Creative Commons Search vs. Google Images

“I don’t know, I found the picture on Google”

How many times have you heard a student say that when asked to provide a source for an image they’ve used for a project? You can ask them to provide proper references. You can plead with them to use only “teacher approved” sites. You can craft an amazing framework or rubric to help them work through proper citations. You can even force them to use image websites specifically curated for educational use of photographs. The reality is, when you’re done scaffolding and supporting good habits in your classroom, most students leave and go right back to scouring Google for images, with little regard for how they might need to document the image, or whether they would need to claim fair use.

I know, I’ve witnessed it. Heck, I do the same when I need an image in a pinch to liven up a document, or a quick presentation to a small group of teachers in my district. It’s accessible, it’s quick, it’s easy. And with the growth of Google Docs as the defacto word processor in many schools districts, it’s now the encouraged method of adding images to documents using Google’s own built in image search. Sure, you’re using images that are marked for commercial reuse and modification, but you’re still going through Google Image search. Students don’t always recognize the difference between the modified search within docs, and the open Google Image Search.

I decided to take a different tact this week with students. I appealed to their more logical side, and crafted a simple activity that would show them how much more quickly they could deal with those “nagging” questions that teachers always ask them about images in projects:

  • Who took the photo or owns it?
  • What website did it come from?
  • Do you have permission to use it?

When you search via Google Images, those questions can sometimes be murky to answer, or take awhile to “click through” to find the original source of an image. However, when you use the Creative Commons Search, you’re directed more often than not to the original source of the image, giving you the answers to the three questions more readily, and with greater accuracy. Or so I theorized. And thus, I crafted an activity that I ran through two 8th grade classrooms this week in hopes that I could demonstrate how much more accurate (students didn’t seem to care), but much faster (many students were impressed with this) the Creative Commons search was compared to Google Image search.

I grouped the students into small teams, and then “timed” them to answer the three questions above while trying to find a picture of a playground using Google Image Search. The fastest time was 56 seconds. Some groups didn’t even finish in the 3 minute time limit I gave them. Many of the groups were unsure if they could use the image, and several said they could, but they couldn’t articulate why. I then tasked them with the same search using the Creative Commons Search. None of the students had seen the Creative Commons Search website before, so I showed them quickly how it worked. And then they were timed again. The fastest time was 29 seconds, and ALL of the groups finished under the 2 minute 30 second mark. They answered every question with confidence, and they all knew why they could use the images, because the CC license was clearly stated alongside (or linked to) the image.

Huzzah! I was at least able to show them that the Creative Commons Search is indeed faster for finding images, providing thorough documentation of the actual owner or originator of the image, and whether or not they had permission to use it (every image had a clear Creative Commons license that stipulated they could use it with at least attribution). The real question will be if the students care enough to change their “normal habits.” My fear is they won’t. But I hope that the significant time saved while searching (multiplied over many images throughout the course of a project), and the unoquivocal answer of “can they use it” may start to turn a few students into converts outside of the classroom as well. Here’s to hope!

As an aside, I created the “Creative Commons Search vs. Google Images” activity as a Google Document, and opened it up for anyone to critique, comment, or modify for their own use. Have a look, and help me make it better, steal it, or share it as you see fit!


  1. Wow, thanks! Have to admit, I`ve been using Google Images myself, when I was in need for a quick illustration. Now I know about the alternative 🙂

    1. You’re welcome! The Creative Commons Search has come a long way, and I find it very valuable for grabbing images I intend to place in any professional presentations and/or documents.

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