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  • Writer's pictureMarsaili Mainz

The power of visual search. What is it? And why does it matter to ecommerce retailers?

Updated: May 24, 2022

Us humans, we like pictures, and we’re really good at processing them real fast.

Research by MIT neuroscientists shows that we can recognise an image in 13 milliseconds. To put this in context, most people read at between 250-400 words per minute, which means that even the fastest readers are only reading around 7 words per second. But we can recognise almost 80 images a second.

We process images around 11 times faster than we do words.

You’ll find it said all over the internet that we process images 60,000 times faster than words, but this is a myth that’s been debunked. And when you think about it, ian absurd claim. Processing images 11 times faster than words is already impressive enough.

The persuasive power of images

Not only do we process images faster than words. We also find images more persuasive.

Back in the 1980s, a bunch of groovy professors at the School of Management at the University of Minnesota, leaped out of bed, slicked back their mullets, and did some research into the effectiveness of presentations using visual aids (and we’re talking overhead projectors here). They found that presentations with pictures and diagrams were 43% more effective than text alone.

In 2018, research by the University of California San Diego indicated that pictures move people more than words. In a series of experiments, the research team showed that emotional images changed people's behaviour, while similarly charged words did not.

Professor of psychology, Piotr Winkielman, who led the study, said that the study did not show why images are more powerful than words. However, he hypothesised that emotionally charged pictures speak more directly to us. “Perhaps they work through an older more immediately reactive brain system, while words, which can be nuanced and ambiguous, might require more thought before they are able to affect us.”

So along comes visual search …

Google, Amazon, and eBay (all notorious for their ability to follow the money) have launched visual search tools in the last few years. These allow users to upload images, match them, identify them, and research them. The social media giants aren’t on the backfoot either. Both Pinterest and Snapchat have their own version of the tech.

And we’re all familiar with Google Image Search, where you whack in your search query and have the option to view your search results as images. You might also have noticed recently that Google has been getting jiggy with it and serving up image results along with their regular search listings.

In 2018, Google Image Search was responsible for 22.6% of all web searches conducted that year, making it the second largest search tool in the world, after its parent Google. In 2018, Google also released an update to Google image search that increased visual search traffic to websites.

As a result, the way people search for information is changing to become more visual.

A 2019 study by the Intent Lab found that:

  • 36% of respondents had used visual search.

  • 59% think visual information is more important than textual information.

  • When shopping online for clothing or furniture, more than 85% of respondents put more importance on visual information than text information.

  • Visual information is preferred over text by at least 50% of respondents in all categories except for electronics, household goods and wine and spirits.

Why does visual search matter to ecommerce?

Visual search and image search are changing the way we shop online.

Imagine you’re walking down the street and you see that the woman ahead of you has a lush bag that you love.

This really happened to me 20 years ago, and I spent the best part of a year sporadically (and unsuccessfully) searching local shops to try and find it.

If that happened to me today, I’d take a sneaky snap of the bag, upload it to Google Lens, and wham bam thank you mam, a few hundy later I’d be the proud owner of my dream handbag (or something very like it).

Or, because I’m old school, I might do an image search using a description like ‘caramel leather satchel brass buckle’ and see if a picture of my bag came up. If the bag’s ecommerce retailer had optimised their image correctly for organic search , there’s a good chance that I’d find it that way.

Find more of what you love online

Retail brands are adopting visual search to grow their sales by helping customers find products that they love online.

  • Target has incorporated Pinterest Lens into its mobile app. Shoppers can take a picture of any Target product to view similar items.

  • Glasses USA’s Pic & Pair encourages customers to upload an image of specs that they like. The app will match the style from their catalogue.

  • At a 2017 show Tommy Hilfiger invited guests to use an app to take pictures of clothes on the runway, find out more about each look and order the clothes.

  • Asos Style Match invites customers to upload a picture of an outfit to discover Asos products that match it.

  • Boohoo saw more sales from shoppers using their visual search function, with a conversion rate over 100% higher from customers who engage with their view similar products function.

Visual search streamlines the online shopping process, making it easier for people to find products they covet. It also increases the potential of upsells and add-ons by showing more items that match shoppers’ personal style.

So how can you win at visual search?

Not every online retailer has the development budget of Tommy Hilfiger or Asos. But it will soon be more affordable to go the Target route and incorporate third-party tech like Pinterest Lens into your ecommerce site.

Indian software shop Mad Street Den was one of the first visual search software solutions. Since 2014, they’ve developed over a dozen AI solutions for online fashion retailers that use visual search to suggest outfits to match shoppers’ taste. Mad Street Den now has their HQ in San Fran, offices in London and hometown Chennai, and an international client line up to match.

But if you can’t afford to integrate visual search software into your ecommerce store quite yet, there are three ways that you can win the visual search game.

  1. Quality images.

  2. Content-rich images with titles and alt text.

  3. Images sized for faster loading speeds.

Time invested optimising your images for visual search will bring more interested shoppers to your site. You may even find that you start to sell direct from visual search platforms. Google Lens already pulls matching products from Google Shopping. And if there’s a buck to be made, it’s only a matter of time before ecommerce functionality is a standard add-on to image search.

Visual search is here to stay, and it’s banking big already. If you’d like to learn more my hands-on ecommerce photography coaching teaches ecommerce marketers to take exceptional product photography and to search engine optimise your gorgeous images. Upskill yourself or your team, save money on photographers, and sell more.

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