Ever find a photo and wonder about its origin? There’s a search engine for that. It’s called TinEye, billed as a reverse image engine that uses image identification technology rather than keywords, metadata or watermarks. According to the company, “You can submit an image to TinEye to find out where it came from, how it is being used, if modified versions of the image exist or to find higher resolution versions.”
How does the beta site work in the real world? Well, with some limitations.
I tried it with a representative sample of images—people, objects and logos—with mixed results.
The first search, using a portrait of John F. Kennedy, yielded 81 results, including partisan blogs, poster suppliers and dating-gossip sites. (The link to the Slate online magazine did correctly identify the former president.) The search engine also led to the correct identification of singer Lady Gaga (through mtv.com), novelist John D. MacDonald (through blogs in the U.S. and Russia) and Dilbert, even though the comic strip contained three frames and multiple images. TinEye showed no results for personalities such as magazine finance writer Dyan Machan.
A search using the Leaning Tower of Pisa turned up 31 results, including several postings on the photo-sharing site Flickr. A search using the image of a bottle of Coca-Cola yielded a 2009 blog post about one of the company’s marketing campaigns, along with 19 other results.
For the final search I used the logo from one of my agency’s business-to-business clients, GGB. TinEye found the image on a French industry-directory site, correctly identifying the company as the manufacturer of metal-polymer plain bearings.
The conclusion? TinEye is good at finding images of popular people, objects and brands. In my limited sample it did not lead to official sources, so if you need to annotate research reports, the service may lose some value. I also could not consistently find information about image location, use or version, but that may apply only to certain types of images.
As an image search engine, TinEye isn’t picture-perfect but it could have a bright future, especially as it enlarges its database. On the whole, the service is a fast way to identify common images, and a fun way to view the Web.