A Marketer’s Guide To Visual Search

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In recent years, rapid improvements in machine learning technology, smartphone cameras, and image recognition software have led to a digital transformation. The phenomenon known as visual search is poised to change the way in which brands connect with consumers looking for products and services.

What does a visual search involve? Why should brands and marketers care about visual search? How do consumers use visual search? How can brands benefit from the increased popularity of visual search?

The answers to these questions can be found in the following

What’s Involved in Visual Search?

We are all familiar with looking for information online by typing text into a search box. A visual search operates on the same principle as a text search but uses images instead of words. If you want information on polar bears, for example, you could submit a picture of one instead of typing the words “polar bears.”

The image that’s used can come from anywhere, including real-time images and video streams taken by a smartphone or any other device with a camera, an image from the gallery on the searcher’s smartphone, or an image pulled from emails, websites, or other sources.

In addition to the image provided by the searcher, the platform itself must be able to recognize the image, interpret what the searcher wants, and scour the web in order to deliver relevant results.

Why Should Brands and Marketers Care About Visual Search?

At first glance, visual search appears quite simple in that the searcher only has to share a photo in order for the search engine to provide page after page of relevant information. This is a case where first appearances are deceiving since the task is actually quite complicated.

One reason why visual search is increasing in popularity is that we now have the technology in place to make it possible. In order to execute visual search well, several elements must come together:

  • In order to get accurate results, you must have an image that’s high quality. Today’s faster Internet speeds and widespread access to powerful smartphone cameras make it possible for consumers to capture and upload high-resolution images with ease.
  • Search platforms need to have access to vast libraries of data to be able to recognize the image.
  • Search platforms must also have the intelligence to determine what the searcher is wanting and the ability to learn so they can provide information faster and more accurately.

The ability to access the Internet’s huge amount of information with a single image allows brands and consumers to do several things:

Visual searches make it possible to answer questions that may be difficult to put into words. If a consumer is unable to describe the image they see, they can use a visual search to answer questions, such as:

  • Where can I purchase this?
  • What is this?
  • Where can I buy something that looks good with this?

A visual search can bridge the divide that sometimes exists between the physical and digital. For example:

  • Consumers can use QR codes or barcodes to link products and services with the brand’s digital content.
  • Consumers can match the products that they are seeing in the store with online purchasing and product information.
  • Visual search transforms online shopping by using visual cues to create a more personalized experience.

How Do Consumers Use Visual Search?

Although visual search capability is still relatively new and the technology is still evolving, it has already been adopted by a number of major online platforms and integrated into quite a few products:

  • Search engine giant Google has launched Google Lens, allowing users to point their smartphone’s camera at an item and receive relevant results.
  • Online bulletin board Pinterest offers Pinterest Lens, which enables users to share a picture of an item in order to receive Pinterest pin suggestions for similar products.
  • Snapchat and others have adopted Amazon Rekognition to connect consumers with products.
  • Online marketplace eBay offers Find It on eBay, allowing buyers to share visuals from social media to search for listings for similar services and products.

Is Visual Search in the Mainstream?

Is visual search popular enough for brands to worry about investing in the resources and technology? While it may not be popular enough to be considered mainstream, visual search is on the rise and worth your attention. The experts at MDG Advertising analyzed the data to determine the current state of visual search adoption among consumers and found the following:

  • Visual search is still unfamiliar to most consumers. One survey showed that just 27 percent of U.S. Internet users knew about the technology.
  • Most web users still use text-based searches. At this time, visual searches amount to less than one percent of all searches.
  • The use of visual search is increasing. In 2017, Pinterest logged 250 million visual searches monthly. That number jumped to more than 600 million in 2018.

What Does This Mean for Brands and Marketers?

Visual search might still be the exception rather than the norm today, but marketers should begin now to optimize for the technology by taking these steps:

  • Focus on creating a large image library so search engines will be able to recognize and access their offerings.
  • Make sure that their site is structured in such a way that is easily discovered by web crawlers. One way to do this is to make sure that your image catalog links to the correct product pages on your website.
  • Develop approaches for connecting their physical and digital presences. For example, they should structure in-store merchandising and displays to cater to consumers who may use visual search.

What we have seen so far is only the beginning of the visual search phenomenon. Consumer behavior and technology are still adapting. Expect visual search to become even more popular and powerful as consumers become more comfortable with the approach and the technology improves.

About Michael Del Gigante, CEO of MDG Advertising

In 1999, CEO Michael Del Gigante founded MDG Advertising, a full-service advertising agency with offices in Boca Raton, Florida and Brooklyn, New York. With his unique insight and decades of industry experience, he turned what was once a traditional ad agency into an integrated branding firm based on an innovative 360-degree marketing philosophy that provides a full spectrum of traditional and digital advertising services.