Visual SearchA Revolution in Search Technology... or Just a Fad?

December 12, 2022 | 17 min read

Visual Search

In a Nutshell

We absorb information through a variety of sensory channels, constantly using sound, scent, and touch to make sense of the world around us. Did you know, though, that we register about 80% of all our sensory impressions through sight? This article will examine everything you need to know about visual search and whether or not it would be a boon for your business.

How Visual Search Can Enhance Your Customer Experience

Imagine you’re looking for a specific product. You do a quick Google search and, while you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for at first, you do find something similar. So, you click on a visually-similar product and search based on that image to find your real target.

Your search began with text, but visual information is what really guides your search and produces the desired result. That’s the essence of visual search as a search engine concept.

Given the importance of visual information in the customer journey, it’s no surprise that visual search is one of the fastest-growing trends in online retail. Let’s take a closer look at this technology and see how useful it can be for your business.

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Visual search is an AI-enabled technology that allows customers to search for products and items by visual cues rather than textual information. For example, if a customer is searching for “blue t-shirt,” the algorithm will present them with visual products that match this description. The user can then refine the search according to the customer’s taps or input.

In the context of online shopping, visual information is one of the most important factors influencing your customer’s decision to make a purchase.

Research shows that around three-quarters of online shoppers in the US rely on visual content like images and videos to determine whether to make a purchase. By comparison, only 3% of shoppers say they do not use any visual information.

With visual search, a user can effectively search for items using an image, rather than text. An algorithm examines the image based on shape, color, texture, and other features. These may be characteristics that the human eye can detect, but they may go beyond human visual capability as well. The AI then searches the web for images that are closely compared to the queried image.

Visual search tools enable you to offer a smoother, more frictionless experience for customers. With this technology, it’s possible to help your customers find exactly what they want quicker than ever before.

If you want to engage new consumers, you can do it through visual search tools. Visual search is popular among your customer base. Many of your customers are already engaged in visual search practices at some level. And those who aren’t already using it say they’re likely to try it soon.

Data suggests that 56% of consumers in the US are at least aware of visual search tools. Seven in ten consumers who are aware of these tools say they’re likely to try it if they’re not using it now. Unsurprisingly, younger consumers are leading in terms of visual search adoption for eCommerce: 72% of Millennial and Gen-Z respondents said they would like to use it for shopping purposes.

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In fact, 62% of millennial and Gen Z shoppers prefer visual search technologies over any other shopping feature. Indeed, 57% of those shoppers connect with these items through social media outlets like Instagram and TikTok.

Top 3 Current Uses for Visual Search by Consumers:

Visual Search

81% Use a camera to find and research products

Visual Search

35% Direct users to products/services tagged in a photo or video

Visual Search

33% Search the internet by taking a photo

Top Visual Search Benefits, According to Consumers:

Visual Search

83% Quick, easy access to relevant products/services

Visual Search

83% Hands-free research; no need to type

Visual Search

81% “Camera-first” way to discover the world

Despite this enthusiasm, the key barrier to adoption is getting customers to understand the technology’s applications outside the immediate retail setting.

Visual search is a novelty for many buyers. Unfortunately, it’s not yet a primary channel for research or purchasing. At present, only four in ten consumers really understand how visual search improves the customer experience.

To clarify, visual search and image search are not the same thing. Despite the fact that both of these terms revolve around imagery, visual search is a non-static image delivery system. 

In simple terms, you use words to conduct an image search. Text is used to connect image searches; in contrast, visual search uses images themselves to conduct the search. 

Visual search is an algorithm-based machine learning tool that uses visual imagery to connect search criteria. This technology provides shoppers with the ability to shift search criteria on a purely visual basis. Although image search has been around for a long time, visual search wasn’t available until AI-enabled machine learning platforms became available for public use.

Machine learning provides deeper contextual “vision” for each image search, and links these images as a “theme.” This way, it can algorithmically “predict” visual cues for consumers, rather than just follow linear, textual instructions. 

Amazon Camera Search, for example, is an increasingly-popular eCommerce visual search tool. The app allows customers to use the camera on their devices to create a digital image of visual information. They can use the tool to scan barcodes, identify items, and get suggestions based on that visual data.

Benefits of Visual Search for Retailers

eCommerce is changing due to machine learning and other emerging technologies. Gone are the days of pitching goods with a paragraph of text and one or two stationary images to highlight your products. Now, customers expect your platform to infer what they’re searching for based on products that frequently catch their attention. 

It’s a good idea to keep ahead of the curve. While 72% of eCommerce companies aren’t looking to expand their marketing efforts into digital voice and visual search just yet… that leaves around 28% who are. Embracing these technologies earlier can be an excellent way to stand out from your competition and provide customers with a great shopping experience. 

A few benefits of adopting visual search into your marketing efforts could include:

Connecting With Younger Shoppers

As mentioned above, visual search is most popular among younger generations of shoppers, with around 70% of Gen-Z shoppers discovering brands through social media applications. Discovery aside, most Gen-Z customers also prefer to purchase items directly from visual cues presented through social advertising

This should impress upon you that, to remain relevant to the next generation, you must present your brand where young people are most likely to discover and interact with it.

Connecting With New Customers

Besides Gen-Z, many other potential customers are going to inadvertently discover your brand via visual search that may never have seen any of your other campaigns. Thus, when it comes to attracting new customers, visual search is a win-win situation all around.

Connecting With Existing Customers

Consider how engaging visual search might be for customers that were already loyal to your brand in the first place. One thing that mega-retailer Target does exceptionally well is consistently diversify and optimize its online content for popular trends. This obviously helps the company prune marketing efforts that aren’t working as well and refocus on efforts that seem to be reaching the most customers. 

Let’s say your customer really loves a handbag you make and has purchased three or four in the past two years. With enhanced visual search capabilities, that same customer may be wowed by a 3D shopping experience. You can showcase your handbags in a dynamic way, but also allow the customer to see the item against outfits they already own. This “digital fitting room” technology is just another aspect of visual search that can future-proof your brand for the foreseeable future. 

Increasing Conversions

The investment could produce a hefty payoff with regard to revenue increases. While many customers may shop for products online and allow their items to linger in their carts for days, weeks, or even months, visual search allows shoppers to interact with products in a visceral way. 

This dynamic “almost real” shopping experience has been proven to increase conversions by as much as 64%. Don’t forget: in the long run, the visual search market is projected to top $ 77 billion by 2025. In this context, the incentive to be an early adopter seems fairly obvious.

We’ve spent a good deal of time singing visual search’s praises. But, are there any real-life examples of companies using this search method to their advantage? Let’s take a look at a few innovators in this field, and see what we can learn from them.

Visual Search

Target

Target makes effective use of their collaboration with Pinterest Lens to provide relevant searchable products based on visual cues downloaded from user smartphones and cameras. This incredibly powerful tool enables customers to search for products they like based on items they see in other stores, in their homes, or on the go. To put this into perspective: let’s say a user really likes a home decor item they saw at a friend’s house during a dinner party. By snapping a pic of the item and uploading it to their Target app, the company’s visual search platform will seek and produce all available items carried in Target stores matching that search criteria.

Visual Search

Visual Search

Ikea

Ikea is another major retailer that has experimented with several forms of visual search over the last few years to produce a hyper-convenient, 3D shopping experience for customers. Using advanced visual search capabilities from GrokStyle (a Meta company), Ikea is able to display its products to customers who are shopping for a particular room, color, or product size.

The application works by taking products already available on Ikea’s site and displaying them in the customer’s chosen setting. It can also match visual cues uploaded by the customer’s smartphone to items in Ikea’s catalog.

Visual Search

Visual Search

Amazon

Amazon’s Style Snap is another future-forward example of visual search in action. As one of the largest (if not the largest retailer) on the planet, Amazon is always on the frontline of emerging marketing technologies and is generally one of the first to hone its availability. Thus, Amazon Style Snap has been an industry gold standard since 2020 and makes it incredibly easy for consumers from all walks of life to use and engage with its platform.

Much like the other visual search engines on this platform, all a customer needs to do to take advantage of Style Snap is to find an item they like on Amazon and run a visual search based on that product or upload images via their smartphone and choose how they want that product displayed.

Visual Search

Visual Search

eBay

Online resale giant eBay was one of the first companies to experiment with visual and image search algorithms. The company implemented Find it on eBay way back in 2017, and has applied the component consistently ever since. In fact, Find it on eBay is so popular that Google Chrome offers a few desktop extensions to make Google shopping experiences much more seamless.

Visual Search

Visual Search

H&M

Trendy style arbiter H&M also utilizes visual search components in its shopping applications and has done so consistently since 2018. The company makes it incredibly simple for customers to shop items by style, color, or cut. They also allow them to upload images that help them sort products by personal relevance.

Visual Search

As we see, a number of major retailers have already invested in visual search as a means to hone their customer experience and increase conversions. Frankly, customers want marketing that speaks to them on a personal level. Visual search takes this personalization to the next level by displaying what customers want when it's most timely and relevant. 

So, we’ve run down a bunch of the benefits of visual search, and offered some examples of how you could implement it. There are a few inevitable downsides to think about, though. These could include:

Content Matching

One of the most important drawbacks to consider is that many products aren’t going to automatically match up with the search criteria. That is to say, if your customer is searching for a pink lamp that they saw in a friend’s house at a dinner party, the odds that you’ll always have comparable products in stock are pretty slim. 

Essentially you are promoting the idea that you have many similar products in stock for your customers to search through. This can be a sticking point if this concept isn’t made immediately clear to every user. Also, it’s a very good idea to accurately describe every product and item you sell down to the minute details, including size, colors, cuts, and any other pertinent information which can be misconstrued by both the user and the application. 

Costly Software Upgrades

Companies can piggyback off the search engines featured on Google Lens by providing excellent SEO search criteria. However, it’s not always personalized to your business.

You want targeted visual search capabilities for your own shopping app or site. Thus, you will likely need to partner with a third-party software developer like Syte to help you develop and integrate visual search options with your product listings. 

Costs for integration run on a per-performance ROI basis. That said, overall costs are determined by each company, meaning it could represent a rather considerable upfront investment. 

Unrealistic Expectations

Remember, any new marketing tactic is going to rely on your ability to aptly describe and display your products. Misleading marketing materials often lead to unrealistic expectations, which are never a good look for any retailer. This is why it’s so important to refrain from exaggerating the benefits of any product or service. 

You want to paint those products with as realistic a brush as possible. Showcase the best aspects of your goods, of course, but make sure that customers have a realistic expectation of what you’re selling before they buy.

Chargebacks

As hinted above, chargebacks might not be a direct result of poorly arranged visual marketing, but they can certainly be influenced by it. If a customer receives an item that doesn’t reflect their expectations, you’re inviting them to dispute the transaction.

Chargebacks are never a good thing. In fact, a high chargeback-to-transaction ratio is likely to land you in hot water with your merchant services provider, aside from the damage to your reputation at large. 

One of the leading causes of disputes and chargebacks is misrepresented marketing. Again, optimizing your search criteria and listings in advance of including a new marketing medium is a “must-do” practice. 

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Visual Search Best Practices

Visual search is set to be a revolutionary tool for retail in the coming years. To be ready for visual commerce, though, you must ensure your site has accurate images that are optimized for search. Establishing a few best practices can make all the difference between a functionally visual search-enabled site and a visual dud. 

To accomplish the former, each of your product pages should use:

Alternative Text

An often overlooked, and extremely important element of any visual search is the alt-text field that accompanies every image you upload. Alt-descriptions are often used by search engines to contextualize the meaning or theme of each picture used.

Image Sitemap

Image sitemaps elevate the possibility of your site being viewed by search engines. Enabling this feature will allow the search to effectively catalog, crawl, and source images in groups.

Properly-Scaled Images

The size of images on your page impacts the time it takes for that page to load. Don’t use massive images that slow down your site. Instead, scale all images to be the correct size for the page, especially for product thumbnails.

Responsive Images

Customers will conduct visual searches across a variety of devices. Your pages and images need to be responsive and optimized for different screens, especially mobile devices.

Detailed Meta Information

Meta information is what search engines use to determine the content of an image. Your metadata should be accurate and descriptive to optimize your images for search engines.

Accurate File Names

In addition to the meta information, each image’s file name is also an important clue to help search engines find you. We recommend using file names that reflect the keywords a customer might use when searching for your product.

High-Quality Images

Of course, the most important element of all is to use good images. You need to provide multiple well-lit images that showcase each product from multiple angles. Your images should give customers all the visual details they need to make an informed purchase. This includes dimensions, scale, color, and any other relevant information.

The best practices mentioned above are important for visual search optimization. It’s important to note, however, that they can also help you protect sales even after the transaction.

If a customer makes a purchase, but the final item doesn’t reflect what was shown on your site, the customer is much more likely to demand a refund. Nearly one-quarter of all online returns happen because the product differed from what the customer saw online.

Even worse, the customer might file a chargeback, claiming that the item in question didn’t reflect what was promised. This could qualify for a dispute using Visa reason code 13.3 (Not as Described or Defective Merchandise/Service), for instance. This would be considered a merchant error, which would make successful chargeback representment unlikely.

Getting your business ready for visual search is a big step toward protecting your profitability. Have additional questions about optimizing your site to attract customers and prevent loss? Click below and speak with one of our eCommerce experts today.

FAQs

What is a visual search?

Visual search is an AI-enabled technology that allows customers to search for products and items by visual cues rather than textual information. For example, if a customer is searching for “blue t-shirt,” the algorithm will present them with visual products that match this description. The user can then refine the search according to the customer’s taps or input.

How do I do a visual search?

Customers can generally use visual search by using shopping applications that are visual search-enabled, like Amazon, Target, or eBay. Once the application is open, customers can snap photos on their smartphone and upload the image to their shopping app. The visual search will then produce similar images and products according to the visual cues provided in the customer’s image.

Can you do a visual search on Google?

For customers, Google Lens allows users to upload and match products directly from the google search bar through Chrome or via a Google application.

Merchants, on the other hand, can piggyback off the search engines featured on Google Lens by providing excellent SEO search criteria. That said, if you want targeted visual search capabilities in your own shopping app or site, you will likely need to partner with a third-party software developer like Syte to help you develop and integrate visual search options with your product listings.

What is the visual search process?

Major retailer Target makes effective use of their collaboration with Pinterest Lens to provide relevant searchable products based on visual cues downloaded from user smartphones and cameras. This incredibly powerful tool enables customers to search for products they like based on items they see in other stores, in their homes, or on the go.

To put this into perspective, let’s say a user really likes a home decor item they saw at a friend’s house during a dinner party. By snapping a pic of the item and uploading it to their Target app, the company’s visual search platform will seek and produce all available items carried in Target stores matching that search criteria.

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