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Image Searching on the Web, Part 1: Pictures via Text

The proverbial picture is reportedly worth a thousand words, and although today’s exchange rate may not be that good, sometimes you want to find a specific image on the Web. Perhaps you’re looking for a picture of an optical telegraph to figure out how it works, or perhaps you just want to see a chart that shows how the radio spectrum breaks down. Adam Engst found himself in that situation not long ago while editing a book about bandwidth, and complained in a MacWEEK column that little has been done to simplify locating images on the Internet. Search engines make it possible (though sometimes difficult) to find textual information on the Internet, but finding specific images can be daunting.

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In the first part of this article series I’ll explain how, by being clever in the way you search, you can use popular search engines to find images. In part two, I’ll point you to a growing number of specialized image search engines.

AltaVista — AltaVista allows you to search with a special search command called "image:". For example, "image:giraffe" returns Web pages containing a graphic file containing the word "giraffe" in the title, or with words that begin with "giraffe," like "giraffe1" or "giraffe9."


If you use that search query to search for giraffe pictures, you’ll receive over 1,400 results and possibly give up in despair (or spend way too much time online previewing images); however, if you use additional searching commands to build a context for the giraffe image, you’ll get better results. For example, say you wanted pages that were giraffe intensive. (Nothing but neck, you might say.) You could use the command "title:" to search for pages containing "giraffe" in the title. The search query "title:giraffe image:giraffe" results in a more manageable number of results.

Keep in mind that even with special syntax, AltaVista can be case-sensitive; it does not treat the search queries "image:giraffe" and "image:GIRAFFE" in the same way. If you use only lowercase letters in a word, AltaVista finds all instances of the word regardless of capitalization, but if you capitalize even a single letter, AltaVista searches only for words with exactly the same capitalization.

On the other hand, you might want giraffe images in a more scholarly context. The search command "domain:" limits your search to certain domain types, so the search query "image:giraffe domain:edu" produces about 100 results of giraffe images located on computers in the educational domain.

You can also use AltaVista’s inclusion and exclusion operators ("+" and "-") to force AltaVista to include or omit search terms. For instance, you may want only pictures of Rothschild giraffes. Searching for "+rothschild image:giraffe" gives you a glorious picture of a Rothschild giraffe from Kenya. Since these giraffes are often referred to as the "Rothschild’s giraffe," if you use AltaVista’s wildcard character, the asterisk to deal with variations on the name, "+rothschild* image:giraffe" provides a few more pages with giraffe pictures, including a wonderful page from the Perth Zoo.

HotBot — HotBot is a bit more complex, but it also works when searching for images. Instead of the special commands that AltaVista uses, HotBot takes advantage of checkboxes and pop-up menus.


HotBot’s basic search form has just been changed to enable image searching. Use the Look For pop-up menu to specify the basic criteria for your search (all the words, none of the words, the exact phrase) or more narrow search queries (there’s an option for "Boolean phrase," letting you build your own Boolean search query.) You can also restrict your search to page titles by selecting "the page title" in the Look For pop-up menu.

To continue our example from the AltaVista discussion, to search for giraffe images on academic Web pages, try filling out the form as follows: Type "giraffe" in the Search the Web field; leave "all the words" chosen in the Look For pop-up menu; from the pop-up menu labeled "North America (.com)" select "North America (.edu)" and select the adjacent checkbox; and in the Pages Must Include section, select the image checkbox.

This is a lot of pointing and clicking to suffer through, but it works well: HotBot displays a number of results ranging from giraffes at the Washington DC zoo to a giraffe birth video. The More Search Options form makes it easy to add (or exclude) additional words and phrases such as Rothschild or Kenya.

HotBot has such a large database that you want to narrow your results further. I suggest using the date options on HotBot’s More Search Options form to specify pages added to HotBot’s database before or after a certain date, or within a recent time period.

Lycos — Lycos has created a search engine just for media, called Lycos Pictures & Sounds. You enter your search terms, select the Pictures radio button, and click the Go Get It button. This doesn’t seem like a lot of control, does it?



Fortunately, Lycos also has an advanced search interface, which looks a lot like HotBot’s: you can narrow your search by domain, file type, and title. In addition, Lycos uses a unique method of sorting results, allowing you to specify the importance of certain aspects of the results. You can indicate how important the frequency of the search word is, whether your search terms appear in exact order, and so on. Unfortunately, Lycos’s Pictures & Sounds search engine is a little more awkward to use than the HotBot engine, offering no easy way to build complex Boolean expressions, and the database appears to be far smaller.


The Bigger Picture — For most people, sites like AltaVista, HotBot, and Lycos work well for locating the occasional image. Other people, however, will want to explore image-specific search engines available on the Web, which I’ll cover in the next article in this series.

[Tara Calishain is the co-author of the Official Netscape Guide to Internet Research and owner of CopperSky Writing and Research.]

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