Photo Detective: Searching for Photos on the Web

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

I have a friend who tantalizes me with her genealogical success stories. One of my favorites is about how she used a standard Web search engine to locate an ancestral photo on the family Web site of a distant and unknown cousin. Suddenly she had additional information on that line of her family and new photographs for her family tree. She managed to accomplish this a couple of years ago without the benefit of the image filters in the search engines available today. I finally decided to duplicate her efforts and try to find my pictures of my own Taylor ancestors. For each image search I used “Taylor Family” as the search term, casting out the widest possible net for a popular surname. Since Taylor is a very common surname, this technique should uncover a number of matches. If I had an unusual surname in my family tree (I don’t), I’d use that to increase the likelihood of relevant hits.

Using “Taylor Family,” let’s see how image searching actually works. First, in my experience, these search engines do not include photographs found on photo reunion sites, but only those found on family Web sites and media-related online sources. To locate family photos, you will need to check both the photo reunion pages mentioned in my previous column “Reunite with Family Photos”, as well as some of the image search engines listed below. Also see the general lists located at and

This search resulted in 149,735 hits for “Taylor Family” on the day I searched. Each hit was displayed as a thumbnail view of the image with a link to the page where it was found. An added benefit is that Altavista filters out all adult content.

Ditto’s purpose is to help consumers find “visual products and services.” It found 15,230 hits for the search term. Each image also appears as a thumbnail, but there are no additional details until you click on Source under each picture. I found a lot of useless images and when I clicked on Source, I often could find out why this particular picture appeared.

Media Miner
If you are looking for a famous person, then this is the site for your search. It is not a good choice for family photographs.

The Yahoo News Photo Search looks for photographs taken by the Associated Press within the last 30 days. You can narrow your search by term and date, and can change the display from the default of 10. It’s useful if a member of your family appeared in an Associated Press story, but not if you are looking for older heritage images.

I’ve had luck looking for other types of pictures using Google, but it only located 357 hits for “Taylor Family” with some overlap of the matches found using Altavista. There is no filter for adult content.

In order to use the Lycos image search, you need to read a legal notice regarding content and identifying yourself as over 18. It turned up 99 hits but most were irrelevant.

Picsearch Photo Search
This engine has a reputation for finding appropriate images with a filter to eliminate offensive content. For me, it turned up 37 results. Picsearch has extensive instructions to help you make the most of your search. It automatically presents the most relevant images first and you don’t have to enter “and” or “+” to combine search terms.

Fast Multimedia Search
There were 1,318 hits. Its advanced search features allow users to select the format (jpeg, gif, bmp) and type (color, gray, line art).

The best image search engine for family photographs is Altavista because it found a significant number of relevant images (images of people named Taylor) and filtered out inappropriate content. Another favorite is Fast Multimedia Search for its advanced search features.

While I didn’t have any luck actually finding pictures of distant or direct relatives using a popular family name, don’t be discouraged by my lack of success. If you do locate an image of a relative, remember to contact the owner of the photographs, telling them of your genealogical research (you might find a research partner) and asking permission for copies since it is a violation of copyright law to use copyrighted images without permission. Finding family photographs should be fun—not land you in an argument or in court.

If you’ve had success finding family photos using online search engines, I’d like to hear your story. Please contact me at

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at