Visual Search | What it is, where it’s at, and what you need to know

While it may be an almost unconscious addition to the image-heavy social media sites and text-based search platforms that we take for granted, visual search has come into its stride more than ever over the last year or two, and its continued technological development may see it become less of a supporting character and take more of a starring role in the way we search online.

For clarity, visual search is the process of using an image (one that you’ve taken, or simply one that you’ve scanned or uploaded) as the means to generate search results, as opposed to the typical function of typing something into google. 62% of Gen Z and Millennial consumers say they prefer visual search to all other types of searches. There are many dedicated platforms that offer visual search (such as TinEye or PicSearch), as well as many broader services that offer the feature amongst a wider range of functions (such as Pinterest Lens, or Amazon and Snapchat’s SnapStyle), but Google has also brought this capability directly into their phones, with Google Lens, allowing you to point your camera and directly search for what you’re seeing. From a particular bottle of wine, pair of shoes, or painting that you want to buy, to a plant, landmark, or dog breed that you want to identify, Google Lens allows you to do so near instantly.

Among the big hitters currently pioneering this service, the aforementioned Pinterest is a shining example of the practice done right. Their ability for users to upload or search on images that they like to generate additional imagery that suits their taste is what the platform is built on, and Google is looking to join this specific market with a new platform that they quietly launched last June, Google Keen.

Google Keen, as developed by Area 120, a Google-funded incubator, claims that their platform will learn from your tastes and interests in order to ‘curate content to broaden your horizons’. The platform, which will be taking advantage of Google’s highly advanced Google Lens tech, could potentially become a huge mainstay for those with a penchant for visual search, a growing collective among internet users. This could have an impact not only in terms of yet another social media platform for people to join, but also to strengthen the current base of successful visual-search based online shopping. According to Pinterest, 85% of users who are looking to purchase clothes or furniture online use visual instead of text search. Alongside this, they boast that, for products priced less than $200, visual searches result in conversion rates of 8-10%.

The takeaway of this is two-fold.

Firstly, advertisers and online retailers need to stay up to date with this technology, as, while many of the social media giants are running into hard times, visual search platforms like Pinterest have only seen their user base and engagement improve month-on-month. It’s easy to focus on the bigger platforms for advertising, Google and Facebook, but there are a lot of other destinations that make actually be more suitable for the message you’re sending out, and the audience you’re wanting to reach.

Like text search, visual search platforms are dependant on the user making requests that trigger your response (unlike Facebook ads, where users are shown more ‘invasive’ ads whilst scrolling through their personal feeds). This allows you to know that your ads are more likely being served to people who actively want to see them and are giving you consent to do so. Alongside this, platforms like Pinterest and, now, Google Keen, allow users to build up a repertoire of imagery that their users have expressed interest in, but without it appearing to be an unpleasant data-collection system, because anything they’ve collected has been done so deliberately on their part. As users become increasingly digital-privacy focused, this is a way to ensure you have an invested audience, without having to rely on outdated cookies or potentially unethical user data pools.

The second takeaway of this is how online brands can prepare. If you want your imagery to be visual-search friendly, you need to ensure that any products or services you have visually displayed on your website have had a very observant SEO eye passed over them. Images need alt tags and descriptions that clearly identify what the pictures are showing to better allow visual search engines to classify and display them when someone is looking for something that you may be able to show them. By ensuring your images are correctly tagged, visual search engines will have an easier time cataloguing your images, and displaying them for users that are looking for something that you may be offering.


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