on the net
photo Greg Notess
Reference Librarian
Montana State University

There are plenty of

specialized search tools,

some of which cover

several types of multimedia

content while others focus

just on images or only on

MP3 clips.

Searching Beyond Text: Multimedia Search Tools

ONLINE, November 2000
Copyright © 2000 Information Today, Inc.


In the September 2000 On the Net column, we explored some of the complex issues with searching for images, audio files, and video clips on the Net. This issue's column will examine some of the search engines available for tracking down the multimedia files available on the Net.

Most of the major search engines have some abilities to search for multimedia files. In addition, there are plenty of specialized search tools, some of which cover several types of multimedia content while others focus just on images or only on MP3 clips.


There are many search engines that index pictures of all kinds. Some are associated with the general search engines while others are standalone image search engines. Some just index pictures available on the Web while others have specialized collections of images. The image search engines are much more diverse than the general Web search engines. Copyright is one important issue to consider when searching for images. Once found, can the image be used on your Web site, electronic greeting card, wallpaper, or business report?


At the Go portal, users can search for images as one of the search options and a browsable and searchable version is also accessible at http://www.go.com/Gallery. It includes a collection of images from PicturesNow and millions more from general Web pages. The ones from PicturesNow are noted in the display.

On the results list, the pictures from the general Web link directly to the Web pages containing the image. To see what has been indexed for these, click on "image details" to see the descriptive information that includes the source page title, width in pixels, height in pixels, image URL, and page URL. However, for the Web images, the search engine looks for the search terms on the page that appear in close proximity to the image, and not just for terms that occur in the "image details" display.

For consumer use, there is a definite advantage to the PicturesNow images. Rather than stock photographs or commercial clip art collections that sell images for use, PicturesNow purchases and licenses its images for free use by consumers. They can be freely downloaded and freely used for personal purposes such as online greeting cards and personal Web pages.

Searchers can use the same syntax on the Go image search as they use on the regular Go. It does not support Boolean operators or truncation, but the +, -, and " " marks work to require terms, exclude terms, and phrase search respectively.

Yahoo! Picture Gallery

The Yahoo! Picture Gallery at http://gallery.yahoo.com/ is also a free collection of pictures containing over 400,000 pictures that can be used for Yahoo! Greetings, Yahoo! GeoCities Web sites, and in the Yahoo! Briefcase. The pictures are organized in categories and can be searched by words in the title and description, but not by the photographer.

The pictures are provided by Corbis.com, and while free for limited use on Yahoo! properties as outlined earlier, personal use beyond that and larger versions of the image require payment, typically $3. No options are available for commercial use directly on the Yahoo! Picture Gallery. For that, a customer needs to go to the Corbis site directly.

Excite Photo Search

The pictures are all categorized and the title, categories, and descriptions are indexed.
Excite offers a Photo Search at http://www.excite.com/search/photosearch/ and it searches either member photos or news photos, but not both at the same time. The member photos come from Excite's Webshots, which is an exclusive collection of well over one million images. These are images designed for wallpaper and screen savers, and consequently, can be higher-quality images than those found on the general Web. Actual quality varies greatly, but the images are certainly larger than the free ones from Corbis via the Yahoo! Picture Gallery.

The Webshots collection includes several thousand stock photos along with 1.5 million Webshots member photos. All are available for use within the Webshots screen saver and wallpaper application, but there is no clear statement about other uses.

These images can be browsed by category or searched. There are also collections by contributor. The pictures are all categorized and the titles, categories, and descriptions are indexed. However, all three fields are chosen by the Webshots community members that upload the images, so the quality of the indexing is quite inconsistent.

On the other side of the Excite Photo Search are the News photos that come from AP and Reuters. They only include the past week of newswire photos, and Excite only has rights to make them available to users for that week.

AltaVista Image Search

AltaVista's Image Search is at the rather unwieldy URL of http://www.altavista.com/cgi-bin/query?pg=q&stype=simage (but http://www.altavista.com/r?L10 also works for now). It includes several specialized image collections, such as Corbis, Getty Images, and CDNOW. The images in the Corbis collection are available on a similar basis as they are from the Yahoo! Picture Gallery. The Getty Images collection offers an additional source for images that can be licensed professionally.

The AltaVista advantage is its search features. It has an advanced image search that accepts full Boolean searches like the regular AltaVista Web advanced search. It also has check box limits for restricting a search to Photos, Graphics, Buttons and Banners, Color, or Black and White. Additional check box limits are available for the sources. The default is to search the collection of Web images and the specialized collections, but the Web can be deselected, and the search can be limited to just one special collection or all three. Just be sure that either the Color or the Black and White box is checked; otherwise, all searches will get zero results.


As one example of the specialized search engine, Ditto.com offers an unusual approach. Its database of images is culled from the Web. However, its advanced search options and the display linking make it unique. On the advanced search side, Ditto offers the ability to limit by GIF or JPG, general file size, color depth, width, height, and date added.

After finding a hit, clicking on the result will open two new windows. One smaller pop-up window will contain just the image while the other window will display the full Web page that contains the image. Ditto's intention is to provide contextual information as well as the image.

Searching Implications

Image searching remains complex. The image search engines discussed here show a wide variety of data sources, search features, and copyright management. Some, like Excite's, have unique collections of images not available from the other search engines. Others, like both AltaVista and Ditto, have some unique search features.

Given the vagaries of indexing, using different image search engines can certainly bring up quite different images. Some are free to use for personal uses. Others provide options for purchasing commercial rights. There are plenty of other image search tools on the Net, including many from unique collections that are quite likely unavailable through any of the general image search engines.


The various sources for searching for specific sound or video files have expanded greatly, even as the quantity of such multimedia materials has multiplied. The Napster approach of searching for shared files on other users' computers has received much attention (both in the news and in the courts). Its success, notoriety, or capability for providing free access to commercial files has spawned many imitators. While the legality and long-term viability of these file-sharing systems is still being determined, they should not be forgotten as a source for finding both sound and video files. However, we will look at more traditional search engines for finding audio and videos on the Net.

Excite Audio/Video Search

Like many of the image search engines, Excite offers an Audio/Video Search Engine (at http://www.excite.com/search/audio_video_search/) that finds its content on the general Web. The Web pages that Excite's spider has crawled have populated the database with 1.5 million AV files. The Excite AV Search includes the following file types: AVI, MIDI, MPEG, MP3, Real, QuickTime, and WAV. The default option on the search screen will search for any of these types as well as others, but it also has limits for each type.

The search results have icons for audio and video, but they link directly to the Web page that contains the AV files. The AV files are not indexed separately. Instead, the searches are limited to pages that contain an AV file and the search query then seeks to match terms on those pages.

Fast Multimedia Search

Fast's Multimedia Search, available at Lycos at http://multimedia.lycos.com, searches for images, video, streaming audio and video, and sounds. The database content includes multimedia files available on Web sites and at FTP archives, which broadens its scope beyond Excite's.

Fast's search results point directly to the multimedia file rather than the Web page on which they're found. The results give no access to the original linking page. Search terms appear to only search for matches within the file names, not throughout the full text of a Web page on which the file was linked. Search options are fairly few, with limits available for the different kinds of files only: pictures, movies, streams, and sounds. The search can also be limited just to the Image Gallery of licensable images from the Getty Image Collection.

The Fast Multimedia Search does not search for MP3 files, since Fast and Lycos have a separate search for that at Lycos Music (http://mp3.lycos.com). Using this MP3 search engine will find many more audio files in MP3 format than the regular Fast Multimedia Search. The MP3 search finds both free downloads (with no promise of copyright legality) and some commercial files. The results point directly to the MP3 location and include date and file size.

AltaVista Video and MP3/Audio

AltaVista also offers a Video Search and an MP3/Audio Search. In addition to content from their general Web crawl, AltaVista also offers indexed content from partner sites. For the Video Search, these partners include ABCNews, Launch. com, Vidnet, and Merrill Lynch. For the MP3/Audio Search the partners include Riffage and EMusic.

Like in the AltaVista Image Search, both the Video and MP3/Audio searches can search their entire collection or limit to a specific partner. Both also have a duration limit of less than 1 minute or more than 1 minute. The results display provides some information on the files and on the Web page on which it was found (if it did not come from a partner collection). Links are available directly to the multimedia file and to the Web page containing the file.


One example of the specialized approach to finding audio files is FindSounds.com, which focuses on indexing sample sounds and sound effects as opposed to some of the larger audio files or streaming media–like online radio shows. It offers several specialized search options including the ability to specify mono or stereo, 8-bit or 16-bit resolution, several sample rates, and a maximum file size.

In addition, FindSounds displays a graphic version of the waveform. This is then used to provide the ability to search for similar sounds. FindSounds even has the ability to find similar sounds, based on the waveform pattern. Using their own audio player, you can also record your own sounds, upload them, and ask it to search for similar sounds.


All of these multimedia search engines, and many not covered here, provide plenty of options for searching beyond text. For those who need to search for such files frequently, learn which of these search engines have special collections and unique search features. Try out new ones as they become available. While the difficulties and other issues with searching for such files remain, there are at least plenty of options to try and track down the many multimedia files available on the wilds of the Net.

Greg R. Notess (greg@notess.com; http://www.notess.com/) is a Reference Librarian at Montana State University.

Comments? Email letters to the Editor at editor@infotoday.com.

[infotoday.com] [ONLINE] [Current Issue] [Subscriptions] [Top]

Copyright © 2000, Information Today, Inc. All rights reserved.