You may not have seen it yet, but Google recently added a few powerful features to its image search. Look for the little camera icon on the right of the Image Search box.
Search by image allows you to drag in, upload, or paste a URL for any image and search the picture instead of text.
Here’s what happened when I dragged in a well-known image I used in an online lesson I wrote long ago. I imagine that most students would be unfamiliar with this iconic photo of a kiss and its back story.
The photograph was immediately identified without typing a single word.
Search by Image can also be an aid in identifying an unfamiliar artifact.
Take a photograph of the item, ideally on a clean background, and try your search.
If Google has a knowledge graph available for an image, it will show on the right panel just as it might for a text search. If an image is associated with a major news story, Google will show fresher related image content in its results.
Firefox and Chrome extensions are available for on-the-fly image searches.
How does it work?
Google’s Inside Search explains:
Search by Image starts with the computer vision technology underlying Google Goggles, and adds new techniques and functionality that optimize the experience for desktop. The technology behind Search by Image analyzes your image to find its most distinctive points, lines and textures and creates a mathematical model. We match that model against billions of images in our index, and page analysis helps us derive a best guess text description of your image. Search by Image technology also includes the ability to match against images on the web so that we can show you similar images and webpages that contain your image.
I can see many uses for this in historic and scientific inquiry if we encourage learners to identify unfamiliar specimen or ask them to discover the most credible explanations of visual evidence.
It is also becoming useful in helping artists and photographers discover unlicensed use of their work.
I worried that Search by Image would present privacy issues. I consistently untag images of myself I don’t want others to find. Many people have far more serious privacy concerns. (See this discussion of Facebook privacy issues relating to facial recognition.)
But Google claims that their new search does not do facial recognition. In fact, my test searches of an old photo of my dad and a recent photo of my son returned no relevant results.
Warning: If you are demoing Search by Image with the kiddos or for a faculty meeting, you may want to turn Safe Search on first. Some of the results I got searching those family images were truly surprising.
And while we’re talking images, the left panel of the Google’s regular image search is kinda magical.
You can filter for color (handy for finding black and white diagrams or models or purple feathers), date, size, image type. And you can explore related searches for images as you would for a text search.
Note: Tin Eye is another effective reverse search for images.