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Do you ever find it easier to describe your preferred haircut using a picture rather than words? That’s because your brain is hardwired to excel at visual selection. Neurons devoted to visual processing take up 30% of the cortex, versus 10% combined for touch and hearing. Visual search joins the left side of the brain with the right, allowing for more accurate searches and more creative results. Brands that grab the attention of users at this stage have a better chance of nudging would-be consumers towards purchase.

Whilst traditional search engines will remain integral to answering fact-based questions, we’ve seen visual search become increasingly important in the process of discovery - there’s no right answer to ‘where should I go for dinner’, and users understand that. The desired outcome can be illustrated is not just in a concrete written request but a host of creative possibilities that go on to inform a visual, semantic and sensory decision-making processes.

Google’s shift to single result pages indicates a lean towards an answer engine model that speeds up search result pages. This also signals the ends of the established order of search engine ranking as we know it, though Google claims this is just an ongoing experiment that is only relevant to specific search types.

“Today's consumers are increasingly time-poor and crave convenience. Search engines, through continued AI development, are evolving rapidly to service their demands by providing visual answers in real-time results. We are seeing that brands are already using image search to educate, entertain, and build an affinity with their consumers to form a captivating visual user experience – this leads to stronger conversion opportunities.” says Dan Paris, head of experience at iProspect Singapore.

The increasing importance of visual search as a discovery tool is reflected in the numbers touted by Pinterest. 200 million monthly active users. A 50% YoY increase in impressions. And Pinterest boards and counting. The numbers speak for themselves: visual search has already arrived, and it’s up to brands and marketers to adopt the technology that enables this.

To understand visual search is to understand the process behind matching search images with relevant content and links to purchase. With Pinterest, it’s a combination (or, to be more accurate, an ‘instance’) of different machine learning applications that identify visual similarities, categorise pictures and provide curated recommendations based on location and browsing history – all under the umbrella term of computer vision: a subfield of machine learning that works on enabling computers to process images in the same way we do.

Pinterest’s investment in visual search and the revenue it drives for its clients (average order value in 2017: $50 – more than any other social channel) has not gone unnoticed. Instagram has introduced shoppable posts to nine countries with plans to roll out more. ViSenze, a leading visual search tech company out of Singapore, has helped brands like Rakuten, Zalora and FlipKart transform the way consumers shop across their platforms in Asia with their image search technology. And Alibaba Cloud

Influencer networks like Tribe, who’ve quietly amassed an army of micro-influencers spread across two continents, are also well ahead of the curve when it comes to the power of authentic visual storytelling. "Creating thumb stopping quality content stands at the top of the wish list for every marketer" says Tribe CRO Nick Randall.

"However, fulfilling the volume and variety of quality content required is a very daunting undertaking for even the most well-resourced marketing departments.  At TRIBE we see… Instagram as a powerful opportunity for marketers to access content (crafted) by the very customers they are trying to reach".

As consumers become more discerning with how they engage with brands, becoming part of the conversation (without rudely interrupting it) at an early stage of the discovery is crucial. The added context provided by machine learning, and the increased intelligence of influencer strategy, are the first steps towards a vibrant, fully integrated approach to visual search.

Darcy Mitchell is senior content strategist, APAC at iProspect.