Images are the new keywords: why ambitious retailers must embrace visual search

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Visual search is set to dramatically improve the online shopping experience.

Until fairly recently voice search was seen as a bit of a gimmick. Not now. Most retailers have noted its benefits, as the proliferation in voice technology in the home with Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, along with Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s Bixby, continues.

Today, machine learning is taking online search to new levels and it’s not just voice search that’s on the rise. Technology companies and retailers have been quietly developing a stronger competitor in interactive SEO: visual search.

Visual search is very simple- you see a product that you are interested in buying, but are unsure of the brand, model or name. You take a photo of it with your smartphone and a search process that uses machine learning analyses components within the submitted photo finds results that replicate or relate to those visual cues with information on the product (or very similar ones), cost options and how to purchase it.

Visual search has huge potential because our minds are built to process visual information. Images get people’s attention, evoke an emotional reaction and improve the retention of information. We process visuals 60,000 times faster than text and, according to research by Kissmetrics, 93% of consumers consider images to be the key deciding factor in a purchasing decision. A recent study by eMarketer reveals 72% of U.S. internet users regularly or always search for visual content before making a purchase.

This preference for visual content is already apparent online. The fastest-growing social network, Instagram, is image-based. Infographics are liked and shared three times more than other types of content and tweets that include a photo get 150% more retweets than those without.

Visual search is here

Today, all the major technology players are offering the opportunity for consumers to use visual search. Google has launched an image recognition mobile app called Google Lens which identifies objects and shows relevant search results. Bing Visual Search allows users to search the web using the camera on their smartphone. ebay have launched Find It On ebay to help make the internet more shoppable using photos. Amazon has Spark which enables shoppers to tap a shopping bag icon in a photo to buy it on Amazon. Samsung offers Bixby Vision – an augmented reality camera that identifies objects in real time and offers the user the chance to purchase them. Finally, Pinterest has a wide range of ‘visual discovery tools’ that helps consumers to shop and were one of the first to really bring visual search into the mainstream.

Forward-thinking e-retailers are joining these technology giants. Fashion retailer ASOS has rolled out visual search to all those with an ASOS app on their iPhone. By clicking on the camera icon in the search bar shoppers can search through the retailer’s 85,000 products based on something they see in a shop, a friend is wearing or a picture in a magazine.

These developments are possible because of the rapid evolution within mobile technology marketplace - as smartphones continue to evolve, cameras improve and 4G coverage poliferates.

Why embrace visual search?

Visual content is starting to infiltrate traditionally text-based search, especially when it comes to online shopping, due to the speed to checkout visual search offers. Consumers no longer need to spend time verbalising what they want in a text search bar and then scroll through various irrelevant items to find what they want. Instead, visual search takes the consumer straight to the product they want, with fewer steps and therefore barriers to the checkout screen, maximising the opportunity to make a sale.

Visual search can discreetly help to upsell. For example, visual search AI can let the shopper know what accessories go well with a new dress they like the look of, encouraging the consumer to place additional items into their cart before finalising their purchase.

Visual search technology can turn out of stock into an opportunity, by helping to keep shoppers on a website, even if the item they originally wanted unavailable. It does this by presenting them with similar in-stock options at different price points to the one they originally searched for. This gives consumers the chance to purchase items they may not have spotted on their own without the gentle nudge from visual search.

How to optimise for visual search

To succeed in visual search retailers should offer a range of clear images at different angles for each product on their site, optimise image titles with target keywords, descriptive filenames, alt tags, schema markup, metadata, set up image badges, submit image sitemaps, optimise image sizes and file types and run structured data tests.

These various pieces of behind the scenes textual information will help visual search engines correctly identify your photos, improve your visual search ranking and potentially direct searchers to your website to make a purchase.

Visual search isn’t replacing text search yet, but optimising for visual search will improve your customers’ shopping experience, increase traffic, drive conversions, and put you in a great position to take advantage of the next big thing in search.

Visual search is set to dramatically improve the online shopping experience in the coming years, and with retail ecommerce sales in the UK predicted to reach a value of almost £94billion in 2018, now is a great time to cash in.

Mark Fitzsimmons is managing director at Xigen

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