Visual Search on Social Media

By Sophia Littledale

Forget voice, the future of search is visual

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Visual search – the use of AI to understand the content of images (typically taken on a smartphone) – is one of the key growth areas on social media, and one which will significantly impact how customers discover products in the future.

Over the past few years, a number of social media channels have been making steps to develop visual search functionality; Snapchat is collaborating with Amazon to enable its users to take a photo of an item and search for similar products online; Pinterest has developed a visual search feature, Lens, which allows users to point their camera at items of clothing or home décor and be shown similar designs on the platform; while Facebook is also working on image-based technology to help users find what they’re looking for.

However, no company has invested more in visual search than Google, which has developed its own tool, also called Lens. According to the tech giant, Google Lens can now identity more than one billion products. To put this into perspective, this is four times the number the technology had at launch. 

Google Lens has also been designed with practicality at its heart. Indeed, its own research found that 15% of smartphone pictures are of practical things, such as receipts, business cards and to do lists, rather than objects of portraitures. As a result, Google Lens allows users to save information contained in a picture, such as names and phone numbers found on business cards, directly to the contacts section of a smartphone.

Google has also developed Style Search, which works in a similar way to Pinterest Lens, but in addition to finding similar products, also allows product reviews and shopping options which can drive conversion.

To show its commitment to visual search, Google has outlined its vision for Lens in the below:

"As computers start to see like we do, the camera will become a powerful and intuitive interface to the world around us; an AI viewfinder that puts the answers right where the questions are - overlaying directions right on the streets we’re walking down, highlighting the products we’re looking for on store shelves, or instantly translating any word in front of us in a foreign city. We’ll be able to pay our bills, feed our parking meters, and learn more about virtually anything around us, simply by pointing the camera."

While voice search has been touted as the next big thing for search, particularly with the development of smart home devices, it is visual search that boasts a greater capacity and range of functionality. We’re keeping our eyes wide open to see how quickly visual search will take off.