Microsoft Corp. is testing out a new way to search select topics by retreiving visual results instead of text.  A list of about 50 popular categories now return image results.

From The AP:

“Bing’s new visual search page lets people flip through pictures to track down where and when a popular movie is playing, read up on baseball players or shop for items like digital cameras.”

At launch, the visual search option only works on a few topics, but it’s a great move for brands. For starters, the new search option is designed with advertisers in mind.

The AP says that Microsoft worked with shopping sites and other companies to pull in the pictures and descriptions necessary to make the features work.

Retail items lend themselves more easily to this kind of search, and Microsoft is smart to drill down on niches where there is room for improvement on search. Google’s current visual — and shopping — results leave much to be desired.

Says CNET:

makes business sense to pour resources into popular searches.
Optimizing for the short snout pays. That’s the model that made worth $410 million to The New York Times in 2005. And that’s
what entrepreneur and TechCrunch50 co-host Jason Calacanis is aiming
for with his curated directory, Mahalo.”

By visualizing the process of shopping for popular retail items,
Microsoft can simplify the process and attract shoppers looking to make purchases — which could subsequently increase the value of its search terms.

Visual Search is by no means complete at launch. Aside from there being only a handful of topics filled with info for searching, the feature requires the SilverLight browser plug-in download. And it’s also only available in the US at launch. 

But the latest Nielsen data says Bing gained 22% month-over-month in
August, bringing it to 10.7% of all U.S. searches. It remains to be seen if users get frustrated with the sparse info available on this feature, but this is exactly the kind of experimentation necessary for Bing to grow its marketshare.

According to The New York Times:

“We did some more research to see how people process large amounts of
information,” saidStefan Weitz, a director in Microsoft’s Bing group. Mr. Weitz said users were able to go through thumbnail images much
faster than through snippets of text.

That’s especially useful when looking for new products. And if Microsoft can quickly turn out more thorough iterations of this product, visual search could be very good for business.