Though visual search has been around since the launch of Google Goggles in 2009, it's still considered a nice-to-have "extra" by many online retailers who have yet to weigh in on its potential. But the increased use of visual search with the rise of social commerce and shoppable media is set to be one of 2021’s stand-out ecommerce trends. Companies who optimize for it early on stand to broaden their reach and drive sales.
What is visual search in ecommerce?
Visual search, or image search, is an alternative method to written text search queries. Instead of keywords, a visual search engine interprets an image using visual clues and metadata. The search starts when a user uploads a picture, like a pair of sneakers seen on a stranger in the metro or something they saw online and captured in a screenshot.
After the picture is uploaded, deep machine learning and artificial intelligence work together to identify what is seen in the picture. The visual search engine then aggregates the most relevant results, based on similarities, such as color or style.
Visual search in retail makes sense, particularly for verticals like fashion and homeware. Often, people don't know exactly what they are looking for, so figuring out the precise keyword can be challenging. Visual search saves shoppers from needing to think of possible words for the product they're looking for online.
The five biggest visual search engines or tools are:
With 442 million active users per month, Pinterest has more than 600 million visual searches monthly and claims it can now recognize 2.5 million items. Users can take a picture of nearly anything, then find, save, and shop for the featured items. Visual search on Pinterest helps users find “Shop the Look” pins, which are shoppable media posted by brands and retailers.
In 2019, StyleSnap app joined ranks with the already long list of Amazon tools. Its built-in camera function allows users to snap a picture of nearly anything and find it and similar products in the Amazon marketplace.
Bing Visual Search
Bing Visual Search provides products and information regarding the photos that users upload to the app. Bing also presents similar products and prices, recognizing that a user may have buying intent.
Google's visual search platform is the most extensive of the bunch, seeing as it's incorporated in many other Google services, such as Photos, Google Search, Google Translate, and Google Assistant.
Snapchat Camera Search
Snapchat's visual search tool is integrated with Amazon and allows users to search for products in the online marketplace. Customers can also go to a store, snap a barcode, and then get the item's Amazon product page. The user saves money if the online price is cheaper than in-store.
There are also visual search apps available on Shopify, to allow store owners to add their own on-site visual product search functionality.
How does visual search help boost reach and sales?
Visual search is still at the onset. Many online retailers have yet to adopt it natively into their websites, usually due in part to budget and technical limitations – AI and deep learning don't come cheaply. Instead, those retailers who have realized its potential and want a piece of the pie choose to focus on being present on Pinterest and Amazon. In addition, they optimize their images for search engines like Google and Bing, to increase their image discoverability in search results.
Retailers quickly went digital in 2020, and the onset of the global pandemic meant that in-person customer service temporarily disappeared. Visual networks work towards filling the gap in customer care – shoppers can visualize what they're buying and are “consulted” by online influencers and sellers in a very visual online environment. For example, Pinterest Pins, Boards, and Collections are one way retailers are "advising" customers. Visual search is an important component of the online shopping experience. According to GroupM, 80% of Pinterest users start with a visual search.
The market demand for visual search functions on websites is growing; a study run in the UK and US showed that 62% of millennials want visual search capabilities more than any other new technology. However, only a handful of companies have actually integrated visual search natively onto their platforms; ASOS, Ikea, Forever 21, Wayfair, Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger, and Macy's are retailers who aimed to leverage the feature early on.
Companies who get on board with visual (and voice) search stand to gain 30% more digital commerce revenue in 2021. Ad revenue from visual search is predicted to increase to $865 billion by 2022. No matter how the pandemic unfolds in 2021, retailers that at the very least invest in ecommerce product visuals will boost their brand in the long run.
Going a step further with shoppable media
Visual search and shoppable media go hand-in-hand and are primarily driven by social media. Shoppable media converts images into interactive shopping media that the customer can click on – Instagram and Pinterest have already launched this feature. When visual search leads to shoppable media, it applies an engaging approach to online shopping that further breaks down the buyer resistance and already has proven success.
Technically speaking, artificial intelligence and machine learning also play a big role in shoppable media. Interactive shoppable content requires extensive automation, heaps of data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to provide a sustainable and precise process.
The driving generation behind the trend is Gen Z with 60% saying they discover brands on social media apps, and 69% of them making purchases right on the platform. It's not just Gen Z either; Millenials and other generations are also on board. Customers are six times more likely to purchase a product if the page includes pictures from social media. It's safe to say social commerce is here to stay.
Shoppable media is excellent for ecommerce because it increases users’ engagement with brands quickly and entertainingly. It fits with the social media mindset that many consumers have adopted. There are no strenuous keyword enquiries, and interactions are organic and integrated into the social media experience – ultimately providing a great shopping experience. Pinterest says 90% of their weekly users use the platform to make purchase decisions.
How to increase your product visibility in visual search
If you're not able to add a visual search function to your website or product page, it's still essential to get your media ready for this new age of product search. Try these essential steps to increase your discoverability on channels where visual search is prevalent, and secondly, capitalize on your product images.
Next to having your products on your website, Pinterest and Amazon are must-haves if you want to gain access to their visual search audiences. Instagram is a go-to for shoppable content, as well, though it doesn't have visual search at the moment.
The more pictures you have of a product, the more likely it will be picked up in visual search. Chances are someone isn't taking a picture of an item perfectly from the front. You want your item to be found regardless of the angle. So, upload close-ups and pictures of the back, front, sides, and so on, to maximize the likelihood yours will be aggregated, too.
The use of structured data provides search engines with as much information as possible about your image, which will help your site appear in rich snippets on Google. Google has a set of guidelines that companies should follow to ensure they're getting it right.
Product titles and descriptions
Your product titles and descriptions, as well as captions, should include the right keywords – they still matter on the retailer side, even when users don't need to type them. Even though machine vision and artificial intelligence will identify what is in your image, it's not a perfect science yet, and can still misidentify your product. By adding the right keywords, you further help the system link your product to visual search queries.
On Pinterest, correct naming also applies to boards and collections.
In addition to writing compelling image captions, make a point of prioritizing your alt text. Alt tags and alt descriptions boost your image's SEO as search engines use them to read and understand the context and content of a picture. The text also appears if the image doesn't load or when customers use screen readers.
The rule of thumb is to create on-point, descriptive, and well-written texts. Avoid merely writing one word and go for a longer text that explains exactly what is going on. For example, if the picture shows a woman wearing a Burberry raincoat, instead of "woman Burberry raincoat," write "young blond woman wearing a beige Burberry coat with a plaid interior standing in the street of London”. You can utilize your keyword research here as well.
Alt texts are just as crucial on social media as they are on your website or e-shop. To optimize for Pinterest, for example, creators need to focus on keywords as well as esthetics.
The file names of your images must also be descriptive as well, as opposed to simply containing the image number. Search engines crawl this information, too. Make it a habit of including key information about the image. Taking our example from above, you should opt to write "woman-beige-Burberry-raincoat-London."
Chances are you've got a sitemap on your website – creating one for your images as well will help search engines discover them. The latter will identify, crawl, and index the images on your site.
Image sizes and file types
Images should be optimized down to the detail, which includes image sizes and file types. To ensure fast loading times, uploading supported images with the right pixel count will make a big difference. If the images are too large, use an online compressor (there are many free tools online). Regarding formats, use ones that Google Images can support, such as JPEG, PNG, WebP, GIF, BMP, and SVG.
Google also gives many image recommendations to fulfill Google Images best practices, such as suggesting a pixel width of 1200 and prioritizing "compelling, high-quality images in your content, especially large images that are more likely to generate visits from Discover," according to Google Search Central.
Image quality plays a large part in reaching the right audiences via search engines, not to mention convincing customers about your product's value. Content should also always be unique. If you use stock images, customize them to make sure they stand apart.
Further visual SEO tips
All images on your site should be republished on visual social networks, such as Pinterest, to help enhance their visibility.
Besides, internal and external linking is just as important with Google Images and visual search as it is for traditional SEO.
Alt text provides additional context for your images, and gives Google more confidence when deciding which images to rank for specific search terms. When using images as hyperlinks, Google uses this alt text as anchor text, so make sure the alt text of any clickable images describes the image in the context of the page it appears on.
Google also uses additional data provided by your product feeds and on-site copy, such as product descriptions, so you'll want to provide plenty of relevant information here to help Google decide where to rank your products in its search results.
The future of visual search
We saw voice search's popularity grow with smart home devices in the past year, and this year visual search will have its heyday. Retailers who focus on leveraging alternative search methods in early 2021 stand to profit more than late adopters who are slow to the trend.
Download the Future of Retail report from Raconteur for retail predictions for 2021 and beyond, tips for omnichannel ecommerce, and advice on how to succeed in a post-COVID world.