“The future of search will be about pictures rather than keywords.” — Pinterest CEO, Ben Silbermann

Welcome back to our ongoing series on 2021 digital marketing trends. This week we’re talking about visual search and how it is poised to revolutionize how people find things on the internet over the coming years.

You can read about trend 1, on the crumbling third-party cookie and trend 2, on short-form video content, here.

Visual Search Begins to Take Hold

Last year we included voice search as one of our top 2020 digital marketing trends. And while it continues to be an important element of digital marketing, this year, we’re focusing on a new frontier: visual search.

As humans, we are innately visual creatures. According to a study by MIT, 90 percent of the information transmitted to our brains is visual. That same study found that the human brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds—yes milliseconds! When it comes to processing information, pictures are how we humans are built to do it. The internet though, and particularly search functionality, has been largely text based—until now.

Think about a common search scenario: You’re out in the real world and see a product, let’s say a pair of shoes, that piques your interest. Instead of typing a clumsy description of the shoes into a search bar and scrolling through pages of images for a similar pair, you could simply snap a photo, essentially turning your phone’s camera into a search bar.

A recent study by ViSenze found that 62 percent of Millennials and Gen-Z want visual search over any other new technology. Those findings are echoed by a recent E-Marketer study (based on ViSenze data), which found that visual search was the technology consumers as a whole were most excited about being a part of their shopping experience at the end of 2019.

The Visual Search Players

So what does visual search look like at the start of 2021? Here are the major players:

Pinterest Lens

Unsurprisingly, Pinterest was early to the visual search game. They launched Pinterest Lens in beta back in 2017 and have continued to develop and upgrade the technology ever since.

Users can now snap a photo of an item in the Pinterest app and then explore related pins using the Lens feature. The technology essentially allows you to explore a topic without having to find the words to describe it. In 2020, Pinterest made the feature shoppable, offering users a feed of shoppable pins anytime they use Lens, helping to close the gap between discovery and purchase.

Today Pinterest Lens can recognize 2.5 billion home and fashion objects. According to Pinterest, around half of the items snapped through Lens belong to the fashion or home decor category. The top-shopped products with Lens are prints & artwork, shirts & tops, dresses, shoes, jackets, vases, mirrors, rugs, pants and throw pillows.

Google Lens

Google’s visual search app is also, unhelpfully, called Lens. It was released in mid-2018. Where Pinterest’s Lens is focused on product search, Google’s app has a much wider capability. It can help you identify places, plants and animals, see photos of menu items, explore products, translate text and more. The app hit 500 million installs in the Google Play store in January.

Neil Patel offers some insight into how innovations like Google Lens could change the ecommerce landscape: “Nowadays, if you want to shop online, you might go to an online store and type in a specific search term,” he writes. “When you’ve found what you’re looking for, you’ll check out and go back to whatever you were doing before … With Google Lens, every minute you spend online becomes a potential shopping experience. While you’re busy looking through social media posts, reading blog articles, or messaging friends, you might spot an item you like and start casually browsing through products.”

Amazon StyleSnap

Jeff Bezos and Amazon are the trendsetters in the ecommerce space. They’re known for innovation and for working to keep “divinely discontent” customers happy. What they roll out, most other ecommerce shops will eventually adopt.

So, when Amazon entered the visual search game in 2019 with StyleSnap, it signaled a growing acceptance of the technology. StyleSnap allows customers to upload a photo and find similar products on Amazon. Let’s say you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed and see someone you follow in a dress you love. With StyleSnap, you can upload the image to the Amazon app and find similar dresses on the platform.

The AI behind this technology makes it easy to go from inspiration to purchase—all within the Amazon ecosystem, of course.

How to Get Started 

You may be thinking there’s not a whole lot you can do to prepare for the coming of visual search. Don’t get caught behind the game. Visual search may be in its infancy now, but it is poised to change the way people everywhere find things online.

You can begin optimizing your site for visual search now, especially if you have an ecommerce site with a highly visual product line (such as clothing, jewelry, home goods or art):

  1. Create multiple, clear, high-quality product photos for each thing you sell on your website.
  2. Focus on image quality. If you want to appear in visual search results, you need to ensure your images are beautiful and not blurry. Now’s the time to make an investment in photography.
  3. Optimize the image titles, descriptions and alt tags for keywords that matter to your business and are relevant to your product line. Do keyword research and be as clear and specific in each image as possible.
  4. Sign up for Google Merchant Center and submit a feed of your products to increase the likelihood of appearing in Google Lens searches.

That’s it for this week’s trend. Keep an eye out next week for our fourth digital marketing trend in 2021.