Retailers Are Banking on Visual Search for the Future — But Are Consumers On Board?

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In 2019, visual search is no longer a novelty. Google’s image search launched in the early 2000s (following a public frenzy for Jennifer Lopez’s Grammy’s gown), and by 2017 brands had hopped on board with AI-powered visual discovery tools. However, the technology has gained new interest and investment this year, with brands including Pinterest, Google, FarFetch, EasyJet, Salesforce, Amazon, and Walmart rolling out visual capabilities. In fact, as part of its 20th anniversary, Google announced a slew of new visual discovery features that mirror those rolled out by Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest.

Based on this recent spike in interest NewtonX investigated why tech and retail giants are suddenly looking to visual as the future of search — and whether consumer preferences are actually in line with this shift. In order to investigate the topic, NewtonX surveyed 300 leaders at companies that are using, developing, or considering developing visual search. The data and insights in this article are informed by this survey.

Why Tech Giants Think Visual Search is the Future

There are two primary types of visual search: reverse search, wherein a user submits a photo of something and the search engine matches the photo to products or names, and straightforward visual search, wherein users scroll through photo-based platforms like Instagram and then click on photos for product purchasing.

Both types of visual search shorten the discovery-to-purchase cycle and also enable customers to find matches for their product intent much faster than with keyword search, which helps brands turn intent into actual sales.

Additionally, 34% of survey respondents cited competing with Amazon as a primary incentive for entering the visual search game. Amazon’s rekognition software API is already used by Snapchat, which links directly to Amazon product pages when users press and hold the camera screen while it’s pointed at an object. However, other retailers believe that Amazon’s surplus of similar product references make it difficult for users to discover new items, which leaves space for competition from smaller e-commerce platforms. For instance, Farfetch, a retail platform for boutiques, allows users to search using photos they find on Instagram or Pinterest — platforms where products are more likely to be one of a kind or boutique.

Google’s moves into the space have also motivated other sectors to invest in visual search. For instance, EasyJet recently launched a visual search tool that allows users to submit a photo of a place to discover where the photo is — and then purchase plane tickets to the location. Salesforce also launched its own visual search tool for retailers, and Walmart is building its own visual search technology in-house.

Tech Giants May Love Visual Search — But Do Consumers?

Consumers are fully accustomed to searching with keywords — after all, they’ve been doing it for the entire lifespan of the Internet. However, the proliferation of social media has contributed to more photo and video-heavy Internet content. Gen Z’s preference for visual content has driven news organizations, shopping platforms, and even dining companies to invest more and more in non-written forms of communication.

While respondents to the NewtonX survey who have rolled out visual search functions still say that the majority of users opt for keyword search, multiple platforms report strong growth in the area. For instance, visual search using Pinterest Lens (a visual search that recommends ideas based on a user’s submitted photo) increased 140% between February of 2017 and February 2018.  

Additionally, the proliferation of retail platforms, influencer culture, and retail presence on visual social platforms (e.g. Instagram) will make visual search more and more appealing to consumers. Visual search is still in its infancy in terms of consumer use, but NewtonX experts believe that over the decade it will approach keyword search, and potentially even surpass it.

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About Author

Germain Chastel is the CEO and Founder of NewtonX.

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