Visual Search

Visual search has been increasing in popularity over the past year. While still an emerging trend, the associated technology continues to be improved in order to provide users with the best possible search results. And, thanks to the rise of quality apps available on mobile devices, continues to grow in the level of usage.


What is Visual Search?

Visual search uses screenshots, photographs, and other real-world images as the impetuses for online searches. Artificial intelligence (AI) is used to understand the content and context of the images in order to return a list of related results.

Visual search has a number of applications in the eCommerce industry, particularly for fashion and home decor retailers. The technology lets retailers suggest thematically or stylistically related items to consumers in a way they would be difficult to do using a text-only query.

The main visual search engines are from the usual players – Google, Amazon, Pinterest and Microsoft’s Bing. A large number of retailers including IKEA, Wayfair, and Neiman Marcus have also built proprietary visual search tools.


Why is Visual Search Important?

Visual search will change the way we interact with the world around us. Given the dominance of visual within our culture, it is only natural that we would use an image to begin a search. Often, we are searching for a theme or complete ensemble versus an individual object. Visual search technology ties things together aesthetically in a way that text cannot. A visual search approach brings our instinctive sense of visual discovery to online. While visual search technology is still in its infancy, recent trends have shown the potential it has to quickly advance.


Visual Search Statistics

  • The global visual search market is estimated to exceed $14 million by 2023.  

  • 20% of app users make use of visual search when the feature is available. 

  • MIT found that:

    • 90% of information transmitted to the human brain is visual.

    • The human brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.

  • The Intent Lab reports:

    • 36% of consumers have conducted a visual search. 

    • 41% who think textual information is more important).

    • At least 50% of respondents in all categories except for electronics, household goods, and wine and spirits prefer visual information over text.

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


The Big Four


Lens, Google’s image-recognition technology, is the result of a number of acquisitions that occurred over many years to include an early augmented reality text translation app from Quest Visual called "Word Lens." Google accelerated the development of smartphone processing power, positively impacting the technological ability to visually recognize text, images, and objects. When Google Lens first launched in 2017, it was offered only for the Google Pixel phone. Now it is available as a standalone app for both iPhone and Android users. Google Lens is also available as an integrated feature in other Google apps such as Google Assistant.

How Lens Works

The basic premise of the technology simply requires you to open the app and point your smartphone camera at any object you want to know more about. You can also pull up an existing image in Google Photos to use artificial intelligence to recognize what’s in the photo. Lens is then able to provide information based on the image that it sees through your camera.

The latest updates of this technology let you point your camera at a restaurant menu to look up dishes. You can also use Lens to see reviews and photos that others have posted via Google Maps.  Lens can also help find information about sculptures and paintings in museums or landmarks. It provides background details about user ratings, hours of operation and historical facts and more.

In addition, if you are outdoors and wondering what a plant or flower is, Lens can help identify it in real-time. All you need is a cellular connection. You can also use Lens to scan barcodes and QR codes to gather information available in the codes on various products available in stores.

Google Statistics

  • Google Lens has been used over 1 billion times. 

  • Google Lens can detect over 1 billion objects.

  • Google Shopping ads see a budget increase of 33%, versus a rise of just 3% for text ads.



Amazon has made a sizable investment in visual search through a feature called “StyleSnap” on the Alexa app. Alexa users can replicate their favorite fashion simply by uploading a photo. The artificial intelligence technology then provides the most relevant products to their search. Often an aggressive trendsetter for e-commerce businesses, some wonder if Amazon’s move to implement visual search into its retail experience may lead to the elimination of keywords in the retail industry altogether.

The Amazon approach to visual search is in response to consumers’ continually growing expectations of the online retail experience. The easier it is for customers to use visual search, the harder it will be for them to go back to keywords. As we look to the future, visual search will need to play a key role in that user experience.

Amazon offers its visual search technology to other companies through a platform called Rekognition. This application programming interface (API) has a suite of image recognition tools that includes the object identification that enables a visual search. Amazon’s visual search technology helps Pinterest interpret text within images and also powers Snapchat’s visual search tool.

In fact, Snapchat’s tool is specifically positioned as a product search tool and links directly to an Amazon product detail page. Snapchat users can press and hold on the camera screen while it’s pointed at an object. Then, an Amazon product card will pop up on the screen. visual search is a natural extension for Snapchat as augmented reality and the camera are already integral components of the social platform.



Pinterest’s visual search technology is Pinterest Lens. This technology allows a user to use his smartphone camera as the search input when he can’t come up with the words needed to describe what he is looking for. This type of visual search opens up an entirely new way to interact with a target audience it creates a different behavior that has not existed before. Voice search simply provides a different input format without changing the intention from a text search. Visual search allows consumers to search for objects that they weren’t sure how to find in the past.

Pinterest Visual Search Statistics



Microsoft is giving Android and iOS owners a new way to find out more information about the outside world with new Visual Search features that are powered by its Bing engine. Visual Search is available in a range of apps, including the standalone Bing app on iOS and Android, as well as Microsoft's web browsing apps for Android — Launcher and Edge.

The technology utilizes features driven by artificial intelligence to help people discover more about an object. Visual Search allows users to search the mobile web by uploading an image or taking a photo with their phone camera. When a user takes a picture with her phone, Bing then identifies what is in the image and provides web search links that will help users learn more information.

Visual Search features also allow you can take a picture of a product about which you know nothing. The Bing app will return images of products that look similar to the one you visually captured. It will also send you information on where you can buy those particular products and their pricing information as well. 


Retail Implications

Retail brands have also started integrating visual search technology into their smartphone apps to increase customer engagement and help drive conversions. Visual search has vast potential to transform the way consumers engage with brands and provide greater insight into consumer behavior.

Retailers can increase the accuracy of their product search and boost cross-sell opportunities: Visual search can help retail customers clarify ambiguities that occur when they attempt to describe objects and colors in text-based searches. For example, a consumer may see someone wearing a black hat that they might like to buy. Text search would return thousands of black hats, making it difficult for the consumer to find the hat they really want. Further, visual search offers an opportunity to "cross-sell" items based on contextual cues in the image, such as the customer's shoes or shirt, by matching them to items sold by the brand.

Brands Using Visual Search Today:

Forever 21 increases AOV by 20% through visual search

Wayfair uses visual search to improve the customer experience

Walmart turned its iPhone app’s barcode scanner into an AR price comparison tool

Tommy Hilfiger’s image recognition app drives new web traffic and engagement

IKEA launched a Pinterest-embedded catalog

YouTube launched AR for cosmetics

Levi’s and Disney are experimenting with visual search on Snapchat

Houseology launched new visual search technology

CarStory launched the first automotive visual search app

ViSenze brought visual search to Samsung smartphones


How Can Brands Leverage Image Search?

Focus on Organic Image Visibility – The increase in visual search means that it is even more important to be competitive in image search results which, in turn, means a need for brands to have a greater SEO focus. Previously, the idea of optimizing images may have been an afterthought but now will require increased attention.

Build Image Search into Web Inventory – Recent research found that only 8 percent of retail brands have built visual search capability into their web inventory. Brands can get ahead of the curve by investing time and energy to building it in now.

Advertise on Pinterest – there are over 600 million Pinterest Lens searches each month and the figure continues to grow as the technology is improved. Because of Pinterest’s core visual search technology and their advanced image recognition, brands will benefit from their ads automatically showing up next to visually related products.


What’s Next for Visual Search?

The technology behind visual search will continue to become more accurate and widespread especially with the increasing incorporation of augmented reality. It is unlikely that visual search will completely replace text-based searches altogether but there are a number of potential opportunities, especially for fashion and home decor brands.

The experts at Strategy Driven Marketing can’t wait to see how visual search will continue to improve and reshape the world of marketing. We’d love to deep dive into your business to better understand how SDM can help you utilize the latest marketing techniques to offer a user experience your customers will love. We’ll listen, ask a lot of questions, and create a marketing plan uniquely tailored to your brand. Contact us today to get started!