Visual search ecommerce: how brands can stand out to customers shopping with their camera

By David Ripert

Chances are, when you want to learn something, go somewhere, or buy something, you turn to Google. While Google does not reveal the exact search volume it sees every day, it’s estimated that the world’s most popular search engine processes about 63,000 search queries a second, which is around 5.6 billion searches a day. 

However, the way that people search is changing. Increasingly, rather than typing in their query in a text field, people are searching through the use of real-world images, or “visual search.” Google Lens, Google’s visual search engine that can detect at least one billion objects, is now used as many as three billion times a month.

Combined with other evolving technologies, like augmented reality (AR) and smart glasses, and taking into account that more than a third of people already conduct visual searches and over half of Millennials and Generation Z prefer visual search over any other technology, it is likely that visual search, and by extension, visual search ecommerce, is going to explode in the medium to long-term future. 

What is visual search? 

visual search ecommerce
Visual search involves pointing your device’s camera at an object to find text-based results

In contrast to image search, which generally relies on a typed search to return a number of images that match the particular search, visual search typically starts with a person pointing their mobile phone’s camera at a specific object in the real world. The search engine then uses image recognition technology to identify objects within the image and brings up relevant results.

For example, by taking a photo of your friend’s sneakers on Google Lens, a person may be able to find the exact pair of sneakers, or, at the very least, comparable shoes, as well as a list of online retailers that currently sell them. 

Although the accuracy of visual search varies, it is constantly improving as a result of machine learning technology. Naturally, companies with vast amounts of data — like Google — are at an advantage when it comes to refining their search functionality. 

3 brands that have launched visual search tools

Google Lens isn’t the only visual search engine. Other brands have developed their own tools, as well. Here are just three of them: 

1. Pinterest

visual search ecommerce
Target integrated Pinterest’s visual search into its app

Pinterest, the OG platform for inspiration and planning, was an early adopter of visual search or “visual discovery tool,” as it calls it. Launched back in 2017, Pinterest Lens made it possible for people to find ideas based on objects they saw in the offline world. More than that, Pinterest also demonstrated ways users could fit those objects into their lives.

Since then, Pinterest has improved the functionality of its Lens feature. Able to identify more than 2.5 billion objects across fashion and home images, Pinterest recently introduced a shop tab on its Lens visual search, fuelling the visual search ecommerce revolution. Users can now upload an image of an item and immediately see shoppable Pins based on products that match and are currently in stock. Clicking on the product Pin directly brings the user to the retailer’s checkout page.

Some brands, such as Target, have already integrated Pinterest’s visual search tool into their own apps. 

2. Amazon 

Amazon’s visual search is called StyleSnap and is explicitly focused on fashion

In 2018, Amazon collaborated with Snapchat to create a new visual search feature for the social media app. Using their phone’s camera, Snapchat users can scan objects around them in the real world and see similar Amazon items, along with their price, review score, and Prime availability. Tapping on a product brings users directly to Amazon, where they can complete their purchase or continue browsing. 

A year later, Amazon introduced this same feature into its own platform. Called “StyleSnap,” it allows customers to take a picture of a fashion look they like (the feature is fashion-specific) to see Amazon’s recommendations for items that match the look in the image, based on things like price range, brand, and customer reviews. 

Speaking to Forbes, Lihi Pinto Fryman, the CMO of a visual search company, said, “I believe Amazon adopting visual search reinforces the fact that visual AI, and within that visual search, is a necessity in building a holistic omnichannel experience for online retail.”


visual search ecommerce
IKEA integrated visual search into its Place AR app

IKEA’s AR app “Place” not only allows potential customers to “place” IKEA furniture in their home to determine if it fits before buying it, but also to take a picture of home pieces they like, whether at a store, at a friend’s house, or from a catalogue, to see if IKEA sells anything similar. If it does, customers can see how it would look in their space and click “buy.” 

According to Kavita Bala, who is behind the visual search technology for IKEA, “To make AR work, that’s where you really need tech like visual search. It lets you find things, cool designs, and furniture, all in situ and visualize it in place.”

Benefits of visual search ecommerce

visual search ecommerce
There are many benefits of visual search

The advantages of visual search ecommerce for brands are myriad and varied. Here are just some of them. 

1. Effective product discovery 

For most customers, accurately describing items, be it clothes or furniture, doesn’t come easy. By allowing people to search for items via images, visual search improves product discovery. Rather than having to sift through countless results that are not quite what they’re looking for, customers are presented with the closest match that is — and this is crucial — available for sale. 

2. Increased conversions

By improving the customer experience, visual search shortens the consumer’s path to purchase. Going back to the Forbes article mentioned previously, BooHoo reportedly saw an 85% conversion rate for customers using Camera Search versus those that did not, and Forever21 experienced a 20% increase in average purchase value after introducing visual search into its ecommerce store. 

3. Merging of online and offline shopping experiences

With customers increasingly expecting a multichannel shopping experience, visual search caters to consumers’ desire to move effortlessly between the online and offline worlds. For example, Tommy Hilfiger’s visual recognition app, which lets the brand’s fans shop items straight from the 2017 LA Tommy Hilfiger show, resulted in customers spending double the average time on Tommy Hilfiger’s ecommerce site. 

4. Standing out from the crowd

With so many ecommerce stores, standing out on Google can be tough. On the other hand, because visual search is not yet ubiquitous, it helps brands stand out from their competitors — and make sure that customers see items from their product catalogues. 

What do augmented reality and smart glasses have to do with visual search ecommerce? 

Smart glasses and AR could quicken the adoption process of visual search
Smart glasses and AR could quicken the adoption process of visual search

Although a trendy feature, visual search is not yet mainstream. The main reason for that is that visual search can be awkward to use. To perform a visual search, a person needs to download a dedicated app. Then, every time they come across something that interests them, they need to open said app and point their phone at a specific object to search for it. For the average person, that is way too much effort. They may do it once or twice, but once the novelty wears off, they’ll probably go back to text or audio search. 

However, a new technology that many companies are currently investing in — smart glasses or AR glasses — could put visual search in the mainstream of public consciousness, says Rebecca Sentenca of Econsultancy. According to her, smart glasses could do for visual search what smart speakers did for voice search. If, as is increasingly likely, smart glasses become a popular wearable, the digital and physical worlds will undoubtedly collide, with lines between visual search and AR blurring. 

Why is this important for ecommerce? Visual search is most often used for product searches — something that is unlikely to change in the future. However, with AR glasses, instead of simply being able to search for specific items you saw and liked, you may be able to “search” your dining room for the perfect dining room table chairs to match the dining room table, visualise them in your own space, and purchase them directly. 

Sentenca predicts that eventually, due to machine learning’s capability to understand your taste as an individual, visual search could even detect spaces in your home that could be filled with specific items picked out just for you. For consumers, this could make shopping easier and more fun. On the other hand, for ecommerce retailers, this can open up a host of new opportunities to cross-sell and up-sell. 

Get started with AR today

The fact that big brands are investing in both visual search and smart glasses is a good indication that the way that customers search for things is about to change drastically. However, even if you’re not ready to invest in visual search, you can still benefit from AR today. From AR events to AR social media filters to AR ads, Poplar Studio can help you incorporate AR into your marketing plan. Interested? Get in touch with us today. 

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