I attended Brighton SEO last week, where Purma Virji from Microsoft gave a talk all about this topic. 

So, what exactly is visual search, and more specifically, how is it changing the way we buy online? With inspiration from Purma’s talk, here’s a bit of elaboration on the subject along with a few brand examples.

Visual search + artificial intelligence

Visual search works by comparing the pixels in imagery to identify and return results that are similar. 

So, instead of typing in a keyword such as ‘black mini dress’ – which will return thousands of general results – users can upload an image to help narrow it down to something much more specific.

This technology is not brand new – you might recall Google Goggles being launched way back in 2010. Zappos also introduced a way to visually navigate through its vast shoe collection in 2009.

More recently, however, advancements in artificial intelligence have meant that visual search is becoming much slicker, with the ability to compute more data at a much quicker rate. Purma coined the term ‘visual intelligence’ to describe this rapidly improving technology. In 2016, Bing added visual search to its app.

What are the benefits for ecommerce brands?

Social discovery

According to research by Accenture, social media will become the preferred shopping channel for Generation Z, with 69% of young consumers interested in purchasing directly through social networks.

Visual search could offer a breakthrough for social sales. Pinterest’s Lens feature allows consumers to search, discover and shop even more products based on a single image. In turn, this presents a greater opportunity for ecommerce brands looking to drive purchases from the platform.

Capturing the spearfisher 

Visual search is a particularly great tool for shoppers who are looking for a specific item – also known as ‘spearfishers’. This is because it reduces the amount of steps the user would otherwise have to go through, such as typing in a keyword or scrolling through results. Instead, the desired product is immediately brought to the shopper’s attention.

In turn, visual search could also help to reduce basket abandonment, eliminating the tedious processes that usually frustrate and annoy users.

Cross-selling and inspiration

Another benefit of visual search is that it can be a great cross-selling tool. If a website does not have a desired product in stock, it is able to show similar or related items that might still prompt a purchase. Moreover, it can also help consumers to imagine how other products might complement it. For instance, someone might search for a red dress, but if they see an image of a woman wearing a red dress and a bag that completes the entire look – they might be inclined to buy more than originally intended. 

Another example is home décor, with consumers commonly using Pinterest to visualise or plan an entire room rather than just search and buy a single item.

Ecommerce brands using visual search 

So, how are brands using the technology? Here are just a few examples to appear so far.


Amazon introduced visual search into its main iOS app in 2014 (and with the Firefly app on the ill-fated Fire phone), giving users the option to search using their smartphone camera. It is mainly designed to capture the ‘showrooming’ shopper – someone who is visiting a physical store but checking comparison prices online.

While it doesn’t recognise every single item (especially if unboxed), reviews suggest that it’s particularly good for recognising images like DVDs or records.


Target’s ‘In a Snap’ app also launched back in 2014, allowing users to shop for items from the pages of magazines and printed ads – removing the need to manually search for the product online.

While this version doesn’t appear to be available anymore, Target’s main app also allows shoppers to scan barcodes in-store to view more information like reviews and ratings. Again, this speeds up the path to purchase, taking away the need to ask for further assistance from in-store employees.

Neiman Marcus

Alongside fellow US retailer, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus has increased its focus on visual search technology in recent years. Its app now allows users to upload photos to find similar styles to buy on the website.

This taps into real-time demand, with consumers able to search and buy an item they like on-the-spot, whether it’s an outfit on a celebrity or someone passing by in the street. Camera-discretion is advised.

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