A Picture Worth A Thousand Keywords?

May 17, 2010

Searchers snap a picture with their cellphones, then automatically search for the thing they’ve photographed. Sounds like science fiction? Now it’s shopping fact. 

Of course, it’s not just for shopping. Google Goggles, the visual search tool for smart phones that run on Google’s Android operating system, can recognize and provide information about landmarks, wine labels, barcodes and book titles, store or dial contact information from a business card, jump to a URL that appears in a photo and translate text in foreign languages, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But it’s no accident that the Chronicle headed its story with a bunch of questions about price comparison shopping and authenticity. Google plans to release a version of Goggles for Apple Inc.’s iPhone later this year. 

In the meantime, IQ Engines of Berkeley debuted a visual search application for the iPhone last month, and this one, called oMoby, was specificall designed as a comparison shopping tool. Other major technology companies experimenting with visual search include Amazon, Yahoo and Microsoft. 

For right now, clear pictures of subjects with distinct patterns work the best; plain textures or non-uniform shapes, not so much. But that’s bound to change as the technology develops. And in the meantime, or if the information Google has about their snapshot isn’t what they had in mind, MediaPost points out that there’s Google Barcode Scanning, which lets customers scan product barcodes to run a shopping search via their mobile device.

Of course, real-world retailers can “opt out” of this instant competition by removing vendor-provided barcodes and replacing them with their own, or none at all. But that not only takes a lot more work, it also has the potential to cost more in new leads than it gains in retained customers. In the short run, limited consumer brand recognition of most gift products may make our market less susceptible to mobile poaching. But in the long run, consumers used to shopping this way will be driven to the channels that provide the information they —  and their smart phones —  are searching for.