Oliver Tan
Nov 13, 2015

Making images shoppable with visual search

The world of 'Buyable Pins' and 'Shop Now' buttons just got more exciting this week with social discovery engine, Pinterest, announcing its new "crazy-fun" visual search.

Oliver Tan
Oliver Tan

Years after visual search was first implemented in ecommerce, this feature finally comes to Pinterest and its 100 million monthly active users this week, after its first announcement in 2014.

In the exploding visual web, this play by Pinterest underlines the growing trend toward less text search and more visual search in ecommerce. It shows the heavy significance players place on social engagement and content to drive shopping. What is increasingly clear is that the relationship between retailers, brands and consumers has fundamentally changed.

Where it used to be brands and retailers pushing ads to reach consumers, now they are using images on social media as shoppable content.

Whilst it is still early days to see how consumers will react to visual search and Buy buttons on social media, there is evidence that in the ecommerce space visual search is quickly gaining traction.

Pinterest visual search now allows users to crop an object in a pinned image and find information on and buy visually similar products.

Ecommerce players like Flipkart and Zalora started using visual search as far back as 12 months ago to help online shoppers search and find products more efficiently. In a booming ecommerce world still dominated by inefficient guessing keywords, this comes as a game changer for consumers, retailers and brands. General results across have shown better search engagement and uplift of up to 50 percent in conversion rate compared with keyword search, especially in fashion ecommerce.

So what are the implications for marketing and advertising practitioners?

1. Content is a major driver of shopping interest. This is especially true for visual domains like fashion and home decor. Brands have now the opportunity to make content shoppable. How? By identifying content that inspires interest and encourages discovery to user-generated inspirational photography. One smart innovation is using visual search on leveraged content to facilitate discovery shopping.

2. Visual content as a source of consumer intelligence. Data scientists have long leveraged text data to gain intelligence. Further data-mining visual content can provide even more valuable insights on what consumers are looking for, that text engines cannot penetrate. Image-recognition engines understand what consumers are looking for in the shopping process and associate this data with demographics and other elements to provide valuable intelligence. Imagine an intelligent algorithm that not only processes images to surface visually similar ones, but also associates which type of people like which type of products better.

3. Publishers and content owners can also get into the game. Content creators can now have an avenue of monetising their media assets. The advertising industry benefits now from highly engaging and relevant ads: shoppable content itself. Visual search is that new bridge that connects the content and commerce.

4. Challenges remain. While companies like Pinterest develop their own machine intelligence to power such technology, vendors exist that are happy to provide their APIs to companies that don’t want to roll up their sleeves and do their own R&D. Being an industry in its nascent stage, most vendors focus on a few verticals at a time. Therefore, it is quite challenging to provide great visual search results across all product categories at the moment. The mobile and web user experience of using such technology is yet to be polished.

5. What about video? Why stop at image content? Why can’t video content be a source? After all, CTRs on video ads are generally between 2.4 to 3.5 times higher than standard banner ads. At ViSenze we are betting not only on searching products in images, but also in videos. Video content is rapidly booming on various platforms, and visual search built with machine intelligence can also make video content shoppable. From products in fashion shows to those in user-generated videos, nothing will be unsearchable.

We believe we will see massive transformations in the visual web space in the near future. Technology is rapidly evolving and more and more popular platforms are familiarising consumers with visual search. Bridging the world of content with commerce is happening and we can all benefit from it.

Oliver Tan is CEO of ViSenze

Flipkart allows users to take photos of products around them and find visually similar ones ready to buy within the app.


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