The State of Image Search

There’s currently a lack of direction in the image search products offered by the leaders in the field. Each offering is quite different, and none have fully realised revenue streams. This is a quick summary of the current state of play.

Text search by any other name

Some image search engines learn about images solely by leveraging image meta-data and nearby text in parent documents. It’s a little like identifying a photograph by the name on the album cover and the writing on the back of the photo. This was an ideal solution for text search engines like Google and Yahoo, who could leverage their existing data and infrastructure.

Getting smarter

Microsoft’s Live Search have recently started broadening the mainstream by adding the capability to analyse the images themselves. For example, the Live Search team have added the ability for their system to recognise faces.

Playing the name game

The big players in search get revenue from serving up relevant advertising, but so far none of them have successfully monetised image search. Currently image search serves as a loss-leader that exists to support their search brands, a visible sign that they’ve still got chips in the big game.

That doesn’t mean they’re sitting on their hands. Both Microsoft and Google employ researchers in the area of image comparison and classification so expect big developments from them in 2009.

Pure image search start-ups

There are a few start-ups with an eye on the prize of being the first to monetise image search. Being smaller and more maneuverable than the big players they’ve got off the ground faster, but have yet to build up significant numbers. Start-ups to keep an eye on include Picitup (find similar images, celebrity face comparison), Riya/Like (text-driven image search and product search), and the Toronto-based Idée Inc (copyright monitoring, colour-based search).

These guys are hungry for revenue, so I expect to have fresh news in Q4 this year.

The home team

I work for Pixsta, another image search start-up. We’ve pulled together the basis of a decent team, and should start taking over the world shortly. As for what we’re working on, I’ll write more when I know what’s safe to write about outside NDA :o)

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