Why the new generations will drive the growth of visual search.

Internet navigation and exploration have remained unchanged in recent years, even as retailers have scrambled to pinpoint more effective and personal ways to engage their customers in product discovery.

This is likely why there’s been no shortage of hype surrounding voice search technology, despite ample grounds for skepticism: A recent report found only two percent of people with Alexa-equipped devices have made purchases through voice search this year, highlighting the vast gulf between expectations for the technology and the reality of its usefulness.

Even as developers and retailers fine-tune their voice search products and strategies in hopes of capturing a market filled with promise, a growing realization has emerged that eCommerce search must account for more than what words simply can’t capture alone.

Enter visual search technology.

Much more sophisticated than text-best search, visual search uses an image to query for results by analyzing how various components, such as colors, form, and objects, come together. Pioneers like Microsoft’s Bing have been experimenting with visual search functions as early as 2009, even sunsetting its product in 2012 due to lack of accuracy. But with the launch of both Google Lens and Pinterest Lens, consumers are ready to ride a new wave in visual search, inspiring older plays like Bing to revamp its technology.  

With a newfound ability to conduct visual searches based on parts of an image via cameras and augmented reality applications at greater confidence levels, Pinterest now sees 600,000,000 visual searches on its platform every month. Contrary to voice, there’s a significant user base ready to embrace visual search tools in ways that will drive engagement and purchases in relevant sectors like fashion, beauty, home design, and more – with Generation Z as the linchpin of the revolution.

Digital natives disrupting search

As digital natives, it’s no surprise members of Gen Z are attuned to the benefits of visual search – in fact, they’re craving the kinds of experiences the technology can provide.

Avid users of social media, the nature in which they maintain relationships and connect with the world around them is intrinsically image-driven – and with millennials and Gen Z slated to dominate retail, this visual-savvy cohort has the power to reshape eCommerce experiences in a big way. Take Snapchat’s recent partnership with Amazon, a new feature codenamed “Eagle,” which allows users to scan an object or barcode directly within the app to surface a product’s details (or similar items) on the commerce giant’s site.

Considering forecasters expect mobile to account for 48 percent of all retail site visits over the upcoming 2018 holiday season, retailers have been working assiduously to optimize their sites for mobile. And in their hunt to offer consumers the most authentic, personalized interactions possible, visual search will ultimately become a game-changer in a retailer’s arsenal when it comes to driving deeper engagement with shoppers, connecting consumers with the products they want via the channels they love.

Highly tailored search tools are already reaping dramatic rewards, like in the case of Pinterest, a site made famous by millennials and Gen Z, which leverages a smartphone camera and machine learning applications to match customers to objects and designs for a rich product discovery experience. After acquiring Kosei back in 2015 to help them better understand and categorize images, Pinterest saw its monthly visual searches increase 140 percent between February 2017 and February 2018, surging from 250 million to 600 million. And with current features like ‘Shop the Look’ and plans to monetize visual search within its paid advertising package, there are no doubt retailers will soon wise up to the chance at modernizing their strategies.

Looking toward the future

Visual search is on the ascent, but key hurdles must be cleared first to chart a new path in eCommerce during the coming years.

While prime visual shoppers constitute a reasonably young population whose choices are shaped by ever-changing digital trends, celebrities, and influencers, the older generation is less inclined to pull out their cameras and snap their way into shopping carts. Long-term sustainability makes the visual search a clear performer, given the growing predominance of digital natives and their influence on technology in the marketplace. Still, brands must find ways to also resonate with other demographics.

Moreover, while sectors like fashion are well-suited for visual search, retail industries like electronics, automotive, and other industrial eCommerce sectors targeting shoppers according to brand loyalty may pass over the bells and whistles. So, while visual search will continue to grow in importance, the opportunity won’t be a one-size-fits-all for retailers.

Text-based search isn’t going the way of the dinosaurs, and voice search may see significant improvements in the years to come. But visual search is set to become an indispensable piece of the eCommerce puzzle, already driving meaningful results with Gen Z shoppers. Its influence and adoption of the unique technology make it highly relevant to critical sectors. The sooner retailers adapt their strategies to the diverse marketplace of today and tomorrow, the better positioned they’ll be not merely to succeed but thrive.

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