Is visual search the future?

Written by Melanie Smith: Digital marketing manager.
· 4 minute read

Voice search was tipped to be the next big thing in the world of search, with experts predicting that by 2020, 50% of searches will be by voice. Whilst we may not have reached that figure quite yet, it is clear that users are increasingly moving towards ‘different’ ways of searching.

Introducing… visual search. Although visual search is still in its early stages compared to voice search, it is advancing rapidly. In 2017, Google introduced ‘Google Lens’ – an AI-powered tool that uses your smartphone camera to search. In 2018, Bing also launched their own image based search, allowing users to ‘search, shop, and learn more about your world through the photos you take’. 

So is this way of searching the future? Let’s take a look at what visual search is, and why it might be the next big thing in the world of search.

What is visual search?

Visual search uses real-world images such as photos, screenshots or your smartphone camera as the basis of your search. Advanced technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning is then used to understand the image and its context in order to return relevant results to the user.

Visual search has many capabilities, and can be used in various ways. For example, by uploading a photo of an outfit you like, or pointing your camera at a piece of furniture that has caught your eye, visual search can inspire you by showing you similar items that you might like.

san francisco visual search
San Francisco visual search

Exploring a new city? Visual search can be used to learn more about landmarks, simply by uploading a photo. Perhaps you come across a flower, or an animal you want to know more about. Visual search can identify the object in question and provide you with information about it.

Want to add an event to your calendar, look up words or call a number? Visual search can even understand and translate text within an image. This also comes in handy if you can’t decide what to order in a restaurant. Google Lens can be used to look up dishes off a menu to see what’s popular and to provide photos and reviews.

Why visual search? 

As humans, we are very visually orientated. It takes us longer to read and understand text, whereas we can instantly understand pictures. Many of us are even ‘visual thinkers’, so with this in mind, it’s not that surprising that search is becoming more visual.

Clark Boyd has compiled a list of trends, stats and news which explain just why visual search is important:

  • 62% of millennials want visual search over any other new technology.
  • 59% think visual information is more important than textual information across categories
  • The human brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.
  • 90% of information transmitted to the human brain is visual.

Brands already using visual search

According to Tech HQ, 45% of retailers in the UK now use visual search, including ASOS who introduced visual search in 2017. Their ‘Style Match’ tool allows users to upload or snap a photo to search ASOS for products that match that image, or something similar.

asos visual search
ASOS visual search

Argos have also launched a new visual search feature within their ioS app, which enables customers to shop for homeware or furniture using images on their phone. Argos say this is part of their mission to ‘offer customers an engaging, technology-led mobile shopping experience’.

Retail giant Marks & Spencer introduced their ‘Style Finder’ tool in 2019, which allows their customers to search menswear and womenswear by uploading or taking photos to explore similar items from M&S. Their Style Finder is said to help customers “instantly find what they’re looking for, without the need to manually search and filter through our products”.

Can we optimise for visual search?

The short answer is yes…. And we should! 

Image SEO such as alt tags and file names can often be at the bottom of the priority list, however, these basics should become of importance when it comes to optimising for visual search. Alt tags (and captions where necessary) should be descriptive and completed to include key concepts. 

Other best practices include:

  • Compressing your image size
  • Including images on high authority, relevant pages 
  • Avoiding stock photography – images should be high quality and unique
  • Descriptive filenames
  • Use image structured data to help search engines understand
  • Remove clutter from images by keeping focal points in the foreground
  • Include images in your XML sitemap

Although visual search is still in its early stages, according to Search Engine Journal, 35% of marketers plan to optimise for visual search through 2020.  Marketers should start preparing now for a future where consumers are likely to use their smartphone cameras to find information or inspiration, just as much as they use traditional text based searches. 

Want to get a step ahead of the crowd by optimising for visual search? Get in touch with our team of digital marketing experts for a chat.