Hermés Risien


When we think about something like image search, we have to consider where a search engine collects all of these individual images from. Often times we can’t just explore randomly through something like Google Images until we find a picture we like– we have to first figure out what type of photo we are looking for. And that’s where Flickr comes in.

Flickr.com is a website used for images, but it has much more to offer than your typical search engine. The homepage of the site describes its offerings best with three core competencies. It is a place to:

  • Upload– so you can get your photos online, whether it be through the internet or your mobile device
  • Discover– so you can see what’s going on in your world and the world around you, by sharing information with your photos or exploring others
  • Share– so your photos are everywhere you are, whether you prefer to share them through Facebook, Twitter, email or any other media

In order to go about using Flickr, you have two options: you can either sign up for the site for free using a Google+ or Facebook account, or you can simply search through and without providing personal information, explore the uploads of other Flickr users.

Over the years, the site has developed into an online community of shared photos, and is now considered to be one of the “best online photo management and sharing applications in the world.”

Flickr’s two main goals are:

  1. To help people make photos available to the people who matter to them
  2. Enable new ways of organizing photos and video [1]

Flickr can be used in a number of ways, such as sharing your own photos with friends & family (or strangers), to exploring other people’s photos to use for personal or professional use (or anything in between).

Specialized search strategies

When searching through Flickr with different types of queries, there are a number of helpful tools and strategies you can use to receive specific results. I will run through a few of the available options to aid you when navigating the search portion of the site.

When you first enter a query, you will notice three links directly to the right of the search button. The options are full text, tags only, or advanced search.

  • Full text brings up photos with any part of your query included in any portion of the photo. This means that if any of the terms in your query are in the description, tags, notes, etc. of a photo, it will appear in your results once you hit search. This is usually the easiest way to search when you have a general idea of what you are looking for through your query, but aren’t extremely specific on what type of photo results you want to receive.
  • Tags only bring ups photos with terms of your query only appearing in the tags. This is likely to pull up higher quality results, as the photos with a great deal of tags usually come from frequent, seasoned users of the site. But also be prepared to receive many less results than what you would see with the query searched in full text.
  • Advanced search sends you to a completely separate page which allows you to go in depth with your query and make very specific selections for a more narrow set of results. Some of these options include query boxes for all of these words, the exact phrase, any of these words, and none of these words.

You of course are also able to simply include these as search operators within your query in the main search box (but we’ll talk more about that later). You can also narrow down your search to fall within certain sections of the site (see search in below for more detail) as well as by content type, including photos/ videos, screenshots/ screencasts, and illustration/ art/ animation/ CGI. The same goes for media type with either photos & videos, or photos only or videos only.

They also offer narrowing your search by a specific date or time period, and you can opt whether or not to search within the Creative Commons Licensing (which will be discussed further in another chapter).

Search in is an interesting feature included on both the main homepage next to the basic search bar, or within the advanced search page. The options vary depending on whether you have created an account and logged in or not.

  • If you have not logged in, these options include:
  • Everyone’s uploads
  • The Getty Images Collection
  • The Commons
  • US Government Works

If you have logged in, the options include the ones listed above, with the addition of:

  • Your photo stream
  • Your favorites
  • From your contacts
  • From your friends & family
  • Choose from your contacts…

As you can see, once you have created and developed an account with Flickr, your options for searching become much more advanced and specific, allowing you to search for keywords within everything from photos you’ve favorited to photos only posted by individuals in your contact list. This is a very interesting specialized search strategy that Flickr has developed to make the search process more beneficial to its users.

One final specialized search strategy worth mentioning are the sort by options to the left of the page directly above your results. The options offered are relevant, recent, or interesting. 

  • Relevant indicates that photos are sorted by their relevancy to your search query, based on how closely terms mentioned with each picture matches your query.
  • Recent sorts the photos by how recently they have been uploaded to the site. This is most useful when you are looking for photos that have recently been added to Flickr within the last day or two.
  • Interesting is the most obscure of the three options, but often yields the best results in terms of high quality, interesting photos. According to Flickr, they determine a photo’s “interestingness” by criteria such as where the clickthroughs come from, who is commenting on the photos, who marks the photos as favorites, and much more. The best part about this feature is that it constantly changes, so if you search for a query like [hot air balloons] today and sort by interesting, your results will be different than if you were to search the same query and sort by interesting a week from today. [3]


There are now two distinct ways you can use Flickr to look for pictures since the site has evolved from its initial creation. Aside from personal use of uploading and sharing photos, the ways you can go about using the site for image search purposes are searching and exploring. Since the methodology behind the two is very different, I will discuss instructions on how to deal with both.

How to use: Search

When using Flickr to simply search for images, the site makes it very simple and easy for you to find what you are looking for. Aside from the specialized search strategies mentioned above, Flickr offers a few additional options to help you with your search.

Once you have either chosen to log in or not, you can start by typing in whatever you are looking for into the search box. In this example, I will use the query [hot air balloons] to discuss the process.

  1. Type [hot air balloons] into the search box and click search. This will then take you to a page of results, which will display photos along with many of the options I mentioned above. You will notice above the search box are the options to search within photos, groups, or people. In this case, we are looking for photos of hot air balloons, so we will leave it on the default of photos. However, if we were interested in finding a collection of photos of hot air balloons with something in common between them, we might want to search within groups to find a grouping of hot air balloon photos that fit. For example, one of the groups that displays when we search for our query within groups is “Hot Air Balloons World-wide.” If we were interested in finding photos of hot air balloons from different parts of the world, this might be a good place to start. 
  2. Go back to searching within photos for [hot air balloons]. Flickr recognizes search operators within a query much like Google Images does, which can be very helpful when you want to narrow down your results. Basic operators such as AND, OR, and NOT are available to specify specific queries. What is interesting and slightly different with operators on Flickr is how the use of (-) and (+) changes from a basic search like Google Images. Let’s say we want to find photos of hot air balloons, but not with any that include a “sunrise” tag. To do this, we would enter the query [hot air balloons -sunrise]. As you can see, the (-) works very similar to the NOT operator, but only relates to tags. The (+) symbol also operates in the same vein. Now let’s say we want photos of hot air balloons without a sunrise tag but with a Colorado tag, since we like hot air balloons from Colorado. We would then enter the query [hot air balloons -sunrise +Colorado] which then brings up results of photos of hot air balloons during later parts of the day in Colorado. [2]
  3. Go back to searching within photos for [hot air balloons]. Above our results on the right side of the page you will notice four view options: small, medium, details, and slideshow. 

  • When you click on small, this will change the size of the thumbnails so you can see more photos per page. You can see that we are able to see many more photos per page along with the user name of whoever posted the photo; however, it is often difficult to determine the caliber of these photos since they are fairly small, especially when looking at a single figure like the hot air balloon in our example.
  • When you click on medium, this will change the size of the thumbnails so you can see larger photos, but less per page. You will see that this allows us to view the photos in much greater detail, also providing us with the title of each photo in addition to the user who posted it. This is usually the default option when searching, but smaller is probably more ideal for quick browsing of many options.
  • When you click on details, this provides us with the greatest amount of information related to each photo result. In addition to showing the title and user who posted the photo (which we could already see with the medium view) we can also see the copyright, tags, date the photo was taken, as well as the number of views, comments, and favorites. This is likely to be most helpful when the details are equally as important in your search as the photo itself, since the number of results is far more limited per page.
Now that we have explored the ways to use the search feature with a specific example, you should try using some of the specialized search strategies mentioned above with the [hot air balloons] query to see how your results differ depending on where you look!

Comparison with Google Web search: Search

While Google Images provides a very straightforward, simple image search engine for users, the experience is entirely different (and far less interesting) than what you will find with Flickr.

When comparing the two image sites related to search, there are a few differences between them that demonstrate positives and negatives for each. I will describe these differences by category and explain how this affects each site.

Image Quality/ Size

Flickr offers better quality images, because the site is solely devoted to displaying images for people. While Google offers many different types of photos, it is very hard to tell which photos are higher quality; whereas with Flickr, you can determine the quality of the photos by viewing by details and inspecting the information, or just the photo itself. Additionally, when you click on a photo in Flickr, you can zoom in on it’s details, providing greater detail than what you can see through Google Images.

In terms of image sizes, Google allows you to narrow down your search results by size, which can be an extremely helpful option that Flickr doesn’t offer. However, the reason for this is likely due to the fact that the majority of photos on Flickr.com are available to be downloaded (barring any copyright laws) in a multitude of sizes, which is ultimately much more beneficial than narrowing by size. This way, whatever photo you like, you will have the option to download it in roughly any size you choose. Flickr even allows you to order prints of some of their users photos!

Image Details

Flickr has the option, which I mentioned above, to view photos by their details, which is an excellent option that Google does not offer. This can be extremely important when determining the copyright laws for use of the photos. Google offers virtually no information related to copyright features on their images, which can end up getting users in a great deal of trouble when downloading photos for public presentations. Flickr also allows you to read the notes and comments on each photo, which can provide very interesting insights into the photo itself. You can also see where the photo was taken, and sometimes with what type of camera.

Image Sharing

When looking at download options to use a photo from either Google Images or Flickr, Google makes it far more straightforward to download and use their photos. However, as I mentioned briefly above, this can result in a great deal of legal trouble for the user if he or she does not do research as to the copyright laws of the photo being downloaded. Although Flickr requires you to click through the photo to a separate page of size options to find a download link, they are very explicit about how the photo can be used once it is downloaded. For sharing to other outlets such as social media or email, Flickr provides links above a photo (once you click on it) with options to share directly to Facebook, Twitter, Email, Pinterest, etc. Google does not offer sharing in any capacity, not even to Google+. Additionally, Flickr provides you the option, once you log in to your account, to favorite a photo so you can go back and share it or look at it again later.

Search Options

When considering which site has the more comprehensive search options, Google has a slight advantage in some areas. For example, Flickr does not have some of the advanced options Google Images offers, such as auto-complete in the search bar or related searches. Additionally, Google offers the option to search for photos with a specific color dominating, such as red, and they also offer the option to search for only black and white or only color photos. Unfortunately, Flickr does not feature these options, which can be a disadvantage when a user needs photos of a specific color scheme. However, Flickr does offer one feature similar to Google’s “related searches” option: when you enter a query, in addition to photo results, Flickr provides you with groups related to your query, or tags in common with your query. Although this is slightly different and perhaps in some cases less helpful than a streamlined “related searches” option, it is helpful within the specialized search strategies that Flickr offers and fits well in line with their site’s main operating features, like tags. One advantage which I previously mentioned that both have is the option to use search operators in your queries.

How to get the most out of it: Search

When working with Flickr, it is much more beneficial to actually log in to the site; as I mentioned before, your options for searching within the site once you have logged in far exceed those offered without logging in. For example, having the opportunity to favorite specific photos you might want to use or download at a later date is extremely helpful (perhaps in the case of lengthy projects that require a great deal of research) and this is only available if you choose to log in. I also would recommend loading your contacts through either Facebook, Gmail, or any of their other options, since this offering allows you to see who else of your friends has Flickr. That way, you can go through and look at their photos, which could be particularly helpful with different queries (or just for pure curiousity’s sake!). Using operators is another great tool that will help you develop better, more specific queries, which I highly recommend since there are often times a great deal of photos to sift through when you search for something general. And finally, the last suggestion I have to get the most out of searching on Flickr would be to sort your results by interesting. Although it would seem like relevant would initially be the easiest to sort by, Flickr actually does an excellent job of taking into consideration relevancy as well as a number of other characteristics before choosing the most “interesting” results, and often times these are the ones that will fit your query the best.

How to use: Explore

There are times when you will be looking for an interesting photo, but won’t have any idea what you are looking for or how to search for it. Or there are times when you will just be interested in finding cool photos. This is where Flickr’s Explore feature comes in handy.

When you get to Flickr’s homepage, click the Explore tab listed across the top. The main page displays an interesting photo that they’ve chosen for that day, along with a great deal of links to other portions of the exploratory side of the site. Just a few of the many options you should considering looking at are:

  • A year ago today- Clicking on this option lets you take a look back at the most interesting content from one year ago on the same date. 
  • Sets- Flickr features different sets of photos where “stories are told, themes are developed, junk is collected…”
  • Select a month- This drop down box allows you to choose a month from an year since 2004. Once you select a month, it sends you to a page that features a calendar with a photo for each day. Here, you can click on an individual day and be sent to a series of photos that were considered to be interesting by Flickr.
  • Calendar view of this month- Similar to the above option, this link will take you to a calendar identical to what is described above, only this is a calendar for the current month.
  • A map of the worldThis will take you to (literally) a map of the world, with pink dots denoting different cities where photos on Flickr have been taken. Along the bottom of the map is a banner, which features thousands of different photos that have been geotagged on the site. You have the option to sort by either recent or interesting, and can either click on a pink dot for corresponding photos from that location to show up, or you can click on a photo from along the banner and it will alert you as to which pink dot location it matches with.
  • Explore Flickr through tags- This feature allows you to see which tags have been used most recently and most frequently across Flickr. The size font of the actual tag corresponds with it’s frequency of use, so the larger the tag, the more it has been used. Each tag is an individual link you can click through to see photos that all contain that tag. Additionally, if you were interested in looking at tags more in depth, you could click the arrow on the Explore tab at the top of the page, and then choose Popular Tags. This takes you to a page which shows “hot tags” from the last 24 hours, last week, or of all time. Again, font size corresponds to frequency.
These are just a few of the many different exploratory features that Flickr provides. I encourage you to get on the site and give a few of them a try!

Comparison with Google Web search: Explore

Since Google Images doesn’t offer something even remotely similar to the Explore feature, there is nothing to compare between the two sites.

How to get the most out of it: Explore

The best way to explore is to just simply get out there and try it. There is no right or wrong way to use this feature– my recommendation is to try different explore options each day until you decide how you like to explore best!

A few other interesting exploratory features worth mentioning briefly:

  • In addition to Flickr.com, Flickr also has a personal blog. You can find this by clicking on the arrow in the Explore tab, and it takes you to their blog which features different stories about photos on their site. 
  • Flickr also offers something called The App Garden, where you can find applications made by Flickr users on the site. Flickr has developed an Application Programming Interface (API) which allows users to write their own programs to be used by other users across the site. Pretty interesting feature I recommend exploring further!
  • Although it would seem that Flickr is solely devoted to the organization and exploration of photos, there is in fact a section of the site for videos. Although this portion of the site has far less activity than the images, it’s still a nice feature to check out.


Flickr is a great site for, as they put so eloquently on their homepage, uploading, discovering, and sharing. I have provided a great deal of information related to the benefits and features that Flickr has to offer, and how these features differ from Google Images or other standard image search engines.

When making a recommendation on when best to use Flickr, the most important thing you must consider is what you are actually looking for, and how you want that information presented to you.

If you are in need of a quick, average quality photo of the beach that has a blue color scheme and is large, then you are probably better off using Google Image search for a few reasons: Flickr doesn’t offer the option to search for specific colors in a photo, or a specific size.

However, if you have the time and are not constrained by specific color schemes, then I would highly recommend Flickr for the majority of your image searching. In addition to the many features I have described in detail, Flickr has much more interesting, higher quality photos that would likely be a better choice than Google Images offering for at least 90% of your queries. I realize that you won’t always have the time to sift through Flickr’s results, and Google’s skimmability tends to be better–this is why I say Flickr is better 90% of the time. However, when considering the remaining factors we have discussed, it is no question that Flickr is one of the (if not the best) places to find great images on the web. Whether you are searching (or exploring!) for personal or professional use, Flickr has something to offer everyone.


[1] http://www.flickr.com/about/, where Flickr explains what their site is about and how it works.

[2] http://www.jakesonline.org/searchflickr.htm, where I found which search operators are available to use with Flickr.

[3] http://www.flickr.com/explore/interesting/, where Flickr explains how they determine which characteristics make a photo interesting.

About the Author

Hermés Risien is an undergraduate senior studying business at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. She plans to graduate in the Spring of 2013 with a degree in Business Administration concentrating in Marketing, and a minor in Music. After graduation, she has accepted her offer to work in Brand Management as a Brand Assistant for Kraft Foods in Chicago, IL.


To Google or not to Google? Copyright © 2013 by Hermés Risien. All Rights Reserved.