Online search engines have transformed our lives – and today we undoubtedly take it for granted that information on nearly any subject is available to us within a matter of seconds.
Google is the name almost exclusively pegged to this phenomenon. In fact, Google itself has become a widely-used verb – you may have “Googled” a search term on your way to this article. This dominance has been achieved through continuous innovation. Google’s advanced technology and algorithms, honed over more than two decades, ensure that its responses to its 8.5 billion daily queries match search intent more closely than ever.
But change is constant, and how users search is evolving. Typing a text-based query into a website or app is no longer the only way people want to find information or products. Two different forms of search have become mainstream in recent years: voice search and visual search. Especially relevant to the retail industry is visual search.
What is visual search?
Visual search is defined as a user searching with a photo, screenshot, or other image instead of a text-based query. This works in one of two ways:
- With image metadata. Image metadata, like colors and shapes, is scanned to return similar images.
- With reverse image retrieval. Image features and patterns are detected; an artificial intelligence-based algorithm then identifies similar images based on this information.
Using visual search, shoppers can take a picture of something they want to buy, upload it to the engine of their choice – such as Google Lens or Pinterest Lens – and immediately see visually similar items available to purchase. More than 85% of online shoppers place more importance on visual information than text information when purchasing items like clothing or furniture.
Visual search vs image search
Before we delve into examples, it’s important to make the distinction between visual search and image search. Image search is a term that has been around for a lot longer – Google Images was launched in 2001 and still accounts for 10% of Google’s daily search traffic.
The difference is that visual search uses only images to find other images, while image search also uses keywords and URLs to fulfill the search query. You will, however, often see overlap between the two terms.
Visual search examples
Here’s a breakdown of some of the leading visual search engines:
Google Lens launched in 2017 and is Google’s latest visual search technology. It was initially exclusive to Google’s Pixel smartphone, which was released in the same year. Lens was then released as an app for all Android devices before being integrated into Google’s core search tools.
The technology not only uses the original image to find similar images but it can also identify objects in the original image to inform its results. Additionally, Lens uses words, language, and metadata from images’ host websites to determine the most relevant results. As well as being used to discover similar products when shopping, Lens can copy or translate text, identify animals, and explore locales or menus. As of 2021, Google Lens was being used three billion times per month.
Bing Visual Search
Bing Visual Search was first unveiled by Microsoft as far back as 2009, before being decommissioned in 2012 and relaunched in 2018. It is available on the Bing search website and app, through Microsoft’s Edge browser, and on the Windows 10 search bar.
A direct competitor to Google Lens, Bing Visual Search offers many of the same features. Using a combination of reverse image search and other visual search capabilities, Bing Visual Search can compare products, identify landmarks, and find the source of an image. Photographers or artists can also identify users who may have copied and uploaded their original work.
Pinterest released Pinterest Lens in 2017 to enable users on the social media platform to discover similar products and new ideas with images.
Unlike Google Lens and Bing Visual Search, search results are restricted to images visible on Pinterest. Pinterest Lens has added a number of interesting features since it was launched, including its Shop tab which takes users straight to a feed of shoppable Pins. Pinterest Lens is popular for discovering home decor ideas, fashion inspiration, and recipes.
Introduced by Snapchat in 2019, Scan deploys augmented reality and image recognition technology to power visual search natively on the platform.
Scan was most commonly used to suggest camera lenses on Snapchat, and identify songs, dog breeds, and plant species. In 2021, it was improved to give users fashion recommendations based on visual search. The technology now also offers filter and music suggestions to match the type of photo it detects.
StyleSnap is Amazon’s visual search tool, which helps shoppers find recommended items based on an image. It was launched in 2019 by Amazon Fashion.
Initially targeted exclusively at the fashion market, in 2020 Amazon expanded the product with StyleSnap Home to target customers shopping for furnishings. StyleSnap was developed using deep learning and computer vision technology.
Benefits of visual search for retailers
In the retail world, visual search has the power to make the shopping experience much easier and quicker for customers — and that can yield some serious benefits for retailers and store owners.
Let’s look at some of the other key benefits for retailers who implement a visual search engine:
A shortened path from search to conversion
One benefit of visual search over text-based search is that it’s much easier and quicker for customers to take an idea and turn it into an available product. They don’t have to think about the right keyword phrase or sift through thousands of almost-there search engine results.
The easier it is for a customer to find the product they’re looking for, the less friction there is in achieving a sale. Studies show that visual search leads to checkout twice as quickly as text-based search.
Integrating online and offline shopping experiences
Customers increasingly demand multichannel shopping experiences that make it effortless to move from a brick-and-mortar store to a mobile app and to anywhere else they want to shop.
Visual search is one of the best ways to integrate the online and offline shopping experiences you offer customers. It makes it easy for them to find a wider variety of products on your online store and forge a sense of connection with your brand.
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A traditional text-based search can lead to hundreds of pages of nearly identical products, creating what’s known as “ecommerce noise.”
Visual search helps cut through the noise of online shopping and makes it easier for customers to make a purchasing decision. It also ensures they see specifically what you have to offer.
Capitalization of social proof and word of mouth
Social proof and word of mouth are your most effective marketers in today’s retail world, but they’re also tough to track and predict. It’s easy for a gulf to form between the products people see and hear about and your brand.
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Word of mouth isn’t worth much if customers can’t figure out where a celebrity’s shoes came from or who made their favorite YouTube star’s go-to mascara. Visual search can help you bridge that gap by providing a direct connection between these products and your brand.
Easy tracking and measuring of success
Visual search performance is something retailers can track and measure easily. If a customer uses visual search and goes on to buy that product (or a similar product), it’s easy to trace that sale back to visual search — even without a custom app or search engine.
Brands can see when shoppers click on visual search results, find out which styles they examined, and, most importantly, when they made a purchase. This means you can identify the specific products and product categories that consistently receive and convert on visual searches.
How retailers are using visual search to enhance the customer experience
Here’s how some major retailers have taken the leap and spearheaded perfect-use cases that smaller stores can learn from:
In 2017, Target became an early adopter of visual search with the integration of Pinterest Lens into its mobile app. From inside a Target store, customers can snap a picture of any product and the app will pull up similar items. This makes it easier for customers to browse products they’re actually looking to buy, instead of Target’s entire extensive product catalog. On the other hand, customers can see a full lineup of options rather than just what’s available in that one store.
“For retailers, Pinterest is an opportunity to engage with customers earlier and more often, well before a transaction takes place,” says a Pinterest spokesperson.
- Using Pinterest Lens means you don’t have to build your own visual search engine, making it easy to test the visual search waters.
- By integrating Pinterest’s Save button into your website, you can tap into the platform’s popularity to make your products as easy to find as those of leading brands.
IKEA added visual search to its Place augmented reality (AR) app in 2019. Place, which uses AR to help customers visualize how IKEA’s furniture would look in their homes, now allows users to take photos of any furniture in order to discover similar IKEA products.
“Place is not about AR or AI,” said then Chief Digital Officer Gerry Rogers. “It’s about making IKEA home furnishing expertise more accessible. To do so, we are looking into the newest technologies, not for the sake of technology, but to create a better everyday life for many people.”
- Focus first on the customer experience when deciding to explore visual search technology.
- Visual search can be a valuable additional layer to your tech stack and help create a more holistic experience for your customers.
Online fashion retailer ASOS launched StyleMatch – a native visual search tool – in 2018. Users can snap or upload a photo and highlight a specific item of clothing in that image. StyleMatch will then either pull up that exact item from the ASOS catalog, or recommend something similar.
Mobile app technology is a priority for ASOS – in 2021, 83.2% of buyers accessed its catalog through the app. "Inspiration can strike you anywhere and at any time. With just a couple of taps of their mobile device, ASOS customers can capture that fleeting moment and instantly search our product lines,” said then Digital Product Director Andy Berks.
- Visual search technology makes perfect sense if your products are photo-friendly and your sales come mostly from a mobile app.
- Create or deploy a tool that allows the user to select certain items within an image.
Neiman Marcus offers a tool within its mobile app that allows customers to snap a photo in-store and view similar products in the retailer’s online catalog.
Strong sales from visual searches, which initially were confined to women’s shoes and handbags, led the retailer to roll out the capability for its entire product lineup.
“Visual search removes hurdles, taking the customer directly from inspiration to gratification,” said Wanda Gierhart, Neiman Marcus’s chief marketing officer at the time of launch.
- You don’t have to dive into visual search headfirst. Take a page from Neiman Marcus’s playbook and test out a visual search tool on a smaller subsection of your product catalog.
- The line between online and offline shopping gets blurrier every day. Smart retailers are leading the charge to integrate the two and provide seamless multi-channel shopping experiences.
Visual search tips for retailers
Here are four top tips for you to take advantage of the growth of visual search:
1. Establish your business on visual search engines
One of the quickest visual search wins for your retail business is to tick all the boxes so your products appear in the most used visual search engines.
On Google for example, you need to ensure your online store has followed the required and recommended steps for ranking, as listed here. To take advantage of Pinterest and its Lens technology, set up a free Pinterest Business account to link directly to your catalog. If you’re a Shopify merchant, then you can save even more time by installing the Pinterest app.
2. Optimize your online store images
Running an audit and optimization of your product images will improve your chances of ranking highly on visual search engines.
Refine everything from the quality of your photography to the sizing and format of your images and the SEO-friendliness of your image badges, names, captions, and alt text. Another great tip is to use multiple images, or even 360-degree product videos.
3. Use social media – a lot
It goes without saying that any retailer with designs on long-term success must have both a strong presence and a dynamic strategy on social media.
Today’s in-vogue social media platforms like TikTok, Pinterest, and Instagram are visual mediums. Make sure you complement your stunning catalog of product images with a relentless approach on these channels – this will not only widen access to your brand but also improve your rank on visual search engines. Most now also have the means to directly sell products on their platforms.
4. Build your own visual search
If you have the resources and scope to introduce visual search technology natively into your retail business, then don’t waste any more time.
With 62% of millennials and Gen-Z preferring visual search over any other technology, and 61% of shoppers saying that visual search enhanced their in-store experience, visual search traction is only going to increase. By building your own visual search, you can tailor the technology to the specific requirements of your ecommerce store, app, and customers. Speak to your technology team or your cloud provider to get moving.
Leverage visual search for your store
Leveraging ready-made visual search engines (like Google Lens and Pinterest Lens) means even the smallest retailers can test the visual search waters and learn to bridge the gap between in-person and ecommerce shopping. Ready to take it further? There’s not a better time than now to integrate your own visual search application into your retail business.
Whether your brand is big or small, visual search is an accessible piece of retail technology that holds the potential to truly enhance the shopping experience for your customers.
Visual search FAQ
What does visual search mean?
Visual search is a computer vision technology that allows users to search for objects, images, or concepts in digital images and videos by submitting an image or video as a query. It is a form of content-based image retrieval that uses computer vision algorithms to find images that match the visual content of the query image. This technology is used for a wide range of applications, from retail to medical imaging.
How do I do a visual search?
To do a visual search, you'll need to use an app or website that has a visual search feature. Popular visual search apps and websites include Google Lens, Pinterest, and Amazon. Each of these services allows you to take a photo of an item or upload an image to search for similar items.
How do I search using an image?
You can search using an image by using a reverse image search engine, such as Google's Reverse Image Search or TinEye. These websites allow you to upload an image or paste in the image's URL, and then find related images from the web.