Fact Checked

What Is a Visual Search Engine?

Alex Newth
Alex Newth

A visual search engine is similar to a text search engine, because it allows users to search via a keyword and returns results relevant to that keyword. The difference is that a visual search engine does not return text links like a text search engine would; instead, it returns a mass of images that lead to the website of origin. Visual search engines are mostly web-based programs, but a plug-in is generally needed for the search engine to work correctly. There are various ways of displaying images and, unlike text search engines that show links based on algorithms and keyword usage, these search engines allow users to search for images in a variety of ways.

Search engines are used by Internet users to track down a relevant image or website based on a keyword. In the case of visual search engines, the user is looking more for an image than for a website. Visual search engines also are more interactive than text search engines, even if the text search engine has an image search. A visual search engine finds images by looking at the tags website developers use for their images, and it then returns any images relevant to the keyword.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

Just like their text-based counterparts, visual search engines are typically web-based, or will work in an Internet browser. Some visual search engine platforms are software-based, or will reside on the desktop, but these are rare. A multimedia plug-in is usually needed to operate these search engines, because of the interactivity, but the plug-in is generally free and easy to install. Those that do not need plug-ins are usually less interactive.

While a visual search engine is aimed at finding images, it also discovers the link between the image and the website of origin. This means users can find an interesting image and then link to the website from which it came. In this manner, visual and text search engines are the same, because they are made to help users find new websites.

There are many different ways for a visual search engine to display images. The images can be on a three-dimensional (3D) cube or in a map, a stack, a list, a cloud or any one of several other arrangements. Users also can customize searches by asking the visual search engine to find images based on date, domain, rating or other factors. This differs from a text search engine, in which links are arranged based only on algorithms and keyword usage and users have little interactivity with link arrangement.

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Discussion Comments


@irontoenail - It's also good for people who are not used to the way the internet works to know that not everything is going to show up in an image search, particularly if there are filters on it. If you are really looking for something in particular, it pays to go and have a look on an image hosting site directly, rather than just relying on Google alone.


@MrsPramm - At least it's a way that a picture search engine can contribute to artists and attribution rather than take from them. Too often people will just plug a couple of search terms into the search and then take whatever shows up without considering that it probably belongs to someone else. Just because something has been put online doesn't mean that an artist is granting you the right to display it on your own site.

If you find an image like that and reverse search you might be able to figure out who the original artist was and what rights the image is licensed under, so you don't end up stealing their work inadvertently.


It's particularly useful to be able to use image based search engines when you are looking for the source of an image or something similar to it. With Google, at least, you can plug the image itself into the engine and it will return other instances of it online.

It's not always completely useful because it's a bit too sensitive and will only often return completely identical images which makes it difficult to search for something that has been altered. But it's better than nothing.

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