There’s nothing like getting engaged to send a normally efficient and organized person down a rabbit hole of Pinterest, Tumblr, and blog browsing. You start out browsing floral arrangements incorporating succulents, and end up three hours later obsessively stalking the blog of a photographer in Portland, trying to determine the designer of one particular gown featured in a photo.
Social curation tools have, in many ways, democratized event planning, home decorating, and shopping in general: there have never been more and better ways to become inspired by other peoples’ style choices.
But, as most of us have realized, it's a mess out there. Pinners fail to source their images, copyright rules are completely ignored, images are mislabeled, and disreputable vendors try to pass off other people’s designs as their own. In short, it can be difficult to find the original source for an image you’ve become enamored with, whether you want to consider purchasing the item in question or are seeking instructions for how to make it yourself.
The same problem can occur in real life: someone passes you on the sidewalk wearing a necklace that makes you swoon—you ask where it's from, but the wearer only replies, “it was a gift”. Or maybe a vintage boutique has the perfect vase with no markings and the shopkeeper doesn’t know its provenance.
There’s more potential for solving the case of the mysterious photo online than in accurately sourcing the real-life item, but there’s hope for both scenarios. There are a variety of tools, tips and tricks to employ to locate your prized quarry, but I’m going to focus on ones that make use of image search techniques.
This “experimental” feature within Amazon’s mobile app (available for iPhone, Android and Windows Phone) is your best bet for finding offline items online. The feature has existed since 2008, but it's very likely most people with the Amazon app already installed have never heard, nor used it.
To use this feature you must take a photo of the item you want to source, using the software camera within the Amazon app (this is found under the “more” section on the bottom right-hand corner in the iPhone version).
The biggest downside is the app will only search for your item within the Amazon ecosystem. If something is listed for sale at Amazon, even if sold by a third-party or sold used, it will likely show up in the search results once you submit your image.
In the photo you can see four attempts I made to locate real items via Amazon. The app works best on items with words on them: my hairbrush (it had a brand marking) and the book (though not yet released) were easy for Amazon to track down. Amazon could not find my Heath Ceramics vase, so it suggested a glass jug from Bormioli—no thanks. But the Charley Harper notecards, with no markings whatsoever, were easy to find: perhaps because I bought them on Amazon. A search for a Tarte eyeshadow palette—though it is available on Amazon—resulted in a very similar eyebrow palette from another brand.
Google “Search By Image”
Google introduced this feature more than a year ago but, again, most people aren’t aware of it. It is accessible from the Google Image Search page’s camera icon in the search field. You can upload a photo you’ve got saved on your computer, or you can paste in a sourceless image’s URL (but NOT a URL for a page that contains the image). Here are Google’s official instructions for the search tool. Every search I’ve conducted has resulted in a guess about the product name, links to where the image is found, a collection of all the versions of the photo itself (cropped, edited, different sizes), as well as a collection of “visually similar” items.
Searching by image works best if you have the URL, and it works well if you have an image that you saved directly from a web page, but it works occasionally if all you have is a screenshot that you grabbed from a website that had disabled the old “right-click, save-as,” method for saving images. Often, though, the screenshot is the only way to save Pinterest and Tumblr images that have no source, or that link to what is obviously not the original source.
Tin-Eye is a “search by image” search engine plugin that existed before Google’s tool. Its algorithms don’t work exactly the same way as Google’s, so there’s a chance you might end up with better results on TinEye if Google Search By Image didn’t work out for you. Its worth trying.
A newly launched start-up has added real, live humans to the image search equation. At The Hunt, you can submit a request for the site’s users to help you track down what you’re looking for, even if all you have to go by is a public Tumblr, Pinterest or Instagram user account (you can also use an image URL). As of now, there is no way to upload an image from your desktop to The Hunt.
Its great when a user at The Hunt finds a retailer for the exact product you’re hunting for, but because these are real people, you might actually trust their “similar suggestions” when the real deal isn’t findable. When you submit your request, you can specify how closely you want your personal shoppers to hew to your standards.
Because most users on The Hunt seem fashion-oriented, I submitted two wedding gown-tracking requests. For one, I requested a similar style to the photo I found, and at half the price. For the other, I asked for the exact dress but in a different color. So far, no leads on my requests, but the users of the site have tracked down hundreds of thousands of products for each other so I’m still hopeful.
(Images: Flickr user risaikeda licensed for use under Creative Commons; Rachel Rosmarin)