Images are the way of the future – will it be the future of search? We think so.

Paid search is always on the move. Advertising platforms are constantly looking for the next big thing, the best way to target consumers, the newest way to make a profit – usually with Google leading the charge. With these constant changes, updates, and shifts in the industry, how are marketers able to anticipate what is next to come in PPC and begin strategizing for it? Sadly, we aren’t really able to. BUT we can identify the direction PPC is headed and speculate what may be on the horizon. I speculate that the next sweeping change in PPC will come from visual search.

This is a Barney Stinson meme reading "I have one rule. New is always better...always."

In recent years, PPC updates have been guided by automation. Google’s latest automated bid strategies and responsive search ads have proven that advertising platforms want to make campaign optimization as easy as possible for marketers. However, they are also looking to make search engines easier for searchers, and the rise of visual search will do this.

How many times have you been looking for a product or trying to locate a product online that you saw in stores a few days earlier? How many times have you struggled to come up with an accurate enough description to trigger your desired search results for a product when you don’t know its name/brand/etc.? I’m willing to bet that this has happened to you many times. Now, imagine how much easier your life would be in these moments when search engines successfully allow you to skip the adjectives and simply take a photo of what you are looking for?

Where is visual search technology now?

Many advertising platforms and search engines have already begun rolling out visual search features to their platforms. Most recently, Google unveiled its updated Google Lens technology to the world via the Google app in 2018. This feature was updated to allow users to take a photo right from their app, as opposed to requiring users to upload from their camera roll, and immediately search for images, items, products, etc. that were visually similar to the photo.  Additionally, Google also aids its users with “badges” in their visual search results, which essentially helps a user identify what type of result an image is, such as a product, recipe, etc.

While Google is making headway in the visual search realm, for once they aren’t the front runner – Pinterest takes the limelight here. Since the platform is strictly image based, this really isn’t a big surprise. Since 2014 Pinterest users have been able to search for images visually similar to existing groups of pins. While this was arguably the earliest form of visual search, Pinterest has since updated their technology to allow users to use their cameras in the Pinterest app to locate pins similar to the photo they’ve taken. This feature has obviously been a hit on Pinterest, as they’ve reported over 600 million monthly searches using their lens technology.

The biggest areas Pinterest sees this technology being used in are home decor and fashion, which given the nature and demographics of the users on Pinterest, again really isn’t a big surprise. It does help prove, however, that lens technology will be particularly impactful in the e-commerce world. Pinterest, along with a few other retailers, has already identified this and have worked to get ahead of the curve in visual search. Approximately 8% of retailers have rolled out visual search features to their apps and Target has even partnered with Pinterest to use their advanced visual technology on their app/website to create an easy search experience for their customers.

Why hasn’t it hit the paid industry yet?

While visual search has made large strides in the past few years, it is still a very new technology. This means that there are many kinks that need to be worked out before it is fully functional for advertisers. The largest issue with visual search technology is accuracy. All PPC marketers feel the pain and frustration of drilling down keywords to reach only the most relevant searches. But at least with keywords users are explicitly telling Google what they want to see in their search results – even if they are sometimes a bit off. Visual search technology, however, requires much more work on the search engine’s part. Because the user is not typing in a phrase but instead an image, the AI system must first identify what the image is before it can show results for it.  As you can imagine, this leaves A LOT of room for error – and not always the funny kind.

How can we prepare?

Visual search has a long way to go before it will be ready for PPC consumption, but when that time comes it is sure to be an influential update in the digital marketing realm, particularly for e-commerce businesses. While we don’t know when we can expect visual search to reach full functionality, we should begin preparing our clients for its emergence. Laying the groundwork for a smooth transition into visual search marketing will allow you and your clients to stay ahead of the curve and be the first out of the gate when it hits. Here are a few things you can do to start these conversations with your client:

  • Analyze the search functionality on your client’s website and discuss any problems you see.
  • Discuss the client’s creative capabilities – as visual search becomes more prominent, high quality creative will become more important.
  • Get your client on Pinterest.  It is sure to be the first to fully utilize visual search marketing. If you haven’t utilized Pinterest before or need help explaining the benefits of it to your client, check out this webinar on why Pinterest should be part of your marketing mix!
  • Discuss the importance of image SEO on your client’s website and how it relates to PPC performance.
  • TALK ABOUT IT. Clients love knowing what is coming next and hate having new information sprung on them at the last minute, so when you are sharing industry updates – put this on their radar!

PPC is always changing, so be sure to stay on top of the latest PPC news and platform updates. While you are doing so, be on the lookout for progress in visual search. As 2019 continues we are sure to see updates in this technology and begin to get a clearer idea on when we can expect visual search advertising to become an option for PPCers.