Flickr Search: Breaks the Mould Too Far

Flickr’s search is flawed: it over-emphasises tags and breaks the golden rule of a search box on each page.

I like Flickr’s innovation. It’s definitely a candidate for the “2.0” world and a big reason for the Yahoo acquisition is probably just so they can rack Flcikr brains as we enter this brave new WWW. If I was willing and able to use the verb “get it” in a sentence, I would have no problem including the Flickr team in that sentence too. Anyway, there’s plenty of valid Flickr praise around (and I’m about to post some more in the next blog entry), but it’s search just doesn’t do it for me.

Tags Ain’t Everything

Sometimes, innovation can go too far. For all the talk about tags and the folksonomy, what happened to basic search? Call me retro and all that, but I happen to like searching for an arbitrary term on a website. Instead, Flickr’s entire search revolves around tags.

To wit, look at the Flickr front page. There’s a “Find a photo of …” form, but it actually searches for matching tags. So you’ll get fairly high relevance, but you’ll miss out on many possible links. Search for “luxurious” and you’ll get just one match. Yet, have a gawk at coolme’s Ipod photo. A comment there says “How luxurious!”. Information there, but can’t be found.

I’m not trying to break into the “folksonomy” debate here. It’s an interesting conversation, but somewhat overhyped for me. What I’m saying here is, even if tags do work and you can make them more relevant with synonyms and spelling corrections and grammar adjustments, you still should allow search on other fields. I also acknowledge that comments can be irrelevant or worse, but they are nevertheless better than nothing and worthwhile using. And it’s not just comments: a flickr search could also incorporate the photo title, description, user comments, and photographer name.

These extra fields could all be made available in a complex “Advanced Search” box, but would be more popular if it was just part of the basic search. By all means, give a high relevance to tags, since they’re a specific item humans entered. But also give some respect to some of the other fields, and use them to help distinguish among photos of the same tag.

Oh-oh, We Lost the Search!

Another big usability oh-oh is the difficulty of finding the search altogether. It’s there on the front page, but not on many others – such as this help page and even the search results page. So I can’t perform two searches in a row! And you can’t search for something while you’re looking at a single photo, which I would have thought would be a fine time to search for something else. Just about every site needs a little search entry box – it’s the best value HTML can buy you per square inch. Not only is it useful, but it’s pretty-well standard web behaviour now, so you’d want a really good reason not to have it.

Searching Does What?

Finally, the search is inconsistent. Sometimes, it searches for tags as on the homepage and the tag page(http://flickr.com/photos/tags/). And sometimes it works more like what I asked for above: searching on fields such as description and title. This seems to happen when you look at all of an individuals photos. But, of course, it’s restricted to that photographer. Perhaps a tag search would give no results in many cases.