Of course you can’t Google an image on Bing, but if the search experience and image results are just as good or better, who cares?


Why would you want to use the image search tool on Yahoo instead of the one on Google or Bing? Well, Yahoo owns the photography sharing and networking site Flickr (more on that below), so its database is full of cool photographer-provided shots. And the graceful Yahoo interface lets you narrow your image search results using advanced filters for parameters such as type of license, file format, and size.


Photos by both amateur and professional photographers make Flickr, which boasts tens of billions of photos, an amazing visual experience to behold, not to mention use as a jumping off point for finding the right photos (some of which are royalty free). Since Flickr is a social-media type of site, you can “follow” photographers; it also has a staggering 2 million groups of users, which it values as “the connective force of our community, bringing members with common interests together.” This site could be “the One.”


Pinterest subscribers create “pins” — bookmarks for saving content — on this image-search site that bills itself as a “visual discovery engine for finding ideas like recipes, home and style inspiration….” One cool feature: you can crop and search on a portion of an image. If you’re the type of person who gets addicted to decorating and happy homemaking, Pinterest could easily become your addition (if it’s not already).

Stock photo search engines

Oriented toward the needs of businesses, stock photo sites supply pictures, many of which have themes that appeal across subjects, as an alternative to having a photographer do a custom photo shoot. Here are a few of the main stock-photo sites out there for the exploring:


One of the largest and best-known resources among graphic designers, marketing agencies, and other businesspeople, Shutterstock came up with the concept of buying a subscription in order to download stock photos. This site supplies not only royalty-free photos but videos and music.

Getty Images

Getty Images offers 350 million high-quality, archival, and sometimes exclusive images targeted to deep-pocketed commercial licensing. Its images are typically higher priced and have usage limitations (such as requiring an image be displayed only in a particular time frame). Some of its practices have been controversial.


If you’re not a corporate giant or you’re on a budget, then iStock, the Getty Images “microstock” subsite (royalty-free images), could be your happy photo place.

Reverse image search


Toronto-based TinEye’s claim to fame is that it was the very first reverse image search tool, as well as the first to use image identification techniques instead of keywords. This happened three years before Google added reverse search. TinEye also thinks its matching is superior to Google’s and that it wins at finding cropped and edited images. 

One bummer: the maximum size of an image you can upload to TinEye for reverse searching is only 20MB, which means you may have to go through the hassle of first saving a photo in a lower resolution. 

Google Reverse Image Search

Google is of course a major player in the subcategory of reverse image search. There’s no limit on the image size you can upload, which means you can quickly reverse search no matter how many megabytes you’re dealing with. 

Pinterest Lens

The reverse picture search feature on Pinterest, Lens, is handy for letting people snap photos of things they see out in the world (for instance, a fashionable piece of clothing on someone in a different country or striking home decor at a friend’s apartment) and then look for similar photos online. In 2020, Pinterest added a dedicated shopping tab to Lens, which links item images to companies’ ecommerce check-out pages.


Google has a “lens” feature too, an image-recognition app (downloadable from the iOS and Android stores). Google Lens does visual analysis and provides related information; it can translate text, identify animals, pull up similar images, and lots more.

There are also some apps dedicated to reverse searching, including Photo Sherlock, Reversee, Search By Image, and Veracity.

How to find free images

Some images cost big bucks to license, and while cash-flush companies will have no trouble paying high fees, if you’re just looking for something colorful to jazz up a dull blog post, it can be demoralizing to find the perfect image and then discover that it has a price tag, and you can’t (or don’t want) to pay the fee.

Fortunately, there are some image search engines dedicated to providing not just royalty-free images but actually free ones, some with no strings attached. For that, you can thank a nonprofit called Creative Commons (recently renamed Openverse), which is committed to fostering creativity and sharing on the Internet.

The Openverse interface permits searching of an impressive collection of images. Image reprint permissions range from narrow, with a requirement that the original source of an image be credited, to very liberal — being allowed to use and even adapt the artist’s work in new ways for your own creative projects without citing the source.

While you can also search for Openverse-licensed images on general sites, you may be able to zero in on a wider array on sites that specialize in royalty-free images, many of which don’t require fees. These include:


EveryPixel’s AI-powered search engine indexes what it finds on 50 image sites in a giant database that’s easily searchable using a variety of types of filters.


This organization’s multisite search engine mines public-domain-only (usable without attribution) photos from a number of other free stock photo sites and makes them all accessible from its interface. Unfortunately, Librestock provides fewer photos than other sites (roughly 5,400 at the time of this writing), but hey, how could you complain if they’re free?


This image site supplies searchers with more than 2.5 million high-quality images (including illustrations and vector graphics), along with videos, plus music.

Ecommerce image-search apps

Image search engines also include AI-powered apps used by online stores to help their customers more quickly find and buy desired items. When a shopper enters an image of something like a fashionable outfit, the search engine looks for an exact match and similar items (possibly from other brands, too). It may also make image suggestions based on what it knows about the customer’s preferences or items that are often purchased along with the target item.

This image-search technology is promising: according to Invesp, 74% of online shoppers believe text-based search is ineffective when it comes to finding the right product, and 72% say they “regularly or always search for visual content before making a purchase.”

And this strong consumer demand is backed up by statistics like this from Predictly: the forecast for the global visual search market is for almost $15 million by 2023. Plus, Gartner projected that companies adapting fast in 2021 and redesigning their websites to support visual search would increase their digital revenue by 30%.

Two examples of ecommerce-related image apps: 

  • added a visual search feature called StyleSnap in 2019. It lets shoppers look for fashion and home-decor items by using an AI-powered image (or screenshot) search. Among other things, this tool fuels influencers who love to use their iPhones or Android devices to post their fashion finds on social media. 
  • Site-search technology company Algolia provides a reverse image search app for ecommerce; a company can use a third-party API or platform to use images as search queries.

Other image-related applications

Some applications of image search technology don’t involve doing an image search or even using a search bar. For example, Algolia has an app that incorporates image search technology to quickly identify recipients of delivered packages so that the items can be expediently passed along. Optical character recognition (OCR) is used to extract the text from label images, but the resulting content may contain typos. Enter integrated search technology that takes images into account. A search engine that has robust, adaptable relevance can match OCR unstructured text against a structured set of data and return accurate results.

A beautiful big picture

There’s no question that image-search websites and applications have been taking the Internet by storm. For now, image search engines aren’t about to displace text-based engines, but they’re a strong and growing presence in the online search world. 

Consumers have seemingly limitless, excellent options for digging up the perfect photo or other visual element. Companies are busy optimizing for visual search in order to attract and retain customers. The corporate world is increasingly benefiting from the rollout of image-search technology. Things are looking good.

For more information about how Algolia can help you optimize your ecommerce site for image search, connect with our team today.

About the author
Catherine Dee

Search and Discovery writer


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