The days of search engines being passive text-driven screens are well and truly over. The popularity of virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana has already seen keyboards being supplanted by voice searches. And now several tech giants are upping the stakes further, with camera-driven search tools requiring no input beyond a simple picture…
Google Lens, Pinterest Lens and the newly-launched Bing Visual Search all follow similar principles. Aiming a camera at an object and snapping it through a proprietary app identifies the object in question, displaying curated information about it. Photographing York Minster might bring up TripAdvisor reviews, or notes on the building’s 250-year construction period. Snapping a dress in a shop window could reveal a table of available sizes or stock levels.
Results may vary
Despite the pioneering efforts of the defunct Google Goggles interface, content-based image retrieval is still evolving technology. As a consequence, results are inconsistent. The blend of photography, search, AI and AR required to match images to archive materials is far more complex than merely interrogating text databases for written input strings. User photography is also highly variable in terms of quality; a night-time shot on a Kindle would look rather different to a daytime photo taken with a Samsung Galaxy S9. To try and standardise results, Google now offers Lens as an option in the proprietary camera apps of ten new Android devices. Even so, issues like camera shake or flash lighting remain considerable challenges.
Where does ecommerce fit into this inevitable evolution of search engines?
Quite simply, it gives manufacturers and developers a shortcut to consumers. No longer will people watching a soap merely wonder where a particular actress’s outfit can be purchased – a photo will tell them. The first time you see a new car parked in a neighbour’s driveway, you’ll be able to find out how much it costs and what features come as standard. Search engines will return results about identical (or comparable) items on sale, making it easier for people to make impromptu purchases. But the engines will rely on retailer interfaces being fast-loading and user-friendly. Firms meeting these criteria will naturally receive preferential treatment.
Friction-free purchase portals
Minimising the number of stages between seeing an item and being able to buy it is critical since impulse purchases will underpin visual search’s benefits to retailers. As the technology becomes more reliable, it’ll be incumbent on ecommerce platforms to add relevant metadata to their product listings. Real-time stock levels and postage rates to specific postcodes are examples of above-and-beyond information provision. Low-friction payment gateways will also be important in expediting purchases, reassuring people that each purchase will be painless.
Bing’s visual search tool remains fairly primitive at present, and only American users of the Bing app are presently able to enjoy this novel experience. Nevertheless, any tool capable of streamlining ecommerce presents an opportunity to steal a march on competitors. Visual search could be a significant traffic generator in the years ahead if businesses embrace it.