rank Image search results

How Google Might Rank Image Search Results

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Changes to How Google Might Rank Image Search Results

We are seeing more machine learning in how Google ranks pages and images in search results.

That may leave what we know as traditional, or old school ranking signals behind.

It is worth looking at those older ranking signals because they may play a role in ranking

As I am writing about this new patent on ranking image results, I decided to include what I used to look at when ranking images.

Images can rank in image search, and can help pages they are on rank higher, making a page more relevant for the query terms it ranks for.

Here are signals that I would include when trying to rank image search results:

  • Use meaningful images reflecting what the page is about – make them relevant to a query
  • Use an image file name relevant to what the image is about (I separate words in file names for images using hyphens, too)
  • Use alt text for an alt attribute to describes the image well, with text relevant to the query and avoid keyword stuffing
  • Use a caption that is helpful and relevant to what the query term the page is about
  • Use a title and associated text on the page relevant for what the page is about, and what the image shows
  • Use a decent sized image at a decent resolution that isn’t mistaken for a thumbnail

Those signals help rank image search results and help that page rank as well.

A new patent application uses machine learning to rank image search results. It doesn’t list the features that help images rank, such as alt text, captions, or file names. It does refer to “features” that likely include those as well as other signals.

These machine learning patents will likely become more common from Google.

Machine Learning Models to Rank Image Search Results

This machine learning model may use many different types of machine learning models.

Those models can be:

  • Deep machine learning (e.g., a neural network that includes many layers of non-linear operations.)
  • Other models (e.g., a generalized linear model, a random forest, a decision tree model, and so on.)

This machine learning model accurately generates relevance scores for image-landing page pairs in the index database.”

The patent tells us about an image search system, which includes a training engine.

The training engine trains the machine learning model using training data from image-landing page pairs already associated with ground truth or known values of the relevance score.

An example of the machine learning model generates a relevance score for an image search result from an image, a landing page, and query features. In this image, a searcher submits an image search query. The system generates image query features based on the user-submitted image search query.

Rank Image Search Results includes Image Query Features

That system learns landing page features for the landing page identified by the particular image search result as well as image features for the image identified by that image search result.

The image search system then provides the query features, the landing page features, and the image features as input to the machine learning model.

Google may rank image search results based on various factors

Those may be separate signals from:

  1. Features of the image
  2. Features of the landing page
  3. Combining the separate signals following a fixed weighting scheme that is the same for each received search query

This patent describes how it would rank image search results in this manner:

  1. Obtaining many candidate image search results for the image search query
  2. Each candidate image search result identifies a respective image and a respective landing page for the respective image
  3. For each of the candidate image search results processing
    • Features of the image search query
    • Features of the respective image identified by the candidate image search result
  4. Features of the respective landing page identified by the candidate image search result using an image search result ranking machine learning model trained to generate a relevance score measuring the relevance of the candidate image search result to the image search query
  5. Ranking the candidate image search results based on the relevance scores generated by the image search result ranking machine learning model
  6. – Generating an image search results presentation that displays the candidate image search results ordered according to the ranking
    – Providing the image search results for presentation by a user device

Advantages to Using a Machine Learning Model to Rank Image Search Results

If Google can rank image search query pairs based on relevance scores using a machine learning model, it can improve the relevance of the image search results in response to the image search query.

This differs from conventional methods to rank resources because the machine learning model receives a single input that includes features of the image search query, landing page, and the image identified by a given image search result to predicts the relevance of the image search result to the received query.

This process allows the machine learning model to be more dynamic and give more weight to landing page features or image features in a query-specific manner, improving the quality of the image search results that are returned to the user.

By using a machine learning model, the image search engine does not apply the same fixed weighting scheme for landing page features and image features for each received query. Instead, it combines the landing page and image features in a query-dependent manner.

The patent also tells us that a trained machine learning model can easily and optimally adjust weights assigned to various features based on changes to the initial signal distribution or additional features.

In a conventional image search, we are told that significant engineering effort is required to adjust the weights of a traditional manually tuned model based on changes to the initial signal distribution.

But under this patented process, adjusting the weights of a trained machine learning model based on changes to the signal distribution is significantly easier, thus improving the ease of maintenance of the image search engine.

Also, if a new feature is added, the manually tuned functions adjust the function on the new feature independently on an objective (i.e., loss function, while holding existing feature functions constant.)

But, a trained machine learning model can automatically adjust feature weights if a new feature is added.

Instead, the machine learning model can include the new feature and rebalance all its existing weights appropriately to optimize for the final objective.

Thus, the accuracy, efficiency, and maintenance of the image search engine can be improved.

The Rank Image Search results patent application can be found at

Ranking Image Search Results Using Machine Learning Models
US Patent Application Number 16263398
File Date: 31.01.2019
Publication Number US20200201915
Publication Date June 25, 2020
Applicants Google LLC
Inventors Manas Ashok Pathak, Sundeep Tirumalareddy, Wenyuan Yin, Suddha Kalyan Basu, Shubhang Verma, Sushrut Karanjkar, and Thomas Richard Strohmann

Abstract

Methods, systems, and apparatus including computer programs encoded on a computer storage medium, for ranking image search results using machine learning models. In one aspect, a method includes receiving an image search query from a user device; obtaining a plurality of candidate image search results; for each of the candidate image search results: processing (i) features of the image search query and (ii) features of the respective image identified by the candidate image search result using an image search result ranking machine learning model to generate a relevance score that measures a relevance of the candidate image search result to the image search query; ranking the candidate image search results based on the relevance scores; generating an image search results presentation; and providing the image search results for presentation by a user device.

The Indexing Engine

The search engine may include an indexing engine and a ranking engine.

The indexing engine indexes image-landing page pairs, and adds the indexed image-landing page pairs to an index database.

That is, the index database includes data identifying images and, for each image, a corresponding landing page.

The index database also associates the image-landing page pairs with:

  • Features of the image search query
  • Features of the images, i.e., features that characterize the images
  • Features of the landing pages, i.e., features that characterize the landing page

Optionally, the index database also associates the indexed image-landing page pairs in the collections of image-landing pairs with values of image search engine ranking signals for the indexed image-landing page pairs.

Each image search engine ranking signal is used by the ranking engine in ranking the image-landing page pair in response to a received search query.

The ranking engine generates respective ranking scores for image-landing page pairs indexed in the index database based on the values of image search engine ranking signals for the image-landing page pair, e.g., signals accessed from the index database or computed at query time, and ranks the image-landing page pair based on the respective ranking scores. The ranking score for a given image-landing page pair reflects the relevance of the image-landing page pair to the received search query, the quality of the given image-landing page pair, or both.

The image search engine can use a machine learning model to rank image-landing page pairs in response to received search queries.

The machine learning model is a machine learning model that is configured to receive an input that includes

(i) features of the image search query
(ii) features of an image and
(iii) features of the landing page of the image and generate a relevance score that measures the relevance of the candidate image search result to the image search query.

Once the machine learning model generates the relevance score for the image-landing page pair, the ranking engine can then use the relevance score to generate ranking scores for the image-landing page pair in response to the received search query.

The Ranking Engine behind the Process to Rank Image Search Results

In some implementations, the ranking engine generates an initial ranking score for each of multiple image—landing page pairs using the signals in the index database.

The ranking engine can then select a certain number of the highest-scoring image—landing pair pairs for processing by the machine learning model.

The ranking engine can then rank candidate image—landing page pairs based on relevance scores from the machine learning model or use those relevance scores as additional signals to adjust the initial ranking scores for the candidate image—landing page pairs.

The machine learning model would receive a single input that includes features of the image search query, the landing page, and the image to predict the relevance (i.e., relevance score, of the particular image search result to the user image query.)

We are told that this allows the machine learning model to give more weight to landing page features, image features, or image search query features in a query-specific manner, which can improve the quality of the image search results returned to the user.

Features That May Be Used from Images and Landing Pages to Rank Image Search Results

The first step is to receive the image search query.

Once that happens, the image search system may identify initial image-landing page pairs that satisfy the image search query.

It would do that from pairs that are indexed in a search engine index database from signals measuring the quality of the pairs, and the relevance of the pairs to the search query, or both.

For those pairs, the search system identifies:

  • Features of the image search query
  • Features of the image
  • Features of the landing page

Features Extracted From the Image

These features can include vectors that represent the content of the image.

Vectors to represent the image may be derived by processing the image through an embedding neural network.

Or those vectors may be generated through other image processing techniques for feature extraction. Examples of feature extraction techniques can include edge, corner, ridge, and blob detection. Feature vectors can include vectors generated using shape extraction techniques (e.g., thresholding, template matching, and so on.) Instead of or in addition to the feature vectors, when the machine learning model is a neural network the features can include the pixel data of the image.

Features Extracted From the Landing Page

These aren’t the kinds of features that I usually think about when optimizing images historically. These features can include:

  • The date the page was first crawled or updated
  • Data characterizing the author of the landing page
  • The language of the landing page
  • Features of the domain that the landing page belong to
  • Keywords representing the content of the landing page
  • Features of the links to the image and landing page such as the anchor text or source page for the links
  • Features that describe the context of the image in the landing page
  • So on

Features Extracted From The Landing Page That Describes The Context of the Image in the Landing Page

The patent interestingly separated these features out:

  • Data characterizing the location of the image within the landing page
  • Prominence of the image on the landing page
  • Textual descriptions of the image on the landing page
  • Etc.

More Details on the Context of the Image on the Landing Page

The patent points out some alternative ways that the location of the image within the Landing Page might be found:

  • Using pixel-based geometric location in horizontal and vertical dimensions
  • User-device based length (e.g., in inches) in horizontal and vertical dimensions
  • An HTML/XML DOM-based XPATH-like identifier
  • A CSS-based selector
  • Etc.

The prominence of the image on the landing page can be measured using the relative size of the image as displayed on a generic device and a specific user device.

The textual descriptions of the image on the landing page can include alt-text labels for the image, text surrounding the image, and so on.

Features Extracted from the Image Search Query

The features from the image search query can include::

  • Language of the search query
  • Some or all of the terms in the search query
  • Time that the search query was submitted
  • Location from which the search query was submitted
  • Data characterizing the user device from which the query was received
  • So on

How the Features from the Query, the Image, and the Landing Page Work Together

  • The features may be represented categorically or discretely
  • Additional relevant features can be created through pre-existing features (Relationships may be created between one or more features through a combination of addition, multiplication, or other mathematical operations.)
  • For each image-landing page pair, the system processes the features using an image search result ranking machine learning model to generate a relevance score output
  • The relevance score measures a relevance of the candidate image search result to the image search query (i.e., the relevance score of the candidate image search result measures a likelihood of a user submitting the search query would click on or otherwise interact with the search result. A higher relevance score indicates the user submitting the search query would find the candidate image search more relevant and click on it)
  • The relevance score of the candidate image search result can be a prediction of a score generated by a human rater to measure the quality of the result for the image search query

Adjusting Initial Ranking Scores

The system may adjust initial ranking scores for the image search results based on the relevance scores to:

  • Promote search results having higher relevance scores
  • Demote search results having lower relevance scores
  • Or both

Training a Ranking Machine Learning Model to Rank Image Search Results

The system receives a set of training image search queries
For each training image search query, training image search results for the query that are each associated with a ground truth relevance score.

A ground truth relevance score is the relevance score that should be generated for the image search result by the machine learning model (i.e., when the relevance scores measure a likelihood that a user would select a search result in response to a given search query, each ground truth relevance score can identify whether a user submitting the given search query selected the image search result or a proportion of times that users submitting the given search query select the image search result.)

The patent provides another example of how ground-truth relevance scores might be generated:

When the relevance scores generated by the model are a prediction of a score assigned to an image search result by a human, the ground truth relevance scores are actual scores assigned to the search results by human raters.

For each of the training image search queries, the system may generate features for each associated image-landing page pair.

For each of those pairs, the system may identify:

(i) features of the image search query
(ii) features of the image and
(iii) features of the landing page.

We are told that extracting, generating, and selecting features may take place before training or using the machine learning model. Examples of features are the ones I listed above related to the images, landing pages, and queries.

The ranking engine trains the machine learning model by processing for each image search query

  • Features of the image search query
  • Features of the respective image identified by the candidate image search result
  • Features of the respective landing page identified by the candidate image search result and the respective ground truth relevance that measures a relevance of the candidate image search result to the image search query

The patent provides some specific implementation processes that might differ based upon the machine learning system used.

Take Aways to Rank Image Search Results

I’ve provided some information about what kinds of features Google May have used in the past in ranking Image search results.

Under a machine learning approach, Google may be paying more attention to features from an image query, features from Images, and features from the landing page those images are found upon. The patent lists many of those features, and if you spend time comparing the older features with the ones under the machine learning model approach, you can see there is overlap, but the machine learning approach covers considerably more options.

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25 thoughts on “How Google Might Rank Image Search Results”

  1. Hi Swiftchat,

    Yes, that has always been true. Optimizing the images, the videos and the audio on your pages can help those pages rank higher in search results. It makes a lot of sense to do that.

  2. Great analysis as always. I’ll share a few more things that have helped me have a lot of success with ranking images:

    -running the images through Google Vision and making sure Google is picking up everything you want. You can use this as a tie-breaker if you’re deciding between two images.

    https://cloud.google.com/vision/

    -I also found that the more relevant images I had on the page, the better my chances of getting them to rank, i.e. if you can add multiple images for the same keyword, you should.

    -for some images (think images of documents or diagrams) including keywords embedded within the images helps a lot (especially for images in featured snippets). You can mirror the verbiage other images in that are using.

    Hope this helps some people.

  3. Hi Steve,

    Ideally, if an image can tell a story by itself, without the help of alt text or a caption or associated text on a page, it’s often a good choice of an image, and I have seen the best results from using such pictures too.

    Thanks for the additional suggestions.

  4. Hi Bill,
    This is a great blog. Generally, people tend to focus only on alt text for image ranking. But this blog of yours shows it is much more than that. The information you have shared is important and nicely articulated. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thanks, Kedar. Yes, ranking for images does rely on a lot more that the alt text chosen for an image. An image can rank well in image search results, and it can help a page rank better in organic web search.

  6. Hey Bill !!

    First of all, Thank you for this informative post.

    But this raises a query in my mind, that, should now we avoid alt text image ranking factor and rather use the methods/techniques introduced in this blog. Or we should do both the things side by side. Which one according to you would be more beneficial??

  7. Hello Bill Slawski,

    When I saw the topic of this article, I could not read fast enough. The topic of “image optimization” has been focus of mine for a while now. My personal thought is that images are one of the most overlooked areas of search optimization, yet are also a digital element that users are considering more of every day, not to forget the amount of backend image content that can help provide a bot the relevancy to that content displayed on the same page. I could go on… But, just wanted to thank you again for the share of information that truly matters. Also, I am seeing some evidence that “Original Images” do better than “Stock” at least in some areas of the Internet. Any share from you about that, Bill? Am I just imagining this?

  8. Hi David,

    Nothing in the patent discusses the difference between stock and original images. It really does not appear to be the focus of the inventors’ thoughts when they wrote this.

  9. Thanks for your detailed analysis about Google’s approach on ranking images in search using ML & AI. This is the new frontier, and the possibilities are endless. I wonder if Pinterest also using similar AI to rank their Pin images and there may be another opportunity to optimize pins to drive organic traffic to our site!

  10. Hi Bill,
    This is a great blog. I only follow the alt text for image ranking. But your blog teaches me that there are various other factors, such as, image name, its title, caption, that was new for me. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Hi Sunny,

    Those other factors have made a difference in how images rank, and how images help pages they appear on rank for a long time. Regardless of the changes that this patent is pointing out, they probably continue to still help rankngs of images and pages.

  12. Hi Bill,

    Thank you a lot for this blog post, gives a real insight into how machine learning models are being used to rank images in the search results. I was not aware that there was additional ranking factors for images other than the alt tag so thank you for that. Will be interesting to see how this algorithm further develops in the future.

  13. Hi Digital Rosogulla,

    yes, Google ranks images in Image search, and sometimes includes images in Universal search results. Well-optimized images can also help the pages they appear upon rank better, too. It’s worth making sure that your images are meaningful and optimized well to make your pages stronger, more visitor-friendly, and higher ranking.

  14. Hi Daniel,

    This machine-learning algorithm learns from a set of training data, and gets tested with testing data, which human evaluators might review – it then likely gets used on live pages in search results. It likely evolves everytime new training data causes the algorithm to learn something new.

  15. Hi,
    Now I understand how images could be a way to rank your site. A very detailed post. Thank you for Sharing!

  16. Hi Bill,

    I was using random name while saving and using images on website, but now I understood How google ranks images. To rank higher I have to optimize images, right?

    Top Class explanation

    Thanks a lot.

  17. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for sharing this in detail information regarding the image search and how can we improve the image ranking.

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