Finding the perfect image to feature on your website, blog post or marketing email can be crucial to grabbing the audience’s attention, livening up a page, or illustrating a point. (And if you optimize it properly, it can also be beneficial to your SEO). To do that, you of course need a good image search engine.
The web has plenty of different options for image search, from general search engines with an image search function to dedicated search engines for browsing and indexing images.
We can look at a picture, and in 13 milliseconds or less, know exactly what we’re seeing. Human beings process visuals faster than they do text, and in the last decade, the number of images uploaded on the internet has exploded.
The web has plenty of different options for image search, from general search engines with an image search function to dedicated search engines for browsing and indexing images. But which offer the best experience?
In this post, we’re going to compare the best search engines for conducting three categories of image search on the web.
General image search
Ever searched for [word + image] on the web? This is the basic type of image search people do on the internet and it comes in handy for day-to-day searches.
The top search engines for performing general searches are as follows:
images.Google.com remains the go-to source for information, not only because of its large database but simply because its interface is one of the best. You can use several filters for your searches and also search for images by voice.
Using its advanced search options, you can filter images by size, color, type of image (photo, clip art, usage rights, etc) and you can also search for images on a specific site. For example, you could search for images of a PC solely from makeuseof.com or pcmag.com.
To get to the advanced search options, first click on Images at the top of the page, then click on Tools and a row of dropdown options will appear.
Images appear as thumbnails and don’t enlarge on hover, but you can no longer click through to the big image. You must visit the website it is on and search around for it to see the larger image, if there is one.
Bing is Google’s top contender when it comes to search, and image search is no different. Where Google’s interface can appear bland to some people, Bing’s interface is rich and colorful. Image search may be one of those things that Bing does better than Google.
Probably one of the most well-known advantages of Bing is the image search offers sharper and higher quality images in the results page.
Bing was also the first to introduce the ‘infinite scroll’ to evade the need to painfully click through the various pages of image results. Google has since caught onto this ingenious function so Bing no longer has the advantage here.
However, Bing does still maintain the advantage when it comes to filters. Unlike in Google, you can search for different image layouts – tall, wide or square. Aside from this functionality, Google generally has most of the same filter options that Bing has, although you have to dig a little deeper to find them on the Google Image Search.
One noticeable example is the licensing information of images – most people probably don’t even know that Google offers this data because the filter is pretty hidden. On Bing it is wonderfully obvious.
The only downside of Bing image search is that it does not yet offer .GIF images in the results pages. You’ll have to resort to Google for those. A minor point though and one that I hardly think will be a deal breaker for most people. In most instances, I prefer .jpg files anyway, because they load faster.
Google owns YouTube, so how could Bing’s video search possibly be superior? It’s all in the display, and Bing has really nailed it with their video search results. Presented as a grid of thumbnails, users can watch videos without even leaving the SERPs.
Hover your mouse over the thumbnail for a handy preview and view a higher number of videos without the need for scrolling. Let’s be honest, we are inherently lazy when it comes to internet usage, so we’ll take any time reductions on internet browsing.
You heard right, Bing gives you free stuff for using Bing. Akin to a loyalty card in your local cafe, Bing offers a similar reward scheme using a points system. Sure it’s not a technical reason to use Bing, but there’s nothing like a bit of bribery to win people over!
Called Microsoft Rewards, it works by awarding you points every time you search. These points can be redeemed at a whole variety of outlets, from Starbucks to Amazon and everything in between. You don’t get a huge amount of points for a single search, but it all adds up. And let’s face it, you are essentially earning money from something you’d already be doing.
The only real drawback to Bing’s image search is that you can’t search for images by voice.
Admittedly, it’s a tougher call than we thought between the two search engines. Google is still my preferred search engine for articles, but Bing certainly has its merits, and ultimately it’s about personal preferences. If you’re big on image and video search then you may want to consider a switch to Bing, at least for those things, (also if you like free stuff).
Yahoo image search
Though Yahoo might seem a bit passé to many of our readers, for image search, Yahoo Image Search is genuinely one of the best options. Its ownership of image-sharing site Flickr comes in really handy here, as photos from Flickr are integrated in image search results, making it a go-to source for custom, user-generated images. Flickr users also have the option to simply save images from their searches to their Flickr account.
The Yahoo search interface is also sleek and straight to the point. Like the Bing interface, all image filters are available on the search results page, so users can set their preferences easily to fine-tune the results.
Reverse image search
Ever found a picture of a strange animal or building and wanted to learn more about it? That’s where reverse image search comes in. Although this search method is relatively new, it has increasingly become popular. And it comes in really handy for webmasters and content creators to find the source of the image to inquire about user rights.
Here are some of the benefits of reverse image search:
- Verifying the source of an image. With reverse image search, you can trace the original source of an image and how the image has changed over time. It is particularly effective for authenticating people profiles, news stories, and images of events.
- Tracking copyrighted images. Photographers and content creators (e.g. of infographics) can use reverse image search to learn how their content is used on the internet. If you create your own images, this can help you keep track of who is using your images without attribution or licensing.
- Finding similar images. Reverse searching images can help you find better shots or options for an image.
Now that you know the benefits of reverse image search, here are three of the best search engines for getting the job done:
TinEye Reverse Image Search
Tineye.com is the pioneer when it comes to a reverse image search engine. The service was launched in 2008, three years before Google included an option for reverse search.
Users can either upload an image to the site or provide the image’s URL and the site finds similar images from its over 24 billion image repository. File sizes are limited to 20MB, and the image has to be in JPG, PNG or GIF formats. Users can sort their results by best match, most changed, biggest image, and so on.
TinEye comes in a free and premium version. With the free version, users can perform a maximum of 150 searches per month. For more advanced features, you have to pay for the premium version at a cost of $200/year.
Google reverse image search
Google is another leader in reverse image search, which was launched as a feature in June 2011. Unlike Tineye, there is no limit to the size of images that can be uploaded to Google.
Chrome users can simply right click on an image anywhere within Chrome and select “search the web for this image”. The search returns a “best guess for this image” description, as well as pages that include matching images.
Pinterest visual search tool
The Pinterest visual search tool is free, but you need a Pinterest account to use it, which is also free. With this tool, users can crop a specific area of an image to search for instead of searching for the entire image. The feature was announced in November 2015 and is perfect for heavy Pinterest users.
Am I free to use all images I find using an image search engine?
Most of the images from the categories above are normally subject to copyright, and you can’t simply pluck the image and use it on your own blog or website.
So what if you run a blog and are looking for free images for your website?
There’s a third category of image search engines that only search for free photos on the web. These photos are licensed under creative commons and are pulled in from several stock photo sites.
It is important to note that the big search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo also allow users to search for free images via their “license” filter. By setting the license to Creative Commons, you can find free images on all three search sites.
Here are some other useful search engines for finding Creative Commons licensed images:
EveryPixel indexes 51 paid and free stock image sites including Shutterstock, Pixabay, Unsplash and lots of others. Searchers can filter images by source, orientation, color and image type.
Librestock allows you to “search the best 47 free stock photo websites in one place.” Unlike the first two sites, Librestock indexes only images licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0), i.e. public domain images, which means you can use the photos freely without attribution for any legal purpose.
The downside is that there aren’t many pictures available, and there are no filters.
Creative Commons (CC) Search
CC Search is not a search engine in its own right, as is clearly stated on the site, but rather an interface that allows users to search several free photo sites without leaving the CC search page.
Image sources include Flickr, Pixabay, Google Images and Wikimedia Commons. The site also includes options for finding media such as sound and video.
Public Domain Photos
The term “public domain” refers to creative materials such as photography and works of art that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copyright, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it.
The length of copyrights varies from country to country. In the United States, any work published before January 1, 1923 anywhere in the world is in the public domain.
In general, works published after 1977 will not fall into the public domain until 70 years after the death of author, or, for corporate works, anonymous works, or works for hire, 95 years from the date of publication or 120 years from the date of creation, whichever expires first.
U.S. Government Works
United States government creative works, including writing, images, and computer code, are usually prepared by officers or employees of the United States government as part of their official duties. Americans have already paid for this work with their federal tax dollars.
A government work is generally not subject to copyright in the United States and there is generally no copyright restriction on reproduction, derivative works, distribution, performance, or display of a government work, unless the work falls under an exception.
You cannot use U.S. government trademarks or the logos of U.S. government agencies without permission. There are other exceptions to the rule.
The U.S. government work designation does not apply to works of U.S. state and local governments. Works of state and local governments may or may not be protected by copyright. This varies from state to state.
U.S. government work is subject to copyright for citizens of other countries who wish to use the work in their country.
Examples of copyright free governmental works
The Library of Congress
At the Library of Congress, you’ll find an incredible array of images on topics ranging from the history of baseball in America to photos of the Wright brothers’ experiments with kites to pictures of historical native americans, and more. It’s easy to get lost browsing through the digital database. Be sure to check usage rights, as some images do have restrictions.
US Antarctic Program
Love penguins? Need an illustration for your piece on global warming? The US Antarctic Program features beautiful images of the Antarctic created under the auspices of the National Science Foundation.
If you’re fascinated by clouds, hurricane chasing or creatures of the deep, this is your url. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website includes images of sky, sea and a wide range of wildlife.
Flags and Maps from the CIA
Need a flag of Bhutan or a map of Afghanistan to illustrate your political analysis? The CIA’s World Factbook is your go-to site for downloads.
Natural Resources Conservation Service
The NRCS’s site, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, features both stunning and sobering images of the American landscape that illustrate human impact on our environment.
At Pexels, you can find thousands of high quality public domain images. The search function allows you to search for various keywords or browse images grouped into various topics.
Since the public domain images on Pexels are all licensed under a creative commons zero license you can download and use them for free, even for commercial purposes.
Wikimedia Commons is a collection of 45,099,440 freely usable media files anyone can use and to which anyone can contribute. They have public domain images, sound and video files.
Wikipedia is more of an encyclopedia than a search engine, but most articles are illustrated with one or several images, most of which are in the public domain (articles and images) and subjects are searchable.
All user-created images must be licensed under a free license, such as the GFDL and/or an acceptable Creative Commons license, or released into the public domain, which removes all copyright and licensing restrictions. Some images require a photo credit.
Flickr is a photo sharing community which claims to have over 2 billion photos and more than 2 million photo communities. Some images are copyrighted, but many can be used free of charge. You can search by subject, and narrow your search by license type.
You can search by any license, all creative commons, commercial use allowed, modifications allowed, commercial use & mods allowed, no known copyright restrictions, or U.S. Government works.
Pixabay has over 1.3 million high quality free images and videos shared by their community. You can search by photos, illustrations, vector graphics, videos, orientation, size, color, or category. The type of license for each image is listed to the right of the image, so it is easy to see how and what you can use for free.
Public Domain Photos
Public Domain Photos has 5,000 free photos and 8,000 free clip art for personal and commercial use. You may use these images for any purpose, including commercial. But if some photo contains logos and/or recognizable products you need to be careful. Using someone else’s trademark commercially can get you sued. You also need a model release for any photos with recognizable people in them..
When you click on a thumbnail image, it first shows you a medium sized picture at the top of the page that gives you a good idea of whether the image is what you want. Click on the medium image and it will then show you the large version of it. This makes it faster to browse the site because you don’t have to wait for a bunch of large images to load that aren’t suitable for your purpose.
The thumbnail images at the bottom of the page that has the medium picture have to be licensed from Shutterstock for a fee. They are a leading provider of stock photos, vectors, footage and music. Sometimes it is worth paying a licensing fee to get just the right photo.
The best image search engine
Ther iss really no single “best” image search engine. Each search engine has its perks and downsides depending on which type of search you’re carrying out. Google is a versatile option, combining a powerful general and reverse image search in one.
With its attractive visual interface and easy-to-find filtering options, Bing is a strong contender for general image searches, while TinEye offers more fine-tuning and often better suggestions than Google’s reverse image search.
Google, Bing and Yahoo all have options for searching by Creative Commons-licensed images, with Yahoo having the advantage of integration with Flickr, but a dedicated stock image search engine like EveryPixel will give you a wider choice of suitable images.
Ultimately, there are a lot of great tools out there for finding images, depending on your needs, and by using them in combination, you can track down the perfect image.
Which image search engines do you use? Let us know in the comments.
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