A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Rise of Visual Search

Estimated Reading Time 9 minutes

While voice search has been rising over the past few years, so too has visual search. Back at the start of this year, I shared a blog on digital trends to watch for 2019 – one of those trends being visual search.

“A lot of the future of search is going to be about pictures instead of keywords”. CEO of Pinterest, Ben Silbermann

Whilst visual search is not a ‘new’ thing, and may not be as pertinent as voice search (yet), there are many brands updating their functionality and allowing users to search visually.

What is visual search?

Visual search is quite literally searching using an image – generally allowing users to take a photo or upload an image, providing results that are visually similar. It works in much the same way as searching using keywords, producing results that are deemed relevant to what the search includes. Visual search is not to be confused with ‘image search’, where users type in keywords to produce related images in the results.

How can brands benefit from visual search?

A recent survey showed that 81% of UK consumers use visual inspiration for their purchases, with the core influence coming from Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat.

The same survey concluded that over 50% of UK consumers are excited about visual search as a regular part of their shopping experience online. The functionality of visual search makes it easier for customers to find what they’re looking for, suggesting that they are a step closer to purchase.

Utilising visual search in e-commerce

Pinterest

Since 2014, Pinterest has offered users the ability to search within the app with an image rather than using keywords. In 2017, they introduced ‘Shop The Look’, in order for brands to encourage users down the path to purchase.

Responsive visual search is also key on Pinterest, with users having the ability to ‘pinch to zoom’ into a pin, before being shown ‘more like this’ results. The example below shows this in action – I pinch in to the mirror on the wall to be shown results of circular mirrors where I can click directly through to a retailer’s site to purchase.

Pinterest Visual Search

Images dominate the way we browse

Whether you’re aware or not, visual imagery controls the way that we search and shop online. Top social platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest are purely image based – and you can’t run a keyword search on Google without being shown images.

Instagram

With over 500 million daily active Instagram users, it only takes a second to look at the platforms explore page to spot an abundance of shoppable posts. And with 130 million accounts tapping on a shopping post every month – it’s no surprise.

Taking this into consideration, the below shows how simple it is direct from the Instagram app. This is the view from my explore page, which comprises of posts that are based off my activity – things I’ve liked, similar to those that I follow or posts that have high engagement. It’s almost immediately clear that there is an abundance of shoppable posts – those that have the small shopping icon on the top right corner.

Instagram Explore Page

Taking the first (amazing) pair of trainers into consideration, I can click straight from the image through to the website to purchase the trainers, all without actually leaving the Instagram interface. From a retailer perspective, this not only pushes me further down the purchase funnel with ease, but from a consumer perspective it provides a frictionless shopping experience.

Instagram Shoppable posts

Google

Of course, the daddy of the search engine world has a whole host of options when it comes to visual search.

Image recognition technology Google Lens was introduced back in 2017, enabling you to point your Android phone at something for Google to tell you what it is. For example; it could be a picture of some home decor or a dress, and Google will show visually similar results which could lead to a purchase. Equally – you could point the Lens at a dog and it could tell you the breed.

Google Lens Result

Another popular alternative for e-commerce brands in particular is Showcase Shopping ads; theoretically a digital storefront, allowing users to browse before they click through to your website. Similarly, the Images tab on Google can now also include products. Watch the video below to see how these compare:

Changing the way we search

Not only are the top search engines and social platforms revolutionising the way we search; but brands themselves are too. The likes of Amazon, ASOS and Wayfair allow users to take or upload a photo into their apps to search for visually similar items.

Wayfair Visual Search

This not only makes the whole search experience so much better, but it also makes it so much easier for users to find exactly what they want, without needing to figure out exactly how they can search for it. It removes obstructions, providing users with almost instant gratification. For brands, it allows a quicker path from initial search to conversion.

While the growth of visual search is only set to continue, it begs the question to ask what this means for both organic and paid keyword search.

Shopping ads have changed the face of shopping online – could visual search do the same? Could visual search impact in-store purchases, with shoppers taking pictures of items in-store to then search and buy online?

Sophie Burrows
As a Senior Digital Strategist, Sophie's role is focused around working with clients to achieve their business objectives, through a mixture of digital marketing channels. Having worked closely with clients in a variety of disciplines over the last five years, Sophie has gained an invaluable insight into what makes for a successful campaign. Applying a strategic process along with deep analytics insight has made Sophie an in-demand digital strategist.
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