What every CIO should know about visual search

Visual search is poised to eliminate friction from the user experience. The the lesser the friction, the higher the sales.

internet search web browser web pages seo
Getty Images

With every impactful digital transformation, customer expectations reach new and extraordinary heights.  This is the unsettling truth for techies everywhere.

In their recent report, Accenture described the coming years as the “post-digital era” in which rising customer demands will make it increasingly difficult for leaders to set their businesses apart. It said:

“The coming era will be characterized by massive pressure as customers, employees and society make their demands known. But it will also provide tremendous opportunities for those companies that can deliver the appropriate experience at just the right time.”

This impending post-digital future presents an irresistible challenge to CIOs who must orchestrate their defining customer experience by piecing together the right technologies and making them play beautifully together. With sexy, emerging technologies making headlines every day, decision paralysis can be a real thing.

But at the end of the day, the fact remains clear that essentially customers want to quickly find the products they want and buy them minimal steps. So, a natural starting point would be to deeply understand how customers want to search for them.

Keywords are starting to fail us

Search engine optimization has certainly come a long way since the early days of Google, but it still takes a great deal of creativity to achieve the best results. Popular keyword phrases can be awkwardly worded or even spelled wrong and yet, marketers and SEO experts still have to work those keywords into their website content because people are searching that way.

Keywords become especially interesting when users don’t know how to describe what they are looking for. They can type an array of phrases into the search bar and still not see exactly what they want. This, of course, causes frustration which leads to disengagement.

Enter visual search

Sometimes, a picture is the most effective way to search, which is the reason why Google has rolled out its visual search capabilities, packaged as Google lens. With this feature, users can snap pictures of certain locations, for example, and instantly be served with the address. This is certainly helpful if you’re traveling to an unknown city.

Users can also find the names of just about anything – plants, animals, buildings, popular menu items – just by scanning a picture of it with their smartphone. For example, a person considering pet adoption might see a dog he likes walking down the street; if he doesn’t know the name of the breed, a quick scan with Google Lens will tell him instantly.

The possible use cases for visual search are endless and eCommerce businesses looking to stay on the cutting edge of the user experience are starting to catch on.

Visual search for online sales

Visual search is one of the latest applications for artificial intelligence technology. It essentially allows users to upload real world pictures to a retailer site. That image is then broken down into component parts and the algorithm automatically detects every product pictured in it. Then, it relates it back to the specific retailer’s own repertoire and automatically makes each item shoppable.

Some experts believe that visual search will help social influence marketing see its full potential.

Historically, social influencers with high social media followings have been hired by brands to post about a specific product – usually an article of clothing. The Instagrammer posts about her jeans, for example, and the followers have to click the link in her profile to go to the retail page for those jeans. But if the followers are interested in the other pieces of clothing in the outfit, the retailer is missing a huge opportunity for increasing sales.

One snap of the full look, uploaded through visual search, and each article of the Instagrammer’s clothing is tagged. Users click on each tab to browse all the similar products in that genre.

Applications for ecommerce

The fashion industry has certainly adopted visual search at a rapid rate, as evidenced by Amazon’s recent investment in the technology to increase sales in women’s clothing. Then, of course, there’s Home Depot’s camera feature which allows do-it-yourselfers to find even the most obscure part they are looking for, without even knowing the name for it.

Though visual search technology is still relatively new, early adopters are seeing some promising results.

A Gartner study found that companies that add visual search to their technology loadouts can expect digital commerce revenue to increase 30 percent. BooHoo, for example, reported an 85 percent conversion rate when using its camera search feature, as well as a 125 percent increase in page views.

Results like these are prompting numerous CIOs to add visual search to their technology stacks. But as with all new innovations, there is a steep learning curve.

What CIOs should know

“Image recognition is a powerful and often a new tool in the CIO's tech arsenal,” says Aaron Aguillard, Head of Partnerships for Syte, who works closely with CIOs every day to discover new applications for the technology.

He goes on to say that visual search has many implications across an organization and therefore CIOs should know a few facts before considering their options:

Visual search has a wide spectrum of accuracy

There are numerous visual search solutions, but they have varying degrees of accuracy. It is important for CIOs to test and retest the solutions being considered to ensure the products being served to the customer very closely match the picture being uploaded.

Aguillard suggests that CIOs should have a production-grade API before launching any project. This way, visual search can be tested on the company’s own products to ensure optimum accuracy.

Deep detection reduces user friction

The reason why visual search is so successful with shoppers is that it eliminates friction. Visitors don’t need to spend a long time searching for a certain product if the visual search tool can deliver exactly what they want in a matter of seconds. Reducing friction boils down to how well the technology can detect what’s in the image.  

In order to test how comprehensive a tool is, Aguillard advises to “Look at the results in detail with a shopper's-eye. Matching an ‘Object’ and ‘Color’ is hardly even scraping the surface. Do the results match the style, occasion, cut and generally make sense when compared to the search image?”

Every extra step a customer must take in order to find what they want reduces the probability for conversions. The deeper the technology, the lesser the friction, the higher the sales.

‘Shoppable content’ optimizes ROI

A recent study revealed that 70 percent of consumers would find their customer experience improved if all the digital content on a company's website was shoppable. Aguillard supported this notion by saying “The consumer journey needs to be consistent - identifying one item in an image or supporting one or two categories in the ‘look’ that was uploaded is not a consistent or meaningful journey.”

As visual search is incorporated into your site, make sure your content provides an interesting narrative and then use every opportunity to give your customers the option to buy the products featured in that narrative.

Building innovative use cases

The future potential applications for visual search are vast. Imagine being able to search for the perfect wedding venue by uploading an ideal image from a magazine and being served with all similar venues. Or, perhaps, one might apply visual search to an online marketplace that has hundreds of individual vendors selling unique art. This could help the individual vendors generate an audience of the customers most likely to buy their work, based on style.

These creative use cases can be heavily marketed to consumers looking for a modern buying experience and, if they are unique enough, also create a great story for PR.

Delivering an experience that lives up to the marketing

As recently outlined in The Huffington Post, customers are most often loyal to experience – not your brand. This sobering reality is, of course, what keeps most CIOs on the constant mission to improve the buying experience by adopting the most cutting-edge technology.

It is important to note that the “latest” doesn’t necessarily mean the “greatest.” Now, more than ever, it is important for CIOs to do their due diligence on all solutions to make sure they can truly deliver a world-class digital experience – instead of just using it as marketing jargon.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

Survey says! Share your insights in our 19th annual State of the CIO study