Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Search Engines: Finding Images on the Internet

Phil Bradley offers his latest look at the search engine marketplace.

In one of my earlier columns I looked at the different ways in which it was possible to find information about individuals on the Internet. I thought that for this issue I'd revisit the concept of finding a particular type of information, but instead of looking for people, I'd look for images instead. When I refer to 'images' here, I'm not really talking about small icons, coloured balls or page dividers that web designers like to use on their websites; there are thousands of such libraries available for this purpose, and they can easily be located - simply go to one of the many Yahoo! categories and take your pick. Perhaps a good place to start would be their section on Arts>Design Arts>Graphic Design>Web page design and layout [1] and take a peep into some of the sites listed; I'm sure you'll find more images, icons, buttons, balls and arrows than you could use in a lifetime of designing pages!
When talking of images in this article, I'm referring rather more to photographs, and to photographic libraries and resources instead.

Semi-legal disclaimer

As the Internet acrynym goes - IANAL, which is the shorthand version of 'I am not a lawyer'. I probably don't need to say the next bit, but I suppose I should - when someone creates an image, or takes a photograph and makes it available on the Internet (or indeed anywhere else), they or their organisation will own the copyright on that particular image. Just because you see an image on a web page it doesn't mean that you can simply copy it and use it on your own page, or in any other document you create since that will most likely breach copyright. So, if you're in any doubt about using an image, it makes sense to email the web page author or company first and ask for permission.

Types of images you'll find

Having got that out of the way, let's now turn to the types of images that you can find on the 'net. There are essentially two different types of image .gif or .jpg. There are a small number of other file types that are slowly becoming more popular, but I'd be prepared to say that 99% of all the images you find will be in one or other of these formats. Photographs are generally to be found as .jpg images, while icons and cartoon type pictures with lots of block colour will be found as .gif images. For the most part, you can ignore this, although it may be important if you want a specific type of image for use on a web page as an icon. You'll probably find it helpful to focus your search on .gif images in that case. Alternatively, if you're looking for photographs they will most likely be found as .jpg images. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, so while limiting to a particular file type may give you a smaller number of hits, you may be excluding other images that would work perfectly well for whatever your purposes happen to be.

Using standard search engines to find images


There are two methods of finding images at Altavista [2]; the first is to use the switch 'image:' to locate any images that have a specific name. Consequently, if you are searching for images of the ship the Titanic, you could run a search like this - image:titanic and that will return hits of web pages that include any images called 'titanic' on them. You could focus your search a little more closely by doing a search for image:titanic.jpg to try and retrieve mainly photographs. The problem here of course is that there is no saying that an image called 'titanic' is going to be of the ship - it might be a still from the film, or indeed anything that the web author thinks deserves the name titanic. Indeed, when I tried this search myself, the first hit that AltaVista displayed was of a very simple homepage from someone who had put an advertising link into the film site, which would have been of little value to most people.
Consequently, you will probably want to use the image; switch in conjunction with some other search terms. In this example, I would probably try and narrow my search down to something more specific by doing a search on AltaVista such as: image:titanic ship iceburg "maiden voyage" which should go a long way to excluding references to other types of 'titanic'.
The second way of searching for images at AltaVista is to use their picture finder. This is a specialised search engine which looks for images on web pages, and is a reasonably useful search engine. You can find this by looking at the left hand side of their opening page for 'Multimedia search' and the option 'Images'. (Please note that this is the way you can find this link at the time of writing, but since AltaVista changes its interface so often this may well have changed by the time you read this article!)
At this point I would caution you to consider using the filtered version of this image finder - you might be amazed at the number of undesirable images that it is possible to unearth with even the most innocent of words! You can locate this filter by looking at the top of the search box for the words 'Family Filter' and it will be either off or on. You can also choose to search the Web for images or AltaVistas partner site the Corbis Collection.
The interface is simple and straightforward to use, and you have the choice of looking for photos, graphics, colour or black and white images. (If you require moving images, AltaVista provides another open under 'Multimedia search'.) Once AltaVista has returned the hits to you, it's simply a case of paging through them until you find the one that is suitable for your purposes. If you chose to search the web, by clicking on the image you will be taken to the website that contains that particular image, while if you chose the Corbis Collection database to search in you'll be taken to a new screen with the image, together with information about it, and the option of sending the image to a friend, printing it, or licensing it for professional use.


I found HotBot [3] rather irritating when it came to searching for images. One of its options is to run a search and tick the option 'Pages must contain' and one of the options given is 'images'. However, this doesn't allow you to search for images called 'titanic', simply to find web pages that contain the term, and which have images on them! This is pretty nonsensical in my opinion, since most pages have images on them anyway, so it doesn't really add very much to the search.


The Lycos search engine [4] was much more helpful. The main page includes an option to run a multimedia search, with options for All, pictures, audio, video and parental settings. Once you have found your image you can click on it, but rather than being taken to the appropriate webpage as with AltaVista, a larger version of the image is displayed for you, with a 'view images' watermark embedded in it. I found this rather irritating, since I couldn't find very much more information about the particular image, and was only given options to view next/previous, or to puchase the print. However, further investigation showed that with some images you could actually go directly to the website that contains the image, but it does seem to be a rather hit and miss approach.


As well as various categories for images as previously described, Yahoo! has an image finder, although it's perhaps not immediately apparent. You can find it by looking at the top of the opening Yahoo! screen and run your eye along the line starting 'Personal' until you get to 'Photos' [5]. This option is mainly used by people who have registered with Yahoo! and allows you to add photographs to any Yahoo! communities you belong to, but there is also a link to the Corbis Collection, and by clicking on this link you can run searches to find images in that collection.


Readers who remember back to Issue 23 will recall how much I rave about this particular multi search engine, and I was pleased to see it come up trumps for me yet again. The opening page at Ixquick [6] gives people the option of searching for pictures, rather than web pages, and it then runs a search across the different search engines it uses, then displays the image along with details about the web page that contains that particular image.

Other standard search engines

I spent some time wandering around other search engines and in general I have to say that I was very disappointed with what I found. Many of the engines didn't have any option for searching for images at all, while others simply linked back to other search engines they partner with. I think it's really an area that the majority of them could do an awful lot better in, to be honest.

Image specific search engines


This site [7] gives access to 11 different commercial image providers, and their databases can be accessed through the Stopstock front end. You can search through either one database, or multiple databases, which overcomes a problem that the engine used to have. However, when I chose to search using the multiple option I was horrified to see the engine spawn 5 extra versions of my browser, rather than combining all the results into one page. I can understand why it works this way, but nonetheless, it's irritating and a bit worrying the first time it happens!

The Amazing Picture Machine

I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it 'amazing' myself, but the search engine [8] is simple, quick and easy to use. I suspect that their database is on the small size, since my search for 'titanic' only came up with two images, but they were both on-topic. After the search has been run you are provided with a summary of the results, and you can then choose to click on one in order to view the image. This is a nice touch, since it speeds up the whole process and if your search yields a great many results it's a quick and easy way of browsing through them, without having to wait for all the images to load.

The Sunsite ImageFinder

This is a collection [9] of thirteen individual image search engines which between them provide you with access to perhaps the biggest total collection of images on the Internet. There tends to be a bias towards America, such as images on Californian history, the American Memory and the Smithsonian, but it should also be noted that there are also large collections of Architectural images, 13,000 images from the Australian National Library and a link to the NASA images library server.


My explorations of the Internet this issue were not extensive, only taking a few hours, and I suspect that I could have spent twice as long, if not more so, but I think that using some of the sites mentioned above will give you a pretty good chance of finding the image or images that you need to find. Inevitably the whole process is something of a hit and miss affair since most engines rely on either the name of the image or the text surrounding it for example, and this will result in false drops much more often than when doing searches for web pages.
I was disappointed that so many engines had very little on images, or no options at all to search for them, but since I'm quite cynical about search engines generally, it came as little surprise to me. I certainly think that it's an area that requires a lot of work before we can jump onto the Internet and find the image(s) that we need without doing considerable work on it.


1. Yahoo!
<URL: http://dir.yahoo.com/Arts/Design_Arts/Graphic_Design/Web_Page_Design_and_Layout/>
2. AltaVista
<URL: http://www.altavista.com>
3. Hotbot
<URL: http://www.hotbot.com>
4. Lycos
<URL: http://www.lycos.com>
5. Yahoo! Photos
<URL: http://photos.yahoo.com/>
6. Ixquick
<URL: http://www.ixquick.com>
<URL: http://www.1stopstock.com/>
8The Amazing Picture Machine
<URL: http://www.ncrtec.org/picture.htm>
9The Sunsite ImageFinder
<URL: http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/ImageFinder/>

Author Details


Phil Bradley
5 Walton Gardens, Feltham, Middlesex.
Email: philb@philb.com

Phil Bradley is an Independent Internet Consultant.