How to Identify Mysterious Images Online

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Image that a student finds online

Can’t figure out the source of an image you found online? There’s an easy trick you might not know about — and it’s an essential tool for citing sources.

Students who find images they want to use in projects need to follow the appropriate rules of citation: state the title and the original source.

But with so much misinformation and mis-attribution online, students might either change the research topic to avoid the problem altogether or simply cite the source poorly.

Take, for example, a student wanting to use this image (above) labeled as a cartoon by Rube Goldberg. Since he wants to use it in a project, he must find the original source of the image, but when he tries looking through Rube Goldberg’s illustrations of absurd, overly-complex machines, the artistic style looks different. That was a dead end.

But there’s a Google tool that allows him to use an image as a search term.

Within just a few seconds, he can discover another artist, named W. Heath Robinson, who also designed humorous machines. With just a few more clicks, he will identify “Testing Golf Drivers,” noted as coming from Robinson’s book, Humors of Golf, in 1923. He can then search to confirm the citation.

From a complete mystery to a citable entity in the blink of an eye.

Here’s how to use Search by Image:

1) Access Google Images by navigating directly to or by running a search and then clicking on Images in the black stripe across the top of the page or in the left-hand column.


2) Notice that in the Google Images search bar, specifically, there is an icon of a camera on the right-hand end.

3) Simply drag-and-drop the image in question into any search bar with the camera icon. Alternately, click on the camera icon to paste in the web address of an image, or upload an image–which means you can also identify where that vacation photo was taken.

4) Wait for a moment while Google searches its image index.

5) View your results. Notice any search terms Google automatically adds to the search box to better describe your image. Dig around a bit among the results, and feel free to tweak the search terms as you discover a bit of information to help you target the image:


Go find that cool picture that passed through your social network, and figure out where it actually originated!

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  • MattSF

    and don’t forget TinEye!

  • Patrick Hogan

    There’s an official extension for Chrome that lets you automate this process by adding “search Google for this image” to the right click contextual menu. 

  • Alan

    Very nice post and very useful, thank you

  • Phook96

    Very useful post – thankyou

  • Susan

    I recently saw this feature on a Google tutorial and was excited to try it.  The only thing I found with this is that it’s hard to know exactly
    where the image originated. For instance I had a picture I took and put
    on an old blog. I put the link for the image in the camera search box
    and found a few other web pages that were using the image– but there
    was no way to distinguish who had it up first (I guess unless I had
    copyrighted it on my blog). My blog didn’t come up as the first result
    and wasn’t the biggest image. Am I missing something about a different way to distinguish between where the image originated?

    • TBM

      Hi Susan–Search by Image does not, indeed, necessarily reveal the origin of an image if the origin is not noted on any of the web pages that Google has indexed. For example, there is a photo floating around the Web of Dr. Martin Luther King sitting on a swing with his children. I used Search by Image to locate it in several places on the Web, hoping to find a digital archive of the collection in which it is held to source it appropriately. The best I found (admittedly, it was not high stakes, so I only spent a few minutes) was a newspaper that had put together a timeline and slideshow on Dr. King. That slideshow listed the source of the photo (and several others contained therein) as coming from AP. 

      I never was able to get any closer to the original, so I just closed out my search assuming that it was a picture taken by AP and held in their proprietary archive. Sometimes, I am able to find even less attribution. But lots of times I am delighted at how quickly the source is revealed, as when I had an unidentified drawing of an octopus that Search by Image served up immediately as being from an encyclopedia sponsored by Napoleon (though I still had to sort though pages that did not source the image–luckily, one of the first few links did).Search strategies never work 100% of the time. What I love about Search by Image is that it takes something that was literally not possible to do in years past (I say “years past” because there are other reverse image search tools out there, as MattSF mentions) and makes it possible. I no longer have to try to look exhaustively through Rube Goldberg’s drawings, try to search for artists that others have equated to Rube Goldberg, and then search through their drawings in turn until I find something that looks like a credible link to the original illustration. In point of fact, Search by Image was built to address a wide variety of needs, an not specifically as a citation tool (e.g., “My trip to DC is such a blur, I can’t remember what statue this is that I am standing in front of here. Let me drag it into the search bar and see if I can identify it.” ) I can try this strategy first, and if it works, save myself hours. Still, sometimes there is some elbow grease involved.

      • Susan

         Thanks for your reply– I agree it is still very beneficial.

  • Ben Samuels

    Great post, this is a tool I’ve used fairly often.  I recently tried to show this to a colleague who is on Windows XP with MS Explorer as a browser and it does not appear as an option there.  So if you’re not seeing the option to use an image to search you might want to try another browser, probably Chrome.

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  • Sandracarswell

    Should this work on an iPad? I can’t seem to find the google image search bar with the camera on the end.

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