Getting Giphy with it: Your guide to the best GIF search service around


Animated GIFs are the perfect, amazing medium of the masses – even if you (like me) refuse to accept that it’s pronounced with a soft G. Is your website looking bland? Throw a GIF on it! Don’t know how to make yourself look casual in an e-mail? A humorous GIF for everyone! GIFs are to the Internet what birds are to clothes and knickknacks. Slightly overplayed, but they can still spice things up.

It’s not easy to find the perfect GIF, though. In the past, you had to root around in the nether regions of the Web or trawl reaction GIF blogs to snatch some of the finest GIFs on the Internet. Sure, there are sites like GIFSoup, or you could use a keyword and browse through Tumblr, but GIFs lack the comprehensive search treatment that lowly regular images receive. If you happened upon the perfect GIF and forgot to save it, your odds of re-stumbling upon that charming moving image of a llama winking at a bear are slim to none.

But the second-class treatment of GIF search is coming to an end. Giphy, a GIF database that debuted in February, continues to make improvements and new features, and it’s already the best GIF database available. Created by Alex Chung and Jace Cooke, Giphy intends to catalog, sort, and elevate the world’s GIFs to the prominent place they deserve.

How does it work?

If you go to the website, it’s fairly stripped down, with a clean interface. You can enter your keyword into a search box, and suddenly a plethora of GIFs are at your disposal. It’s as simple as that. And the number of GIFs on Giphy’s roster continues to grow. But how do they tag them all properly? “We have a custom Web crawler that goes out on the Internet and looks at the top GIF sources for new GIFs,” Chung explains.  “We try to get any metadata from the GIFs using some algorithms as well as using tags from the GIF if it exists on Tumblr.”

But that doesn’t always work, so Chung notes that they have to test new methods. “But what we’ve found is that most of these tags are horrible and useless and there is a lot of tag spam out there.  So we’ve experimented a lot with different ways to effectively clean up the metadata for GIFs, which is a super super hard problem.  So far we’ve been using a mix of algorithms and humans to clean them and make pick out the best ones we’ve seen but with millions of GIFs out there that’s getting harder and harder.”

Many of their GIFs originate on Tumblr, but since Tumblr’s tagging system is hard to navigate, Giphy encourages users to submit specific Tumblrs or other blogs to crawl, so they can round out their GIF collection. The process is tedious.

While the tagging system is still getting tweaked, it’s pretty effective. A simple “Ron Swanson” search reveals a veritable treasure trove.

 Animated Gif on Giphy

But the second-class treatment of GIF search is coming to an end. Giphy, a GIF database that debuted in February, continues to make improvements and new features, and it’s already the best GIF database available. Created by Alex Chung and Jace Cooke, Giphy intends to catalog, sort, and elevate the world’s GIFs to the prominent place they deserve.

Giphy goes where Google doesn’t

Giphy excels because it gets GIF culture in a way that other search engines don’t. Google introduced Animated Search for GIFs, but it hasn’t mastered the art of the relevant search result in the way Giphy has. For example, when you use Google Animated Search for “office,” you get dancing staplers. Giphy understands that you’re probably talking about the TV show, and provides you with a bounty of Dwight-wiling-out GIFs. Since GIFs speak louder than words, let me demonstrate. This is the first result on Giphy:

 Animated Gif on Giphy

Hilarious! Michael Scott! Just what we wanted! Now here’s the first result from Google Animated Search:

Uh, Giphy wins that round.

Google absolutely dwarfs Giphy in size; it’s like comparing a slice of ham to a vast field of pigs. So when you’re doing a GIF search for something super simple or general, like “flowers,” Google might be able to offer you a wider selection. But anytime you want something cultural or meme-y, Giphy has it down in a way its competitors don’t. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect – when I searched Giphy for Pacey Witter, heartthrob of “Dawson’s Creek,” I did not get any results. They did, however, have James van der Beek’s infamous Dawson-crying face, along with a few other Beek-related standouts.

Where Giphy will go from here? 

Giphy is the best GIF search engine by a wide margin, but there’s still some steps it’d be nice to see them take, because there are some gaping holes in the database. And I’m not just talking about the Pacey Witter omission. For instance, there are GIFs of Pacey on Giphy, but they’re filed under “Joshua Jackson,” the actor’s name. This is an example of the difficult task Giphy faces in archiving GIFs — they need to assign a lot of tags to each GIF to make them easily searchable.

Animated GIF attribution is currently like the Wild West: It’s all over the place, without rules, lawless.

And don’t expect much from Giphy if you’re trying to pull it up on your phone. It’s still really just a desktop search engine, but Chung noted they’re working on that. “We originally hacked together the mobile experience until we cleaned up our desktop.  Now that that’s pretty great we’re focusing a lot on mobile.  We’re also partnering with a ton of messaging apps on mobile and on the Web using our Giphy API, and you’ll see us everywhere in a few months.” And Giphy will get in on the app game directly:  “We’ll also be releasing a Web app and iOS app soon later this summer.”

Animated GIF attribution is currently like the Wild West: It’s all over the place, without rules, lawless. It’s challenging to impossible to determine who exactly created a GIF, and the more viral they become, the further they get from their origin, and we often end up loving the image and never knowing who made it. But GIFs don’t just appear out of thin air – and Giphy wants to help us realize that.

While blogs like What Should We Call Me are great, they shouldn’t get all of the credit – the individual GIF makers of the world deserve their share. So what’s Giphy’s fix? “We’re currently putting in a field to allow someone to give attribution to the ‘creator,’ so who actually created the GIF,” Chung explains. “We’ll also add in soon the ‘finder,’ the person who discovered the GIF.  We know that attribution has been a big issue with the distribution of GIFs and that’s one of our top problems to fix.”

Chung hopes that Giphy fans will end up becoming contributors or curators on the site. “In the future we’d like to have our users ‘own’ tags that they can curate and give them credit on the site as well as people who find GIFs giving them ‘finder’ credit on the site as well as the ‘creator’ credit to the orignator.  That mixed in with some fun tagging games and an army of crowd-sourcers hopefully will give us a really great database of GIFs that the world can use.  We’re also in the midst of some large media deals and will be producing a lot of high quality GIFs as original content so that will be awesome and well tagged.” This goal to include users as particpants in GIF culture is another marker that differentiates Giphy from services like Google Animated Search.

Chung and Cooke care about the GIF-sharing community, so it makes sense that they are working on project that could expand the way we consume GIFs. Giphy recently introduced a screensaver feature, and they plan to use the project to showcase news and relevant GIFs. The screensaver feature lets you set your screensaver as a collection of Giphy-curated GIFs. And if there’s a particular GIF-maker you’re fond of, they also offer special screensavers that showcase some of their most popular contributors’ work. It’s like the 2013 version of that little ball bouncing across your screen. “Screensavers are the perfect medium to experience GIFs,” Chung says.  “It’s a passive entertainment system when you’re taking a break from work.  It’s like flipping channels on your TV without having to push any buttons.  Also if we can provide free entertainment to the millions of black screens out there, we become a legitimate media distribution network.”

Giphy has plenty of vision, and considerable momentum, to evolve the way we consume, interact, and approach the Internet’s favorite artform. They want to conquer the realm of GIF archiving and move on to become a media network in their own right. And with the new Giphy Labs project opening up to attract developers, they’re on the right track. Giphy Labs encourages developers to take advantage of the Giphy API, and it’s already resulted in some cool projects – in addition to the screensaver feature, there’s also a memory game you can play with GIFs, something called “Hipchat Bot” that lets you insert random GIFs into hipbot chatrooms, and Giphy TV, which continually streams GIFs from the site – similar to Vinepeek in its haphazardness.

Giphy is committed to making GIFs easier to find and contributing to GIF culture at the same time. And for that, they should be applauded.

 Animated Gif on Giphy
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