What is a reverse image search engine?

We are all very familiar with Google image search where you put in your word or phrase, hit search and find page after page of images on the internet that match what you are looking for.  But what do you do when you have the image and need to see where it may be located on the web?  A reverse image search engine of course.  Reverse image search engines allow you to upload or drag-and-drop an image and it scans the web looking for matches.  The results returned are web sites where that particular image is displayed.

But if you already have the image what value is this?  There are a few reasons you might want to search backwards from the image:

  • You have an image and need to know its original source.
  • You need a higher resolution version of an image.
  • Curiosity about how an image is being used on the internet.
  • You own the image and want to see if it is being used against copyrights elsewhere on the web.

Before Google got in the reverse image search game there was one big player on the field, TinEye.

Screen shot of the TinEye reverse image search engine

TinEye is very simple to use.  Upload an image from your computer and the search begins.  If a match is found the sites where that image is located are displayed.

Screen shot of the TinEye image search results

A few drawbacks of TinEye:

  • It is a bit slow for a search engine.
  • It comes back with zero matches more often than I would expect.  TinEye is searching images that have been added to its database.  Granted that is 2 billion + images, but still if the image you are searching is not in their database, you’re out of luck.  I had to do about 6 searched before I found one of my images that was indexed in TinEye (and I used widely published images).
  • If you want more robust search results other than the location(s) of the image on the web they do not offer much.

I love the concept of TinEye and think it can be a good tool for photographers keeping track of how their work is being used (and stolen) on the web.  Unfortunately when Google got into the reverse image search game I think TinEye started to look a little weak.  And as much as I hate to put all my eggs in the Google basket they know how to do search and do it well.  They have transferred that to reverse image search very well making their tool almost all you really need.

Screen shot of Google's reverse image search

With Google’s tool you go to their standard image search page and drag-and-drop an image from your computer into the search box.  The Google algorithms do their magic and the search results page brings back the pages on the web where that image is found in various sizes as well as something called “Visually Similar Images” which are close to your image in coloring.

Screen shot of Google's reverse image search results page

The image I searched is on at least 5 sites per Google’s results, but since it is not in TinEye’s database yet their results brought back zero results.  However, being very familiar with this particular image, I also know that the Google results are not capturing everything.  Other than that when you compare the two, Google just offers a better tool.

Whether you want keep track of your work on the internet or have an image that you need to know the original source of reverse image search engines can be a great (although not perfect yet) tool to track down the location of specific images on the web.  With time I have no doubt both Google and TinEye will expand their search engines and get them caught up with the billions and billions of images that are floating around the web now.

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