Google Image Search is a standard for most internet users. It is usually the first place people look when attempting to find that perfect image for whatever their needs may be. In fact, many people use Google as a yard stick to compare the quality of other image search engines. So, if Google is so great, then why are there so many alternatives? The reason is that while Google may be be a great resource for finding images, other search engines have some unique qualities that may yield more tailored or appropriate results for specialized image searches. And while Google may be the search engine front-runner, at the end of the query most users are hunting for one specific image that is perfect for their needs in the minimal amount of time. This is where an alternative image search engine like PicSearch can be very useful.


PicSearch.com was founded in Sweden in 2000 with the goal of providing an image search service that was unrivaled in family friendliness and relevancy.  [1]

The main product of the company is much more than the website itself. PicSearch is based on patented indexing algorithms that crawl the web in order to create an index of searchable images. A user then submits a query which returns thumbnail images that are sorted based on their relevancy. Clicking the thumbnail brings the user to the website where the image originated from. [2]

While users can search using PicSearch.com directly, there are many other web portals that license out this technology for their own image search engines. This means that users may be unknowingly using PicSearch when they are using other websites–such as Ask or Lycos–for their image searching needs.

User Demographics

The following chart from the web analytics site Alexa.com reveals some interesting trends about the most frequent users of PicSearch. These results indicate that users are more likely to be over the age of 45, specifically between the ages of 55 and 64. Additionally, these users are most likely to be browsing from a home location.  Alexa also shows that the amount of traffic on PicSearch has decreased by about half over the past two years. [3]

Adapted from: http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/picsearch.com#

These results imply that users of the website are of a primarily older audience who are searching from their homes. This is not typically a very positive sign for a website’s future; as younger users imply future growth opportunities and business users usually imply more profit opportunities.

However, while this may seem distressing news for some websites, PicSearch.com is not where the company draws its revenues. The company makes money from licensing its indexing technology to other web portals, but we will discuss this more later in the chapter.


PicSearch claims that it beats competing search engines based on its:

  1. Relevancy – Patented indexing algorithms
  2. Family Friendliness – Children can surf safely as offensive material is flushed out via advanced filtering system
  3. User Friendliness – Simple, fast, and accurate design

Therefore this search engine is ideal for users that are looking for an easy way to browse specific search queries, and that value filtering of offensive content (such as use by children or at work).

Search Strategies

PicSearch is easy to use because it has such a clean user interface. The landing page when you go to the website is simple and reminiscent of Google’s. The only significant difference is that in addition to the search field, there a few images below showing the most popular searches of the week. This is helpful if users are interested in what images are trending if they do not already have something specific that they will be searching for.

Comparison of home page for PicSearch (left) and Google Image Search (right)

Improving Accuracy

PicSearch indexes over 2 billion images from the internet, a figure that is not too far away from its competitor Google Image Search [4]. With this much content it may be understandable that users’ first query may not provide the exact images that they are looking for. This can be improved by optimizing the search query in order to improve the accuracy of results.

While PicSearch may be lacking in that it does not have a full library of operators like Google, it does allow users to use the “+” and “-” operators to add a desired keyword (+) or to filter out images associated with a specific keyword (-).

For example, if you wanted to search for a Map of London, but you did not want results of The London Underground, you could make your search query: Map of London -Underground. Which yields the following results:

Additionally, to improve the accuracy of search results specificity can be added to the search query. For example, take the initial search Eagle. To improve the overall search we can be more specific with the type of eagle by searching for Bald Eagle. Also, if we are looking for an image with multiple eagles in it we can modify the query to make it plural and search Eagles. These minor tweaks can greatly improve the accuracy of search results. [5]

Filtering Results

Another way to hone in on the results that users are looking for is to utilize the native filtering tools on the search results page. The encircled red selection in the following image shows that users have many options to choose from to further filter on the results page. Users can easily filter results by color, size, orientation, and type.

  • Type – Choose whether or not you would like to include animations or just search for photos that include faces.
  • Orientation – This option can be used to filter images by whether they are in portrait, landscape, or square orientation.
  • Color – This can be used to choose whether you would like to see results that are only black and white, only color, or only specific colors. For this search you may be looking for an image of the eiffel tower with a blue sky in the background, so you would select “blue”. These results are not as good as Google for sensing hues and tints of a color, they are more likely to search a picture that is pure blue.
  • Size – PicSearch filters images based on their size as well. The distinctions are labeled as follows: Small (1-200 pixels), Medium (201-800 pixels), Large (801 or more pixels), and Wallpaper (400 or more pixels).
These filters can be very helpful in improving the relevance of results. For example, if you were looking for an image to use for a red ball button on a web site, you could make the search query ball but then filter that you are looking for a Small and Red image, like this image. [5]

Image Directory

Image Directory is a useful tool that PicSearch has that can be useful if you want to narrow in on an image from a broad idea. You can get there by clicking Image Directory on the bottom of any page. Following this link brings you to an index page that is a directory of many categories of images. To show how this can be useful, we will go through an example.

Let’s say we are looking for a picture of Abraham Lincoln. We would start by selecting the Celebrities category, which would bring up the following page.

From this page we could then simply click Abraham Lincoln, but lets assume we did not see that and went ahead by clicking American Presidents.

Finally we could go ahead and click Abraham Lincoln, which results in the following search results.

At this point we could filter further. If we were looking for a profile shot of Lincoln then we would select Faces to remove other images.

Now you see the image directory of PicSearch can be helpful in honing in on images that you might be looking for. [6]


Licensing of Image Search

As previously mentioned, PicSearch.com is just one of many websites that use their patented indexing algorithms to crawl the web for images. The way this company makes money is by licensing out this technology to other companies–mainly web portals–that would like to have image searching capabilities, without having to write the code from scratch. PicSearch is profitable because its “image search services is syndicated to leading portals and search engines…including Lycos Europe and Ask Jeeves”. [1] This means that when users would go on Ask.com and perform an image search, they were actually using the same back-end at PicSearch.

PicSearch services include localization features to tailor the search service to regional markets in countries such as Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden, and many more. [7] Click here to see more examples of websites that have been utilizing PicSearch for their native image search tools.

To find more information about their image search licensing you can click the License Image Search link at the bottom of any page. Specifically, this page details the benefits of choosing PicSearch as your image search provider.


Recommended Uses

Overall PicSearch can be a good tool for children because of adult content filtering, or those that are less technically savvy (such as older generations) because it is very user friendly. It enables users to do image searches with basic functionality and filtering in a way that most people can figure out intuitively. However, the quality of image search results from Google and Bing and sometimes Flickr are often better. Additionally, they have many more search options that are simply not available when using PicSearch.

As a result, PicSearch is only recommended for less advanced users, while Google Image Search would be a better choice for those who feel comfortable taking advantage of all of it’s features.



Relevant links and resources for this chapter:

[1] http://about.picsearch.com/about/, PicSearch’s native about page

[2] http://www.picsearch.com/menu.cgi?item=FAQ, FAQ page for PicSearch

[3] http://www.alexa.com/siteinfo/picsearch.com#, Detailed website analytics for PicSearch from Alexa.com

[4] http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2061398/Google-Posts-New-Total-Size-Number-for-Google-Images, Number of images available from common search engine

[5] http://www.picsearch.com/menu.cgi?item=Search_Help, PicSearch help page

[6] http://www.picsearch.com/image-dir.html, Link to PicSearch image directory home page

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picsearch, Wikipedia entry for PicSearch


About the Author

Casey Goldman is an undergraduate senior at the University of Michigan pursuing a dual degree in Business and Chemical Engineering, with an anticipated graduation in the Spring of 2013. Starting in July of 2013 he will be working as an investment banking analyst in the Corporate Finance department at William Blair in Chicago.


To Google or not to Google? Copyright © 2013 by Scott A. Moore. All Rights Reserved.