Whether you are a beginner or a pro at online searches, everyone has encountered the challenge of finding the right image or product using keywords. There are many reasons a search will fail to find what you are looking for, some of which are in your control, others that are not. Below are some tips for improving your image search results, but to really understand how to search effectively, you first need to understand how a search engine finds and ranks information.
Search engines like Google keep an index, or record, of billions of web pages, and rank those pages to determine what to show you when you enter your search terms. A lot of factors impact how each page ranks, including how often keywords are repeated on the page, how many other internet sites have links to that page, and how often users visit the page itself. All this is done in seconds, using a highly complex algorithm, which is essentially a computer program that considers these and other factors each time you run a search. Google’s algorithm is so thorough that it even knows to reduce a page’s rank when someone purposely overuses a specific word to try to trick the search engine.
So if Google is so brilliant, why do I get posters of women bobbing for apples when I search for “vintage apple pin”?
There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which are out of my control. In this case, the photos of women are vintage pin up-girl posters that happen to include apples. It seems that “vintage pin up girl” is a popular search term, as is “Apple.” If you click on any of the images on the first page, you’ll find they all have the words, “apple,” “vintage,” and “pin.” Google found me popular pages containing all my keywords, but didn’t find what I actually need.
There are also millions of pages that have exactly what I am are looking for, but don’t have matching keywords on the page. Without the keywords, Google doesn’t associate the image with similar results. For example, someone posts a beautiful picture of an apple tree on their website, but titles it, “A day in the country.” Google doesn’t know there is an apple tree on the page, so it doesn’t show the picture in the search results (keep reading for a simple trick to finding those otherwise inaccessible images).
The good news is that there is a lot you can do to control what turns up when you search.
Choose Your Words Carefully
In my apple pin example above, I was really looking for a piece of jewelry that looks like an apple. Adding “jewelry” to my search eliminated the pin-up girls, but it also eliminated any page that didn’t have the word “jewelry” on it.
Maximize your results by running the same search with and without extra keywords. The more words, the more specific your results.
Use Specific Keywords and Only Keywords
Remember Google is trying to find pages relevant to the words you enter. If you want any type of image (including drawings, paintings, etc.), don’t use the word, “picture.” Google also ignores common words (known as stop-words) it thinks are not specific to your search. Instead of typing, “A picture of a man riding an elephant in India.” enter, “man riding elephant india.” Skip the punctuation and don’t worry about capitalization.
When to Use Quotation Marks
Quotation marks tell Google to search for an exact match. This can be helpful when you are looking for something very specific. For example, a search containing starry, night and van gogh, produced many different images including other artists’ versions of Starry Night, different paintings with starry night in their titles and quotes from Van Gogh.
However, if I search, “starry night by vincent van gogh,” my results are limited to pages using that specific phrase. Remember to try your search with and without quotations and different keywords.
Eliminating Unwanted Results
Sometimes an odd or irrelevant item will consistently show up in your search results. You can easily eliminate it by typing the keyword associated with the unwanted item with a “-“ in front of it. Let’s say I was looking through my search results for the vintage apple pin but kept finding pins with both an apple and a worm. By typing the words vintage, apple, pin, jewelry and -worm, I eliminate any images with pages that include the word “worm.”
Note that this level of specificity could also eliminate desirable results. If there was a page full of pictures of apple pins, some with and some without worms, using “-worm” in the search would eliminate the entire page, which prevents me from seeing some results that I do want.
Using Google’s “Reverse Image Search”
Google has been experimenting with matching images with similar images for some time. In the past I found the results to be somewhat poor, but I recently revisited the tool and found the algorithm has improved dramatically. While not perfect, it can be helpful when you aren’t sure what something is called, or when you’re just not finding many results. It also locates those images that were missed because the person who created the page didn’t include relevant keywords (remember the apple tree). To use Reverse Image Search simply find one image that is at least close to what you need. Click and drag the image to the top of the page and let go where it says “drop images here.”
Scroll down the page and click on, “Visually similar images.” Experiment with a variety of images to get a good feel for the tool.
With information increasing exponentially, ongoing changes to algorithms and sites organizing content in new and different ways, there are no perfect search results, but using these tips can help you find the products and images you need faster and with less frustration.