The world's second largest search engine says 50% of web searches could stem from voice and images within five years. In retail, early adopters are integrating visual search into their mobile apps.

With smartphones and tablets, consumers have access to retailers at their fingertips 24/7, anywhere they may be. Mobile devices have changed the way retailers connect with consumers and the way consumers behave pre- and post-purchase.

The best retailers—both chain and web-only merchants—recognize that mobile technology has transformed the in-store experience. You can compare the shift to mobile as similar to the shift that search engines presented nearly two decades ago. Searching for information of any kind went from being a personal experience to one of the most profitable businesses around.

The effect of smartphones on our ability to quench this insatiable thirst for answers has been nothing less than seismic. With the power of connected search in our pockets, we are free to source answers, almost instantaneously, to any whimsical query we might have, as long as we can clearly explain in words what we’re looking for.

Sounds perfect. But studies have shown human beings are visual by nature. We can process and understand visuals faster than we can connect with words. According to Hubspot, 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual, and this information is processed 60,000 times faster than text. It’s this basic understanding of the power of visuals that is driving web sites like Pinterest, Etsy and Twitter to focus on the visual aspect of their design.

We crave images, photos and visuals. We connect with them. We save them. We share them.

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Recent advancements in the area of visual search are setting the stage for a major shift in how people interact with the world around them and how retailers can better interact with customers. For retailers, this is an opportunity that is amplified by the emergence of mobile devices and confirmed by the power of both visuals and online search.

Imagine browsing through Houzz.com, a site for home design inspiration, as you look for interior design ideas, and you come across a beautiful wine rack that does not already have a Houzz product annotation on it. On a desktop or laptop, you hover over the image using a visual search program and within seconds are provided with search results that show where you can buy that wine rack, the cost and its dimensions. Imagine the same process happening when browsing through Pinterest for costume ideas for your kids. Or maybe a dress for your best friend’s wedding.

Access to information is no longer being facilitated solely by the ability to accurately translate what you see into words. As a result, retailers will be accessible from any site, at any time, through the click and drag of a mouse. In a simple sense, the entire Internet will become a retailer’s storefront.

But what about the physical world in which consumers live?

That’s where mobile technology comes into play. By combining advanced image recognition technology with search algorithms, social network integrations, mobile-specific technologies like NFC (Near Field Communication) and BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy), today’s visual search systems enable consumers to perform highly intuitive queries based solely on what they see (both online and in the world around them).

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Imagine walking down the street and seeing someone wearing a T-shirt that you absolutely adore. With visual search and mobile technology, you can snap a photo and within seconds have search results from various retailers that offer that exact or similar style shirt. At that moment, the initial inspiration can lead to an immediate purchase and result in a faster transition from consumer to customer.

Mobile consumers are impatient and spoiled for choice. There must therefore be a highly compelling reason why they would choose to take up their precious smartphone real estate with a brand or retailer app. All too often, apps are being created with style over substance, with little thought put into what is going to make it fundamentally useful and ‘sticky’ for users.

Visual search technology is entering real viability at a critical time for an industry undergoing a tremendous amount of upheaval. Retailers are simultaneously seeking to develop or overhaul not just their mobile commerce strategies but their omnichannel strategies and also seriously address the granddaddy of all retail threats: showrooming—consumers using mobile devices in-store to check for lower prices online while handling physical merchandise. While there is no one solution that will solve all of the challenges, visual search technology may present an opportunity to unify the disparate components of retailer operations and provide modern consumers with the compelling shopping experience they’re waiting for.

As a result, early adopters will see early rewards. Similar to the way brands like eBay Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. leveraged the power of search engines to become billion-dollar businesses, and companies like Svpply (recently bought by eBay) and Etsy leveraged social media to become industry leaders, retailers that embrace visual search will be met with a unique opportunity projected to drive great success.

The Neiman Marcus Group Inc., No. 97 in the 2015 Internet Retailer Mobile 500, is a client of Slyce. The retailer recently deployed visual search in its mobile app. While it’s too soon to report results, Neiman Marcus devotes one-third of its app home screen to visual search (“Snap. Find. Shop.”), which demonstrates just how important visual search is to Neiman Marcus. Other retailers that have deployed visual search (not clients of Slyce) include Amazon.com Inc. (Firefly visual search on its Fire smartphone), Target Corp., Macy’s Inc. and Tilly’s. What’s more, Andrew Ng, chief scientist at Baidu, the second largest search engine in the world (most of its users being in its home country of China), recently presented at a Gigaom meeting and said, “In five years, we think 50% of queries will be on speech or images.”

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As of 2014, retailers have already started the process for launching new online and mobile experiences and apps built with visual search functionality. This technology is allowing them to integrate their product catalog around the world and across the web, fulfilling the dream of being able to facilitate a transaction within seconds of inspiration. The use-cases for visual search technology are many, and retailers that embrace and innovate will be the key beneficiaries of this technology for years to come.

Mark Elfenbein is president and CEO of Slyce Inc., a visual search technology provider.

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