What is visual search and why online retailers need to adopt it now

Image off hands taking a photo with smartphone for visual search

You may have encountered the term ‘visual search’. And if you have, you may have wondered whether it’s a new fad, or soon to be a fixture of online retail.

It’s probably the latter.

This article will explain what visual search is, and what it could mean for online retail.

What is visual search?

Visual search is a phenomenon that is sure to have lasting effects on the online retail world.

It basically is exactly what is sounds like, instead of using text to search something, like we’re all used to doing in Google, Amazon and the like, it uses images instead. The premise is actually very helpful for when you want to search for something that you can’t quite describe.

Think a handbag that you see someone carrying and want one just like it. Instead of putting a series of keywords into search engines, you can just take a picture and you’re immediately presented with everything that resembles it. You can also do it with pictures that aren’t yours. Say you see a photo of friends on holiday on Instagram and you want to know what’s in the background, by using visual search you can find exactly what landmark they are standing in front of.

It can sometimes feel like the term ‘AI’ just gets thrown around no matter the context, but this concept of visual search is indeed carried out using artificial intelligence. When using features in the recently rolled out Pinterest and Google lenses, or in Amazon visual search area, it is AI that can narrow down what is in the image and give the user information in a matter of seconds.

And as AI technology continues to improve, so will visual search. Furthermore, as the idea behind AI is that it is always learning, the more people who use these visual searches, and the more pictures the AI is exposed to, the better it will be able to recognise things and give useful information back to the user. Whether that be reviews of the restaurant they’ve taken a picture of, recipes for the cake, or seeing if the berries they found in the forest are edible.

What does visual search mean for online retail?

So where does retail fit into all of this? Well, the benefits for online retail are far-reaching. Take clothing for example, it can very hard to put into words the way a certain dress you saw looks to be able to buy something similar, yet when the search is done straight from the image, there is no room for confusion.

Person using tablet for visual search in online retailer store

While trying to search ‘gold watch with link band’ could generate millions of potential results, being able to simply search for watches that look similar to one you already know you like is surely going to be more successful.

Visual search also solves a problem that retailers have been experiencing for years when it comes to social commerce. If someone is wearing something in a picture posted to their social media that you like the look of, you can simply upload said picture and be given results matching the articles of clothing being worn. This has the potential of giving brands a far further organic reach, with friends searching for other friends’ outfits and accessories.

Furthermore, if brands incorporate visual search into their own websites, gaining traffic from platforms like Instagram becomes far easier as a user can simply input the image they like from the brand’s instagram in their website and find exactly what they are looking for.

Visual search has also proven popular for finding discounted clothing or design item searched for but also similar looking items. If a user sees an image from a runway show, for example, they can find similar items that are already on sale and for probably far less.

Online brands and retailers can potentially take advantage of this fact by making as many visuals from as many angles as possible visible to potential customers. Images will obviously only appear in results if they exist on the web to begin with and considering a 2017 eMarketer study found that 75% of shoppers regularly or always search for visual content prior to making a purchase, this should be a top priority anyway.

However, it is not just the fashion sector that benefits from visual search, furniture and home does too. Visual search is especially useful for the concept of showrooming, where a shopper will visit a physical store to search for an item before ultimately buying online.

Visual search allows shoppers to find something they like in store and immediately find the same or similar online, facilitating their shopping journey even more. Considering that a common complaint in online furniture shopping is that shoppers cannot visualise the way larger items would look in their space, being able to see an item for themself and then buying online takes this problem away.

So where can we find visual search capabilities?

Google Lens

Smartphone used for visual search for flowers

Google’s recently launched Lens is only available on Pixel phones for now. However, as the launch continues to roll out, its features are very exciting.

The idea behind the project is to interact with your own photos. This means that Google can essentially read the details of your photos and give you information or perform tasks for you. By taking a picture of a business card, for example, it saves all the information to your contacts.

Or, you can take a picture of a book and get reviews on it, and find out more about buildings and landmarks you happen across. They are yet to announce any features to do with shopping, but given their recent experimentations with features such as, Similar Items, where Google Images automatically suggests items that match your image search query.

And not only does it show similar items, but it also lists all the details about the item including price and gives you an option to buy it straight from its picture.

Pinterest Lens

Smartphone screen with visual search for online retail home store

Like Google’s Lens, Pinterest’s also allows you to interact with images. You can simply take a picture within the Pinterest app and it finds matching ‘pins’ for you to choose from. Unlike Google’s, you can point Pinterest Lens at a red dress and it will give you a whole host of red dress options, which, thanks to shoppable pins, you can also buy.

This feature means that you can interact with anything around you, from finding recipes for a certain meal at a restaurant and the seeds for the plant you see in the park, to finding the perfect shoes inspired by haute couture.

Amazon Image Search

Not to be outdone, Amazon allows shoppers to take a picture of whatever it is they need or want and finds it within its marketplace. Not only does it recognise specific shapes like a computer mouse and recommend items based on that, but it also ‘reads’ DVD covers and book titles and gives you options to buy the exact copy you are looking for.

It also allows you to take pictures of a barcode to find the matching item online but, the visual search element means that you don’t need to have the original packaging in order to find it on the marketplace, making replacing old or used products much easier.


Visual search may still be in its infancy, but it’s easy to see how swiftly it could become a mainstay of online retail, as common as the text-based search that now marks the start of so many customer journeys.

It represents an opportunity to streamline the path to purchase, and to make the customer experience considerably easier and more satisfying.

To take advantage of that, start with the basics that are best practice even without visual search as a factor. Cover as many angles as possible with your product images, to provide rich detail and ensure that when shoppers are searching for a product, they find yours.


By Lengow

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