Search Algorithm#

Openverse currently uses a relatively simple and naïve search algorithm with restricted modifications to the default Elasticsearch behaviour. The documentation on this page was written by referencing the code in Openverse as well as parts of Openverse’s historical development. Parts of the story for how Openverse’s indexes came to be configured as they are today are likely missing. Future improvements to Openverse’s indexing and search will be more carefully documented here and in the code to ensure there is greater longevitiy of understanding.

Note: This document avoids covering details covered in the Openverse Search Guide. Specifically, this document does not describe how to search (advanced techniques and syntax), rather what is searched and in what way.

Reference resources#

This document includes links to specific parts of Elasticsearch’s documentation and Openverse code. The following are broadly useful entry points into learning about Elasticsearch, full text-search, and Openverse’s index configuration:


  • “Document”: The total queryable information representing a single work catalogued in Openverse.

  • “Field”: The individual queryable elements of a document. In the context of Openverse, these may be textual, numerical, or keywords.

  • “Keyword field”: A field where the entire contents of the field are treated as a single token. This is used for fields where the possible values are a known and relatively small set. For example, descriptive “size” of an image may be either “large”, “medium”, or “small”. Because we know this ahead of time, Elasticsearch is able to much more quickly create the index entries for documents with this field because there are essentially only three keys that need to be indexed.

  • “Result relevance”: An individual result is “relevant” to a search when it matches the expectations of the user for a given query. A result is irrelevant if it does not match the expectations of the user for that same query. For example, the query “bird watch” may produce pictures of a wristwatch with a bird clock face illustration or could surface pictures related to the activity also known as “birding” (bird watching), due to stemming. In the case of this specific query, “bird watching” may not be relevant, despite being a technically correct match for the query given Openverse’s current index configuration. Other relevancy issues may be caused by descriptions that are not related to the contents of an image. This often happens on Flickr where users sometimes include blog-like text in the description of an image that references things that happened outside the context of the image itself.

  • “Result quality”: A combination of relevance and other factors like the actual perceived “quality” of a given work. A work may be directly relevant to a particular query but be of low quality. Quality is subjective, though there may be certain characteristics that are broadly applicable to some subset of searches.


Openverse uses Elasticsearch’s full text indexing and search capabilities. We currently rely heavily on Elasticsearch’s default behaviours in many aspects of our search including Elasticsearch’s default stemming configuration, aside from small adjustments documented in the text analysis and stemming section below. The “raw” index configuration can be found in the module (see link in resources). Information for how to understand the configuration can be found in the Elasticsearch documentation for index configuration.

Note: We also apply cluster-level configurations as part of our Elasticsearch deployment. These are intentionally not covered here as they primarily deal with cluster performance and are irrelevant to the way searches are executed.

Text analysis/tokenization#

Note: A general understanding of full-text search (Wikipedia) and the concepts of “stemming” (Wikipedia) and “tokenization” (Wikipedia) will be useful for understanding this section.

Text analysis or tokenization is the broad process Elasticsearch follows to generate the indexable list of words for each document. A significant aspect of this for Openverse (and many applications) is stemming. When Elasticsearch performs a full text search, it is searching the index which maps stemmed words to a specific document, rather than the original text itself. This means that the text analysis configuration applied has a significant impact on the way documents are searched, how Elasticsearch calculates relevance, and, in particular, what terms are available for a given document. When searching for “animal”, for example, if the document does not contain the word animal in any of the indexed fields, then it will never be returned as a result (under the current configuration). Said another way: whether a document will be returned for a given query depends exclusively on the tokens derived when textual analysis is applied to the document.

Openverse only applies our custom text analysis configuration to the “title”, “description”, and “tags” fields. All other fields use the standard analyzer.

Openverse is currently configured exclusively with English language text analysis. This means Openverse does not properly index documents in any language other than English. This is a known issue that we hope to be able to address soon via Elasticsearch’s internationalisation tools.

We primarily use the default English language stemming settings aside from minor changes (GitHub) present in the configuration to address a specific issue with the “anim” stem. We use the Snowball English stemmer and Lucene’s possessive English stemmer.

The rationale for this specific stemmer configuration is not documented aside from the “anim” stem issue linked above.

Openverse also applies the lowercase text analysis filter making our indexes case-insensitive.

Search execution#

There are essentially 2 broad types of “full-text” searches available via the Openverse API:

  1. General “query” searching, which applies a simple text query search against several, non-configurable fields.

  2. Individual field querying, which enables searching specific fields with independent query terms.

Both of these search types also allow keyword filtering of the results by the following fields:

  • Extension

  • Category

  • Source

  • License

  • License type

  • Length (audio only)

  • Aspect ratio (image only)

  • Size (image only)

Source is the only field for which you can currently also specify exclusions.

By default, items marked “mature” are excluded, but these can also be enabled.

See the following API documentation links for descriptions and options for each field:

For each of these fields, there is a limited and specific set of terms that appear for the relevant document fields for each of these query parameters. These fields are matched exactly, using the filter context Elasticsearch queries (“filter” or “must_not”). Filter-context queries can be cached by Elasticsearch, which improves their performance. All of these filters except for extension are validated to only allow specific options (documented in the API documentation links above).

General “query” searching#

This is the type of searching most commonly used to query Openverse. It is activated when the q query parameter is present. It searches the following aspects of a document:

  • Description

  • Title

  • Tags

Note: The API does not currently surface the “description” field, though discussion is underway to potentially change this fact.

Of these, title is weighted 10000 times more heavily than the description and tags. This makes works whose titles closely match the query rise to the “top” of the results, even if the same text is present word-for-word in a description. It also breaks ties between documents, if, for example, two documents are returned, one because the title matches and one because a tag matches, the title-matched document will be ranked higher and therefore appear first.

Additionally, if the query is wrapped in double quotes ("), we search each of these exactly which will bypass stemming and match exact word order. Title weighting is still applied in this case. This means that if the exact query text is found in the title of one document and the description of another, the title-matched document will appear ahead of the description-matched document.

Individual field querying#

This type of search is not commonly used. The Openverse frontend only surfaces one of the subset of fields that are queryable in this approach. It is only available if the q query parameter is excluded. In other words, if the request includes the q query parameter, the API will ignore these options even if they are present in the request. In that case, it will execute the general “query” search described above. Future work may surface the possibility for combining general querying and individual field querying.

These are the fields currently supported for individual field querying:

  • Creator

  • Title

  • Tags

Note: The “tags” filter applies to the name field of the tags. No other aspect of the tags is currently searchable.

Each of these can be stacked. You can make a request that queries for a specific title by a specific creator. The following parameters would search only for works by “Claude Monet” where the word “madame” (or it’s stemmed versions) appear in the title: ?creator=Claude Monet&title=madame.

As you can see, this is unique from the general query searching in that it allows you to apply separate queries for individual fields (hence the name “individual field querying”). The other notable difference from general querying is that the “description” field of the document is not available for individual field querying.

Document scoring#

Aside from the aforementioned weighting of document “title” matches, Openverse also includes one other attempt at scoring documents to improve search relevancy and quality. Future improvements to Openverse’s search relevancy will most likely involve changes to how we score documents. For example, we may score documents higher if they are determined to be popular results in Openverse itself.

Provider supplied popularity#

Some providers supply a “popularity” rating for individual works. We ingest this data and calculate a normalised “popularity” score named rank_feature. Flickr is one of the providers that supplies this information. This data is used so that works that are popular on the provider side, are ranked higher in Openverse as well. The assumption here is that works that are popular on the provider’s own website are likely higher quality and therefore more desirable results. Whether this has a significant impact on result relevancy or quality has not been measured, in part due to loose definitions of “relevancy” and “quality” and in part because we do not currently have tools for measuring user perception of a results relevancy or quality.