When you think about “information,” what probably comes to mind are streams of words and numbers. Google’s pretty good at organizing these types of information, but consider all the things you can’t express with words: what does it look like in the middle of a sandstorm? What are some great examples of Art Nouveau architecture? Should I consider wedding cupcakes instead of a traditional cake?
This is why Google built Images in 2001. They realized that for many searches, the best answer wasn’t text—it was an image or a set of images. The service has grown quite a bit since then. In 2001, it indexed around 250 million images. By 2005, it had indexed over 1 billion. And today, it have an index of over 10 billion images.
It’s not just about quantity, though. Over the past decade they have been baking deep computer science into Google Images to make it even faster and easier for you to find precisely the right images. They not only find images for pretty much anything you type in; they can also instantly pull out images of clip art, line drawings, faces and even colors.
There’s even more sophisticated computer vision technology powering the “Similar images” tool. For example, did you know there are nine subspecies of leopards, each with a distinct pattern of spots? Google Images can recognize the difference, returning just leopards of a particular subspecies. It can tell you the name of the subspecies in a particular image—even if that image isn’t labeled—because other similar leopard images on the web are labeled with that subspecies’s name.
And the “Similar colors” refinement doesn’t just return images based on the overall color of an image. If it did, lots of images would simply be classified as “white.” If you’re looking for [tulips] and you refine results to “white,” you really want images in which the tulips themselves are white—not the surrounding image. It takes some heavy-duty algorithmic wizardry and processing power for a search engine to understand what the items of interest are in all the images out there.
Those are just a few of the technologies that have been built to make Google Images more useful. Meanwhile, the quantity and variety of images on the web has ballooned since 2001, and images have become one of the most popular types of content people search for. So over the next few days Google is rolling out an update to Google Images to match the scope and beauty of this fast-growing visual web, and to bring to the surface some of the powerful technology behind Images.
Here’s what’s new in this refreshed design of Google Images:
- Dense tiled layout designed to make it easy to look at lots of images at once. They want to get the app out of the way so you can find what you’re really looking for.
- Instant scrolling between pages, without letting you get lost in the images. You can now get up to 1,000 images, all in one scrolling page. And they will show small, unobtrusive page numbers so you don’t lose track of where you are.
- Larger thumbnail previews on the results page, designed for modern browsers and high-res screens.
- A hover pane that appears when you mouse over a given thumbnail image, giving you a larger preview, more info about the image and other image-specific features such as “Similar images.”
- Once you click on an image, you’re taken to a new landing page that displays a large image in context, with the website it’s hosted on visible right behind it. Click anywhere outside the image, and you’re right in the original page where you can learn more about the source and context.
- Optimized keyboard navigation for faster scrolling through many pages, taking advantage of standard web keyboard shortcuts such as Page Up/Page Down. It’s all about getting you to the info you need quickly, so you can get on with actually building that treehouse or buying those flowers.
And for the advertisers, Google is launching a new ad format called Image Search Ads. These ads appear only on Google Images, and they let you include a thumbnail image alongside your lines of text.
These upgrades are rolling out in most of the local interfaces worldwide over the next few days. I hope they not only make it easier to search for images, but also contribute to a better aesthetic experience. We see images as a major source of inspiration, a way of connecting the world—and their growth is showing no signs of slowing down.