Is the world ready for Visual Search?

The lat­est trend in the world of search and dig­i­tal is visu­al search. With major tech brands, and a num­ber of digi­tial star­tups invest­ing in the space, the out­look is very pos­i­tive. But are con­sumers ready to ditch text, and snap, cap­ture, and pho­to­graph their way to...

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 1 comment

While voice may be the lat­est search dar­ling, there’s anoth­er form of search – visu­al – that has gar­nered recent atten­tion from the likes of Pin­ter­estBlip­par and Google. But are con­sumers ready for it? Are brands?

Why is visual search important?

Here’s a look at why these play­ers care and how visu­al search will impact mar­ket­ing.

Accord­ing to Ted Mann, Pres­i­dent of visu­al search firm Slyce, inter­est in visu­al search is dri­ven by two relat­ed trends:

  1. Growth in mobile pho­tog­ra­phy, which has spurred more than 3 bil­lion pho­tos shared dai­ly on social apps
  2. And the use of the cam­era as a util­i­ty in shop­ping.

Com­Score MobiLens has been study­ing this for years, and tak­ing a pho­to of a prod­uct has been con­sis­tent­ly the #1 in-store smart­phone activ­i­ty — even more than phon­ing a fam­i­ly mem­ber or friend,” Mann added.

Indeed, there’s a key oppor­tu­ni­ty for brands to con­nect with shop­pers using images to find the prod­ucts they’re inter­est­ed in, even if the prac­tice is still some­what nascent.

Whether the use case is snap­ping a pic­ture of shoes you love to buy or favorite, or see­ing a celebri­ty look you like in a mag­a­zine and snap­ping the out­fit to find some­thing sim­i­lar for less or scan­ning a coupon and sav­ing it as a mobile offer to your phone — visu­al search helps reduce fric­tion and get you to what you’re look­ing for faster,” Mann said. “We’ve even seen users in the Mid­dle East use visu­al search as a kind of trans­la­tion tool, e.g. an Ara­bic speak­er snap­ping a pic­ture of some­thing to be able to search for it on an Eng­lish-lan­guage retail­er.”

What’s more, John Staines, CCO and glob­al direc­tor of sales at shop­ping search engine Yroo, not­ed search results with images have been shown to have a high­er engage­ment and CTR rate than text results alone.

And, from there, it’s not a big leap to pur­chas­es.

Com­pa­nies like Ama­zon have an app that allows you to scan a phys­i­cal prod­uct in a store and then match it on,” said Bud­dy Scalera, senior direc­tor of con­tent strat­e­gy at the Med­i­cines Com­pa­ny. “That’s a pret­ty bold move that cre­ates a bridge between brick and mor­tar shop­ping and online shop­ping. Google has offered a visu­al search tool for over two years and it just keeps get­ting bet­ter.

Shopping using visual search…

Indeed, shop­pable con­tent seems to hold the most poten­tial for mar­keters and visu­al search.

In fact, per Katie Mullins, paid search spe­cial­ist at dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing and web design agency Sparx­oo, social media plat­forms, search engines, apps and oth­er dig­i­tal prop­er­ties are mak­ing it more of a native expe­ri­ence for users to buy prod­ucts where they are con­sum­ing visu­al con­tent.

Audi­ences want to be inspired, and, as a whole, they no longer reject the idea of brands pro­mot­ing con­tent or prod­ucts, so long as it is rel­e­vant, per­son­al­ized to them and help­ful,” she said. “By keep­ing those just-men­tioned attrib­ut­es in mind, brands can work with users to pro­vide a seam­less buy­ing expe­ri­ence where the user views the brand as help­ful and not obtru­sive.”

Mann agreed the oppor­tu­ni­ty in visu­al search lies in cre­at­ing shop­ping moments.

It’s essen­tial that mar­keters focus on cre­at­ing com­pelling and share­able visu­al con­tent,” Staines added. “Con­tent is to visu­al search what key­words are to text-based search and hav­ing an exten­sive library of high qual­i­ty visu­als is imper­a­tive.”

Fur­ther, Bran­don Sey­mour, founder of SEO agency Bey­mour Con­sult­ing, said mar­keters need to make sure they are tag­ging their images prop­er­ly, includ­ing the metatags, file names and water­marks.

Visu­al search…will not replace text search any­time soon, but it is becom­ing more use­ful and impor­tant to advanced mobile users.”

Bran­don Sey­mour, Founder — Bey­mour Con­sult­ing

In addi­tion, when con­sumers don’t need to explain to search engines what they’re look­ing for and instead can sim­ply click on prod­ucts to either read more or pur­chase them direct­ly, it will dras­ti­cal­ly improve the expe­ri­ence, which Sey­mour said could eas­i­ly spur more sales.

Addi­tion­al­ly, images con­tain­ing more than one prod­uct, such as an out­fit, or a liv­ing room set, could cre­ate some ver­ti­cal inte­gra­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties, and the abil­i­ty to mar­ket oth­er prod­ucts based on periph­er­al intent,” he added.

And this could eas­i­ly expand to include more com­pli­cat­ed retail tasks, like mea­sur­ing sizes, find­ing col­or match­es and acces­soriz­ing out­fits and rooms, Mann said.

Like­wise, the tech­nol­o­gy can be applied to adver­tis­ing tech to enable bet­ter tar­get­ing against UGC con­tent on Face­book and Insta­gram, not to men­tion video sites like YouTube,” he con­clud­ed.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges ahead…

While visu­al search has the poten­tial to change con­sumer behav­ior by allow­ing con­sumers to express an aspect of their search needs in a seam­less way, it still has to reach crit­i­cal mass.

Until then, visu­al search is a bit overblown,” said David Lau, vice pres­i­dent of search and pro­gram­mat­ic media at dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing agency iCross­ing. “Com­pa­nies like CamFind are mon­e­tiz­ing visu­al search, how­ev­er, organ­ic results seem to be lack­ing in qual­i­ty and repeat usage needs improve­ment. There’s also a bit of a par­al­lel with voice search – the advent of bot mar­ket­ing may improve the capa­bil­i­ties of both medi­ums and shift val­ue per­cep­tion.”

In oth­er words, visu­al search tech­nol­o­gy needs time to devel­op. Lau not­ed there are apps that per­form the func­tion, like Google Gog­gles and the afore­men­tioned CamFind, but the results may not yet be impres­sive enough for repeat con­sumer use. What’s more, con­sumers may find the cur­rent method of brows­ing and shop­ping to be quick­er, more enjoy­able or sim­ply more com­fort­able.

Fur­ther, Lau not­ed results with­in visu­al search some­times poor­ly under­stand intent and “a quick glance of the user reviews for both apps shows that users don’t want to be sold some­thing every time they search, but that’s what many engines cur­rent­ly do.”

Staines agreed adop­tion is still in its infan­cy and visu­al search needs to mature before it becomes a game chang­er.

Adding com­plex­i­ty beyond text-dri­ven input is daunt­ing, and under­stand­ing the moti­va­tion of a searcher exclu­sive­ly from their inter­ac­tion with an image is dif­fi­cult,” he said. “Are they look­ing for this exact item to shop? Or sim­i­lar items? If it’s the lat­ter, a mar­keter needs to key in on cer­tain clues to deter­mine what to present in search results.”

How do you see the future of visu­al search devel­op­ing?

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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