The Future of Visual Search and How Retailers Prepare For It

How many times have you looked at something that someone was wearing or using and asked, “Where did you get that?” As visual creatures, the world we see sparks inspiration, consideration and ultimately, purchase. Visual search enables users to search using photos rather than text queries. According to eMarketer, 75 percent of U.S. internet users regularly or always search for visual content before making a purchase, and companies recognize that guiding eyes also guides dollars.

Visual search is worth a thousand text-based searches. Consumers process pictures 60,000 times faster than text, creating new opportunities for visual search queries to provide a search experience they cannot get solely through keyword queries. This highlights the importance of connecting brand content to visually-geared search engines and considering the implications beyond the dot-com.

Recommended Approaches to Visual Search: Crawl, Walk, and Run

Visual search is best approached with a “crawl, walk, run” mentality. Working with organic search experts, retail brands can determine which approach is best suited for their immediate and future efforts.

Crawl: Traditional Framework Approach

Recognizing that Google Images and Bing Image Search are sources of many visual search journeys, optimize your ecommerce site to align to visual search queries.

Detailed Image Optimization 

Optimize your imagery to appear and rank higher in those related visual search results. Captions, image alt attribution, placement and size are key to optimizing visuals for search engines. Make sure the alt text is descriptive and includes the image name, I.D. and any relevant keywords. It is also beneficial to mark up product information so Google can display rich results if people use images to search for related products.

Refine On-site Copy

After a visual search tool leads searchers to your site, they will begin to consume your content to see if it satisfies their needs. Because of this, on-site copy remains important. Copy that is detailed and engaging, meets searchers’ needs and contains rich keywords is ideal for conversion. Ultimately, the keywords search engines use to process and find related images are still written in text.

Other Optimizations

  • Improve site speedfor faster image loading. Consider image size, compression, etc., to help with this.
  • Fix any broken images embedded on working pages.

Walk: New Framework Approach

Beyond the updates that major search engines are making to visual search, we also see social and content networks pushing this behavior to ease the process of discovery. Brands can seek to optimize within new visual search frameworks or seek technology to build their own.

Tapping Into a New Framework on Pinterest

Pinterest has pushed the envelope on visual search with Pinterest Lens, which allows users to search Pinterest for products by simply taking a picture. Lens came as an app update instead of a separate app itself, making it easier for Pinterest users to adopt. One year later, Pinterest reports more than 600 million visual searches are happening every month across Lens. This feature pairs recognition technology with user search intent to facilitate a visual search journey.

How to Optimize for Pinterest’s Visual Search Framework

Recognizing that Pinterest is a visual platform at its core and is now integrating in-app visual search technologies, this is an ideal network to optimize within a new framework outside of major search engines.

  1. First, evaluate if it is worth the investment to optimize for visual search on Pinterest. The top Lens search categories are:
    1. Fashion
    2. Home décor
    3. Art
    4. Food
    5. Products
    6. Animals
    7. Outfits
    8. Beauty
    9. Vehicles
    10. Travel
  2. Input related searches into the search bar. The suggested keyword terms that Pinterest populates below the search bar should help you recognize which imagery and keywords Pinterest users utilize when searching for similar products and imagery on Pinterest.
  3. Incorporate visual language and descriptions into pin keywords such as “flowy,” “modest” and “for work.”
  4. Leverage creative that clearly displays products and attributes that line up to related searches.

Companies are learning they can integrate their own site data into existing frameworks like Pinterest to create visual search extensions that work for their customers. For example, Lowe’s and Home Depot have taken Pinterest visual search in store, enabling users to use Pinterest Lens with machine learning-backed information from the popular brands’ sites.

Figure 1- Home Depot allows customers to use Pinterest pictures and uers’ own inspirational imagery to find related Home Depot products.

Building a New Framework                                                                                    

Outside of search engines and networks, companies will continue to seek ways to ease barriers to purchase via visual search by building their own visual search engines — like Wayfair, Amazon and eBay have done. Certain verticals, such as fashion, home décor and food, will see more initial success with this. Because visual recognition technologies are currently complex and pricey to build, consider whether this integration is right for your brand or if you’d find more success partnering or integrating visual features from an existing search engine like Pinterest or Amazon.

Run: The Future of Visual Search  

As adoption increases around this intrinsically human visual-search behavior, be prepared for the future of visual search and these predictions below.

More Intuitive Visual Search Features and Technologies
Companies will continue to invest in technology that is more intuitive to visual search, easing the visual search path to conversion even more.

What brands can do: Seek startups with visual-recognition technologies that can be bought or partnered with to integrate into larger company operations.

Smartphone Integration

Mobile phones are increasingly becoming the central device used to capture, learn about and explore the world around us. Technology companies will seek out ways to integrate visual search into smartphone camera capabilities to accelerate adoption and simplify visual searches.

What brands can do: Understand their target audience’s mobility choices and behaviors to prepare for integrated mobile technologies.

Visual Search Transcending Dot-Com

Content will need to be more accessible via different avenues that transcend websites. Text will always be important, but what about when there is no user interface? How do SEO experts make an impact to help people find what they are looking for?

What brands can do: Put internal emphasis on creating CMS databases for content that can be connected to experiences beyond websites.

Visual Search: A Checklist of Retail Brands

With the rise and emphasis on visual discovery, retail brands should be consulting with their organic search experts to:

  • Optimize imagery for Google and Bing visual search and discovery.
  • Identify how additional optimized imagery can be integrated into brand properties, creating opportunities for more visual searches around your brand.
  • Determine additional frameworks that can be optimized, such as Pinterest or Amazon.
  • Identify those micro-moments that will enable visual search for your brand. Specifically, identify the intent-rich moments someone would use a picture for search, such as “I need/want to buy what I’m looking at right now.”
  • Evaluate the proper workflows and data management partners to connect product data to visual search queries that occur both on- and off-site.
  • Identify visual-recognition technologies that speak to specific consumer pain points: Is your brand in a visual vertical, such as retail or food, that enables you to explore more cutting-edge partnerships and activations around visual search?

As you dive into visual search, remember that visual search integration is about removing barriers and making discovery more visual and intuitive to users. Efforts should prioritize utility over flashiness and aim to help condense the user journey to finding what they are looking for.

Alyssa Murfey

Alyssa Murfey

Senior Connections Manager at VMLY&R
Alyssa is a Senior Connections manager at VMLY&R, working with one foot in Social Media and the other in Organic Search to develop strategies that work the hardest for clients. Her past clients include Tennessee Tourism, Tropicana and Propel. Most recently, she is working with EXPRESS, Miami Tourism and Wendy’s.
Alyssa Murfey

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