How searching images could change advertising

Source: Pinterest

Searching for an item by name is simple online, but trying to find something just based on an image can be a difficult task. Now, new technologies led by social platforms like Pinterest, are making picture-based search possible, opening the door up for a multitude of marketing opportunities.

On Monday, Pinterest unveiled a visual search tool that lets people search within images for items. Users select a specific object inside a posted or "pinned" picture; Pinterest then searches through its database for other posts that look similar. It can also help users find out where to buy that or a similar item and how much it costs.

"This not only allows people to discover pictures, but the source of that picture," said marketing technology platform Social Annex co-founder Al Lalani. "This allows consumers to find those ideas and frame them in the context of where to get those ideas."

Pinterest, which was last valued at $11 billion in March, is realizing its potential to create marketing opportunities for companies that want to drive e-commerce. The third-most used social media network according to Pew Research Center has been releasing more advertising options, including Promoted Pins, sponsored posts and click-to-buy functions on its platform.

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Lalani said that when people search for things online they're usually doing one of two things: One, they're looking for specific item and know the exact name. Or second, they're looking to get ideas for something online.

Because most search engines are text-based services, Lalani said the main way people search for an idea is to type in a word, scroll through the options, click on links based on written descriptions that fit what they are seeing in their head, and then search again.

The Internet relies on written descriptions, because most Internet technologies "see" pictures as a bunch of dots called pixels, said marketing technology platform Curalate chief marketing officer Matthew Langie. Very few can determine that the object inside an image is a pair of sunglasses or a vase on a table.

"For most of the web's history, image searches have been limited to the description associated with them," said digital agency DigitasLBi Senior Vice President of Social Strategy Jill Sherman. "A picture of a fluffy black puppy running through grass on a cloudy day may simply be uploaded as 'playful puppy.' That description becomes the method for how the search engines catalog and serve the image. [It's] pretty limiting…. Pinterest's approach is basically bypassing the need for user input by creating a system that skips the need for keywords in favor of micro-nuances in the image itself as the mechanism to surface related items."

People looking online for inspiration are normally looking for a picture of what they see in their mind. If they find that image, they want to be able to click on it and learn more about that concept, Lalani said. On the other side, brands are looking for technologies that create direct opportunities to point consumers to purchase their products. Being able to link directly to a product within an appealing picture can be beneficial.

"Would you buy a product you never see? Probably not," Langie said.

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Langie said that what his company, Curalate, has seen is that when images are searchable, it leads to higher click-through rates, meaning the consumer will click on the image to find more about the product, plus higher engagement with the content. Curalate has seen a 110 percent improvement in click-through rate with its clients who are able to "tag" objects within images using their technology.

"Human beings, we're visual animals," said Langie. "If you look at the three fastest-growing networks last year (per Curalate data), they were visually powered networks: Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr."

Sherman, however, said that while people process images faster than words, and images let brands talk to consumers in ways that go beyond text, the public is used to searching for items online using phrases. It will be a while before they change their habits.

In addition, Google and Facebook have also been working on visual recognition technologies, which will directly compete with Pinterest's services.

"The challenge from a search perspective has been a lack of evolution in consumer behavior," she said. "Think about it. Search is, for all intents and purposes, the act of typing words into a search box. That's the Google interface. White space and a search bar. So, Pinterest's new feature is, in essence, evolving user search behavior by creating in-photo actions that produce a new search result."