Searching By Looking Elsewhere

A couple of weeks or so ago, I got an email requesting a link to something I’d spoken about at a department meeting some time ago (the Gartner hype cycle, actually). Now normally I’d check my delicious bookmarks for a good link, or maybe even run a Google web search, but instead I ran a search for ‘gartner hypecycle 2008’ on Google Images

…which is when it struck me that searching Google Images may on occasion lead to better quality, or more relevant, results than doing a normal web search, particularly if you use a level of indirection. In particular, it can often lead to a web document or post that provides some sort of analysis around a topic. (Remember, Google image search links to the web pages that contain the images that are displayed in the image search results, not just the images.)

So for example, a web search for games console sales chart [web search] turns up a different set of results to an image search for games console sales chart [image search]. And here’s where my gut feeling comes in about using the fact that documents contain images as a filter – if people have gone to the trouble of including a relevant image in something they have published, their post may be more considered on a particular topic than one that doesn’t. That is, the inclusion of a relevant image can be used as a valuable ranking term when searching for results. Essentially, you are running an advanced, search limited query around an image document type.

Note that it’s often sensible, when sharing image queries, to make the search a ‘safe’ (i.e. adult content filtered) one: in Google, just add &safe=active to the end of the URL.

(The image search approach also lets me quickly scan the results for one that appears to contain the sort of chart data I want. Supporting visual filtering is one reason why some search engines have experimented with including an image from each linked to page in the search engine results listing.)

Limiting searches by document type can also be achieved in a normal web search too, of course. For example, if you are looking for a report on knife crime in UK cities, then it might be reasonable to suspect that the most relevant documents were published as PDFs – so limit on that:

If you’d rather use the normal Google search box as a command line, the search query is: uk+knife+crime+report+filetype:pdf

If you’re looking for actual data, it might make sense to search on spreadsheet documents? uk knife crime statistics filetype:xls

As well as variously using the keyword ‘chart’ or ‘statistics’, the word ‘data’ or ‘table’ can also help tune results, particularly when running an image search. Remember, the point may not necessarily to find a chart, or set of data directly. Instead, it may be using the fact that a document contains a chart or a table to limit the results you get back (assuming that documents or posts containing charts, tables, etc., are likely to be more considered on a particular topic simply because the author has gone to the trouble of including a a chart or a table etc.)

Increasingly, I find I’m also using Youtube to search for particular items of BBC content. Note that my motivation here is not necessarily to use the video clip I have found directly, mainly because a lot of BBC related footage on Youtube has not been put there by the BBC – i.e. it is more likely to be copyright infringing content uploaded by an individual.

Instead, I am making use of:

1) the segmenting of video clips that individuals have done (chopping a 3 minute clip out of an hour long documentary, for example);
2) the user provided metadata around the clip – the title they have given it, the description text, the tags used to annotate it;
3) the automatically generated ‘related video’ service provided by Youtube,

to help me deep search into BBC content so that I can quickly find a clip that can then be obtained in a rights approved manner, without having to wade through hours and hours of video searching for a clip I want to use.

That is, it is possible to use Youtube as a great big index of BBC ‘deep clips’, in the sense that they are clipped from deep within a longer programme, to locate a particular clip that can then be obtained in a rights cleared fashion: searching Youtube to find something that I will then go elsewhere for.

So the take home message from this post? The best place to search for a particular resource may not be the obvious one.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

4 thoughts on “Searching By Looking Elsewhere”

  1. Image search is certainly an excellent way to find information – one use that I find it’s invaluable for is checking to see if a foreign name is for a man or a woman – it’s not always straightforward!

    I’m not entirely convinced that Google images are always the best however – there are many other – dare I say better – image search engines that are available. I generally find Flickr is an excellent resource, with the added advantage of then identifying specific groups and perhaps experts in an area to ask a question.

    Filetype searching is good too, particularly if you can recall what file type is best for what type of information. However, when doing a presentation type search you may find that you get better results using a presentation site such as Slideshare for example.

    It’s also sensible to consider the use of other search engines, which have superior search functionality to Google, or which cluster results. My opinion is that Google should become the search engine of last resort, rather than first.

  2. “I’m not entirely convinced that Google images are always the best however – there are many other – dare I say better – image search engines that are available. I generally find Flickr is an excellent resource, with the added advantage of then identifying specific groups and perhaps experts in an area to ask a question”

    One thing that I was trying to suggest was that under certain circumstances I may be able find a better quality of webpage by searching for documents using Google Image Search.

    So for example, if I’m researching a topic and my ideal search result is likely to be a post containing a particular sort of graph or chart, I can use the image search to only turn up pages that contain such an image. The aim is not to find the image, per se, it’s to find a page of such a quality that it will also contain an image…

    That is, I am using Google images as a filter to find pages that contain images, rather than the images themselves.

    Same with searching Youtubve for BBC clips rather than the BBC. The aim is not to find a Youtube clip, it’s to find a reference to a BBC programme clip that can be used request a rights cleared version of a particular programme fragment.

  3. Hi Tony,

    Yes, I see what you’re saying, and I do the same. The point that I’d come back with in respect to images is that Google isn’t necessarily the best resource, and other image search engines will also turn up appropriate pages. We’re in agreement over the destination, just not quite aligned on how we get there! :)

  4. One of the major differences I’ve noticed between effective and ineefective searchers is that effective searchers move a second step — they ask what information they want, but then they form a model of the sort of page or document that information might be in, or the sort of vocabulary it might contain, the sort of format it would likely be in. In essence, they use something close to genre knowledge to find things.

    This is a great example of that. Thanks for the tip.

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