Why Aren’t Search Engines Making Better Use of Their Social Networks for Image Search?

One thing I’ve noticed more and more over the past few years is what a poor job traditional image search engines do vs. social networks.

By using social information around photos (likes, faves, comments, +1s, etc.), social networks typically produce much superior image search results than traditional image search.

Take this search of Coachella 2013 for example.

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Yahoo Image Search: “Coachella 2013″

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Google Image Search: “Coachella 2013″

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Flickr Image Search: “Coachella 2013″

The first image comes from Yahoo (or is it Microsoft these days, I can’t keep it all straight). It’s not very good. It shows too many images of just the lineup vs. actual fun interesting photos of the event itself.

Google’s image search results are better, but still not as good as many of the images I find on social networks.

Now I may be biased (as I shot this particular event) but I think Flickr’s search results are *far* better than either Google or Yahoo Image search.

I’m working on a project right now to photograph the 100 largest American cities. When I’m researching things to photograph in these cities I almost always go first to Flickr (because it’s the largest database of highly organized quality photos on the web). I will also look at Google+ too, sometimes. Google+ doesn’t have as many high quality images in the total database as Flickr, yet, but I find some pretty good stuff there sometimes still. Most of Flickr’s advantage here over Google+ just has to do with the fact that they are older and have more images indexed.

Lately I’ve also played around with graph search on Facebook for images — I haven’t been very impressed there at all though.

The one place I hardly ever go is to the actual Google or Yahoo image search engines — because the results are so inferior.

Here’s what I don’t get: *why* are the results at Yahoo and Google Image search inferior? Google and Yahoo have access to proprietary internal social data around photos in their social networks, why isn’t that coming through better in the signal for high quality images.

On my example search using Coachella 2013, not a single Flickr photo appears on Yahoo’s first page image search and not a single Google+ image appears on Google’s first page image search.

Shouldn’t these search engines be better mining organically and socially ranked superior content? It’s not that these engines don’t index it, they do, it’s just not ranking well.

Beyond just better image search, Google and Yahoo *should* have another significant incentive to better include their social images into image search.

All things being equal, assuming you could improve image search results, wouldn’t you want to drive more traffic to your own internal social network, rather than to some unrelated destination — and wouldn’t you want to reward the best photographers on your social network with more traffic vs. some random SEO rigged site somewhere?

Why aren’t image search engines doing a better job with social?

Another added benefit to driving image search traffic to your social network, is that the presentation there is usually better, more uniform and consistent. When I’m tempted to go further on an image from Yahoo or Google, I may end up at some odd sized photo, in some odd format. With a G+ or Flickr result I get a strong consistent image experience that I’m familiar with.

As an unrelated topic dealing with image search on Flickr — the best social image search on the web today — Flickr needs to give us the ability to block certain users from our search results. Many popular photographers will pollute image search on Flickr by falsely tagging things that are not in their popular photos, just to try to garner traffic.

Take this search on Flickr for dog for example. So many of the first page results are not photos of dogs at all. Flickr should allow us to block certain users from our search results in order to better refine them. When we block people from our search results, this should also be a signal to Flickr that this user should rank much worse in search. If users get the message that they will be penalized for purposely mistagging their photos, they will be less likely to try and game the system this way, resulting in better image search on Flickr for all of us.

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4 comments on “Why Aren’t Search Engines Making Better Use of Their Social Networks for Image Search?
  1. Mark says:

    Whilst your desire for a way to block users from flickr search is something I fully agree with, your example search for “dog” is somewhat misleading. You talk about users who have mistagged their images (which is a very valid problem), but your search was not searching tags – it was searching all text associated with the image. If you restrict your search to just tags then you get much better results.

  2. Thomas Hawk says:

    Mark, you make a good point. I should have thought of that as well, as I also use tags to restrict my searches on Flickr too. It’s still gamed even with tags, but the results are better.

    I also will frequently limit my search results to my contacts, who are more trusted sources, and this can help too.

    Perhaps “tags” should be the default on flickr instead of “text.” I bet that would improve the default image search experience there.

    There are other times I wish I could exclude users from search on Flickr as well. A while back I was searching for Austin and the search was returning massive results back by a photographer with that last name who was using that tag on his photos. These photos were not of Austin at all though and they were polluting my search results for my purposes and it would be good to be able to block something like this from my own personal search.

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  4. striatic says:

    you don’t need to search tags, or block accounts from searches.

    sorting by “most relevant” for “dog” gives excellent first page results.

    the problem is that the default is “most interesting” not “most relevant”

    interestingly, the default used to be “most relevant” until the flickr brain-trust decided that highlighting interestingness was a good idea.