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Image search: Will they speak a thousand words?

Image search: Will they speak a thousand words?

“In the English language there’s something like 180,000 words, and we only use 3,000 to 5,000 of them. If you’re trying to do voice recognition, there’s a really small set of things you actually need to be able to recognize. Think about how many objects there are in the world, distinct objects, billions, and they all come in different shapes and sizes. So the problem of search in vision is just vastly larger than what we’ve seen with text or even with voice.” — Clay Bavor, Google

Not a positive note to start with? Of course, it is! The bigger the challenges the more likeliness of businesses conceiving new ideas of resolving them. Image search is still in its nascent stage. Hence this is the time to discuss its importance, the upcoming platforms using image search and the possible challenges that come with every new trend.

Image search uprising

To think of it, images more often than not create a better visual memory in our minds. MIT’s research agrees with me. The human brain can identify images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds, they say. Some numbers to give you a hint of the uprising.

  • The image recognition market will grow to $25.65 billion by 2019 as reported by MarketsandMarkets.
  • By 2021, early adopter brands that redesign their websites to support visual and voice search will increase digital commerce revenue by 30% reports Gartner.
  • Brands now have the capability to target over 5,000 categories through visual search advertising on Pinterest Lens says Business Insider.
  • When shopping online for anything, more than 85% of customers prefer visual information than textual information.
  • In the third quarter of 2018, Google Shopping Ads generated 87% of Google search ad clicks for retailers. Shopping ads grew 33% compared with 3% for text ads.

So indeed pictures seem to be important now when it comes to people’s searching habits.

For those wondering how this exactly works, image search uses real-life images maybe pictures from one’s phone or camera or screenshots as inputs for online searches. This, in turn, will return relevant results in the form of visuals. Sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms are used to understand and determine the meaning and context of the image used in the search.

To my knowledge, the brands who can make the most use of this technology are e-commerce websites. Brands related to fashion, household stuff, and for that matter, any online purchase when aided by an image gives customers a better picture of what they are about to buy.

When individual brand websites too deck up with images they always tend to draw more attention surely.

Some of the top names creating grounds for image search

Google, diving deep

Google recently declared a number of updates to its Lens product at 2018 I/O conference. The purpose of Lens is to transform your smartphone into a visual search engine. For example, when you focus your smartphone Google lens at a fruit it will tell you its name.

Google-owned company DeepMind is leading in visual search innovation. DeepMind is also especially familiar with just how challenging this technology is, to master.

The challenge is no longer in just creating intelligent algorithms that can understand an image as effectively as a human. The bigger challenge (known as the ‘black box problem’ ) is that the processes involved in arriving at conclusions. They are so complex, disguised, and multi-faceted that even Google’s engineers struggle to follow at times.

The intention is to imitate the functioning of the human brain. But how easy is it really to understand how the human brain works?

As a result, DeepMind has started to explore new methods. In a fascinating blog post, they summarized the findings from a recent paper, in which they used the inductive reasoning apparent in human understanding of images.

image search
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Constructing image perception

Drawing on the history of “cognitive psychology”, scientists were able to apply within their technology the same prejudices we apply as humans when we categorise objects.

DeepMind uses the following anecdote to explain their thinking:

“A field linguist has gone to visit a culture whose language is entirely different from our own. The linguist is trying to learn some words from a helpful native speaker when a rabbit scurries by. The native speaker declares “gavagai”, and the linguist is left to infer the meaning of this new word. The linguist is faced with an abundance of possible inferences, including that “gavagai” refers to rabbits, animals, white things, that specific rabbit, or “undetached parts of rabbits”. There is an infinity of possible inferences to be made. How are people able to choose the correct one?”

This got me thinking. Image search may be the next big thing. But before brands can implement it with full authority, one has to make sure that we provide our customers with what they are really looking for. The urge to implement new technology cannot overlook the quality of experience it is likely to provide to its customers.

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Pinterest, the tortoise winner

Pinterest intends to set itself as the go-to visual search engine when you don’t have the right words to express what you are looking for. There are now over 600,000,000 visual searches on Pinterest every month. So it seems people are really beginning to engage with this idea of image searching.

In 2017 Pinterest released its visual discovery tool, Lens, to all Android and iPhone users. In combination with its establishment of a paid search product and features like ‘Shop the Look’, there is a rising consent that Pinterest could steadily become a true marketing contender. Along with Amazon, it should benefit from advertisers’ desire for more choices beyond the good old Google and Facebook.

Brands must not abstain from advertising on Pinterest. With Pinterest’s core image search technology and exceptional image recognition, brands will get the advantage of their ads showing up next to visually related products.

Pinterest Lens is the most advanced image search tool available today.  “The future of search will be about pictures rather than keywords,” says Pinterest CEO, Ben Silbermann. So, does this mean image SEO is something to look forward to?

Bing’s theory

Comparatively still far behind but Bing has a special feature in place which is making the news. Bing’s “Snap a picture, search within it” tagline clearly illustrates its functionality. Bing now allows users to select portions of images and concentrate on specific items to further hone their search online.

I found that it often failed to recognise selected items. It would instead return items based on colour, despite the fact they were totally separate items.

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Words vs images

The argument is rather futile at this point. I don’t foresee image search replacing text-based searches altogether anytime soon. But it certainly opens up many opportunities.

Adding descriptive alt-text to images for indexation will be even more relevant. At the same time optimising image titles and alternative attributes with targeted keywords will need attention.

Where in the past optimising images has been in reconsideration, it may now receive increased recognition.

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What can you do right?

Few retail brands have developed visual search capability into their web inventory so far. I would certainly expect this to grow over the next few years.

It is important that the images you display have great clarity and are free from distortion. Thus visual applications will have a smoother processing time. Optimise your images for ideal size, ideal file type, and have wisely chosen titles. Have a look at Marta Hurtado Photography to understand the art of crafting great visuals.  Make sure your online images should render fine both in desktops and mobiles alike.

This expanding boundary of search will reinforce existing strategies for SEO and make the need to optimise images for mobile search and your visual web presence more realistic.

Jija Bhattacharya

Jija Bhattacharya is a content marketer at graphility, the lead agency for experience design & identity projects with a focus on digital transformation. Lean at heart, graphility shapes ideas into desirable services and products.

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