In her 2017 Internet Trends report, KPCB partner Mary Meeker called out a quote from Ben Silbermann, CEO of visual bookmarking tool Pinterest: "A lot of the future of search is going to be about pictures instead of keywords."
This particular slide in Meeker’s hotly anticipated annual report is perhaps the biggest moment yet for visual search, which has arguably been the redheaded stepchild of non-text-based search to date – at least insofar as voice search has commanded the headlines. And yet visual search is poised to have just as big of an impact on the search industry. And without making the garish move of dubbing 2017 the Year of Visual Search, we can say in good conscience that visual search’s moment is coming. Soon.
Bing Visual Search
Take Bing – perhaps a redheaded stepchild in its own right – for example. Just one day after Meeker’s report was released, Bing announced Bing Visual Search, in which it said it wants to “connect your camera to a deep search experience”.
Bing said it introduced an image search capability several years ago so users could specify an entire image as a search query, but now they can also search for objects in web-based images or photos they have taken themselves.
Bing uses the example of a user searching for home décor and who wants to drill down to find out where he or she can purchase a chandelier from a particularly compelling image. To do so, users click on a magnifying glass in the top left of the image to access a visual search box and then drag the box around the object of interest.
“Every time you adjust the visual search box, Bing instantly runs a visual search using the selected portion of the image as the query,” the platform said. “We realize that many Bing image search users may be shopping for items they see in the image or a similar product. We automatically detect the shopping intent and, in addition to regular image search, we also run a product search to find matching products.”
That means users ready to pull the proverbial trigger can then click on the chandelier they want, pick a merchant and make the purchase.
“Visual search is in its infancy, and we are aware of cases where there is still room for improvement,” Bing added. “For example, you may need to tweak your visual search box to fully capture the object of interest to get the best results.”
Battle of the Lenses
Pinterest launched its own visual search tool, Lens, in beta in March. This allows users to point at an object and “see what ideas it turns up” on the platform. Consumers can also use photos from their camera rolls to search.
And, after an update in May, consumers can use Lens to search for multiple objects.
In other words, Pinterest users can take images of real world products and find visually similar products on the platform – and potentially even buy them.
That means consumers can point Google Lens at an object in front of them and the “smartphone camera won’t just see what you see, but will also understand what you see to help you take action,” Google said.
“You’ll be able to learn more about things around you, and even take action based on your surroundings, while you’re in a conversation with your Assistant,” Google added in a blog post. “If you see a marquee for your favorite band, you can hold up your Assistant, tap the Lens icon and get information on the band, tickets and more.”
In-app image search from Amazon
According to a rep, Amazon first launched a visual-search-like capability called Amazon Remembers in June 2009 for books, CDs and DVDs. Since then, it has added recognition for additional objects. In fact, for holiday 2016, Amazon said in a press release (http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=2217692), “Previously limited to barcodes and a few types of products, customers can now use the camera icon to search for almost anything. For example, point the camera at a pair of boots and the app will pull up a list of similar items.”
Speaking of visual search broadly, Malte Landwehr, senior product marketing manager at SEO and content marketing platform Searchmetrics, added, "With a few improvements to image recognition algorithms and better smartphone cameras, we will soon be able to take a picture of a stranger’s outfit and buy the same clothes instantly."
A long-ish time coming…
Development in visual search shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Scott Linzer, vice president of owned media at digital marketing agency iCrossing, pointed to the use of so-called Product Listing Ads in search, or graphics that appear on the right-hand side of Google’s search results page and which he said usually have high performance with respect to engagement and clicks versus text ads.
“What we clearly have seen is the consumers using search are increasingly interested in adopting visual cues in their search results,” Linzer said.
In addition, he pointed to items that are difficult to explain via text, which are perfect for visual search and mark an opportunity for consumers and brands, as well as consumers’ increasing interest in what he called the visual medium.
“It’s about setting what those strategies look like to capture that and knowing there’s a lot more in the works,” Linzer added.
Patrick Reinhart, senior director of digital strategies at SEO platform Conductor, noted Google has also implemented the ability to place product schema tagging into images for ecommerce sites, which shows reviews and pricing and which he said “definitely competes with Pinterest”.
Alright, who’s ready to optimize for images?
To be fair, Meeker’s report also highlighted voice, which is replacing typing in search – as accuracy also improves.
In fact, Linzer said voice and visual search are “constantly being discussed” and are a “hot topic between agency and client”.
That means brands need to start focusing on images and video in addition to text content.
“Right now, there are not enough guidelines and detail from whether it’s Google, Amazon, Bing or Apple with respect to how brands can take advantage,” Linzer added. “It’s still early in the game for brands to have a clear disproportionate advantage.”
Landwehr agreed voice and visual search remain challenging for brands.
“In previous times, when search was equal to text-based web search engines… a good company website and maybe an ecommerce presence was enough for large brands to be found,” he said. “But this is changing.”
What’s more, he said voice search will result in less traffic – and money – for websites that derive income from serving ads against content.
“When you ask Alexa or another voice-controlled assistant, ‘How tall is Mount Everest?’, it gives you the answer. Done. That’s it. There is no further click. No page impression,” he said. “This trend can be best observed when you look at Wikipedia. For years, Google has been taking more and more information from Wikipedia and displaying it directly in the search results. This has already led to a decline in search engine traffic for Wikipedia and you will see this pattern accelerate as voice search spreads. The same issue will affect every website that has a business model that relies on providing some kind of information for free, in exchange for serving ads to visitors. Regardless of whether it be the height of a mountain, the quality of food at a restaurant, the age of a TV star, or a recipe for banana bread, if the information can be read to the user by a device, there is no ad impression for the publisher.”
Long live Amazon?
And, combined with its in-app image search capability, this could actually point to a bright search future for voice search heavyweight Amazon.
For his part, Linzer said Amazon has made “strategic inroads” to take a more competitive stance against Google. As a result, Bing, which powers Alexa’s search results (as well as search in Cortana and Siri), has also seen growth in search queries and platform usage.
“One of the things we always try to wrangle with clients is to understand what is the appropriate mix of monetizing those queries and what ads should be served against those queries across audiences,” Linzer said. “So I think the short answer is I know Bing is increasing market share in part because of its own product and in part because of the relationship with Amazon, but it’s still early in the game to see how [results are] monetized for revenue for Bing as well as Amazon.”
Reinhart, on the other hand, said Amazon is Google’s largest competitor and it will only continue to eat away at Google’s market share as millennials who grew up using it for everything take over the job market and have more spending capital.
“From an e-commerce standpoint, Google should be most scared of [its] user base aging out, and the focus shifting to Amazon, which is just a huge search engine, where they can get instant gratification for purchases,” Reinhart added. “From an informational standpoint, Google Home needs to stay ahead of the Echo to keep [its] market share as more and more of it shifts to voice search, as most won’t know/care which engine is actually powering that information.”