The Eyes Have It: The Future Impact of Visual Search on Digital Marketing

It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Overused? Perhaps. Still, it’s quoted so much for good reason. Human beings are inherently visual creatures. More than 50% of our brain function is involved in visual processing, a figure far more powerful than any of our other four senses, and a compelling reason for marketers to pay attention to the impact visual imagery has both on the emotions we feel and on the choices we make. Enter visual search.

What is visual search?

As we know, it isn’t always easy to find the right combination of words to describe what you’re searching for online, or to find answers to questions that are difficult to verbalize. That’s where visual search comes in. Essentially, it means that the online image itself IS the user query.

Visual search combines elements of artificial intelligence (AI), search and augmented reality (AR) technologies to allow you to use your smart device and search the web with your camera. The technology uses pixels to compare the image captured by the camera (or parts of the image) to images within the search engine library.

Maybe you see a dog and want to know what breed it is? Or maybe you want to impress your friends with your intricate knowledge of how to make chocolate soufflé? See a sweet backpack on someone walking down the street and don’t want to make awkward conversation to ask where they bought it? Cool. Now, you don’t have to. Visual search can help.

Google lens technology

Though there are a handful of visual search applications out there, Google has developed a particularly strong one called Google Lens. Built into a smartphone’s camera, Google Lens uses natural language processing along with object and image recognition combined into one platform.

Once Lens identifies an item, it shows the search results within a shopping window that allows you to see the vendor and price of the item and where to buy it online. It also has the capability to match objects to locations nearby or even to provide customer reviews of the object.

You can even use Google Lens to identify words. Maybe you are looking at a menu and you want Google Lens to take the associated words on the menu and search for an image of the food it describes. Now, you can do that in mere seconds.

Recently, Google Lens was incorporated into Google image searches, which makes it much easier for you to identify images within pictures, as opposed to the entire image.

Why is visual search growing?

Simply put, we’re hard-wired to love it! Our biological penchant for imagery coupled with our proclivity for beauty make for a powerful combination. Plus, we love instant gratification. Visual search provides both. Ideally, the image you search for will appeal to your senses in some way and may even illicit an emotional connection. If that happens, you are more likely to move forward and purchase the item you find. Marketers know this, and are getting smarter.

Some large, influential brands have already either partnered with other platforms or developed their own proprietary software to take advantage of visual search capabilities. Clothing retailer Forever 21 has seen a sharp increase (over 20%) in their online sales, and others like Home Depot have joined with Pinterest to implement a visual discovery feature.

What does this mean for digital marketers?

In 2019, visual search technology will continue to grow its reach across the digital landscape. As a digital marketer, I’m intrigued by its possibilities.

If you’re a smart, creative and forward-thinking e-marketer, you could use visual search to your advantage. Since visual searches (as opposed to text searches) are generally more open to influence and inspiration, marketers can use these platforms to identify and hopefully predict future trends.

As a marketer, here are a few tips to consider implementing help you gain ground:

  • Optimize images. Visual search could serve as a platform to further brand awareness. Use carefully chosen images and place them on important, authoritative pages on your website. Consider using overlay text or a call-to-action to make it even easier for the person searching. And, make sure that the size of the image is appropriate. If it’s too large, it may take too long to load, and may frustrate the searcher.
  • Tell a story. Thinking of ways to promote your brand through visual storytelling will become much more important as visual search continues to grow. Your audience wants to see images of the products you sell presented in a visually-stimulating way that feels personalized to their tastes. Pay attention to their search preferences and offer them a well-curated selection of options from which to choose.
  • Practice good SEO on images. As a marketer, you should still pay close attention to SEO and incorporate best practices including structured data, schema markup, image optimization and metadata. This includes using pertinent keywords on all titles, descriptions and alt text.
  • Listen up. Use social listening tools like Hootsuite or Reddit Keyword Monitor Pro to take a contextual look at how products are being used and the feelings around those people using them.

Visual search technology still has a long way to go to perfect its functionality, but its future looks very bright. The visual search market is projected to grow to over $25 billion in 2019, and as more and more data is catalogued by search engines, the technology will continue to be refined to learn consumer tastes and preferences. All eyes on visual search!

Up Next

Want the latest in public relations and public affairs right in your inbox?