ViSenze Blog

Focusing the Lens on Visual Search

Posted by Oliver Tan 25-April-2017

With the introduction of one new feature, Pinterest has become the world’s preeminent platform for visual search. But let’s start at the beginning. If you aren’t one of the 151 million people around the world using Pinterest, I will describe it: It is a social network for images. It is also arguably the world’s most popular destination for visual discovery. “Pinners,” as Pinterest users are called, use the service to find everything from cute animals to formulas for black holes. If the information can be presented as visual content, you will probably find it on Pinterest. These “Pins” can be saved to folders, sent to friends and family, or shared with followers.

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 5.43.45 PM.png

Pinterest is considered to be a Silicon Valley “unicorn” with a massive valuation (over $11 billion) simply based on fundraising results (although Pinterest did reveal that 2016 revenue was around $300 million). The reason is the size of their audience and the level of engagement. Those 151 million users have pinned 100 BILLION pins. Yes, billion. Half of all women in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 54 have a Pinterest account.

Pinterest’s financial viability is excellent; the company reported $300 million in revenue for 2016 and is on a run rate of $2.8 billion in 2018. Most of the revenue to date has been from “Promoted Pins” (sponsored content) and “Buyable Pins,” which are items for sale by partners like Target and eBay that can be purchased without leaving the Pinterest site. Brand and marketing partners also buy user data from the mammoth collection of information that Pinterest gathers daily.

In 2015, TechCrunch had already declared the ascendency of Pinterest for excited investors, “The primary reason Pinterest is so valued by advertisers is it hits almost all points in which people can be targeted on the web. Pinterest users casually browse for ideas or inspiration, which can help drive brand awareness and justify purchasing promoted pins. But they also search on Pinterest for specific things, giving marketers a way to capture that intent and drive traffic — and potentially sales — using Promoted Pins. Promoted Pins give marketers a way to capture that intent or get visibility, while other platforms are generally good at capturing specific moments — such as Google with search.” (“Leaked Pinterest Documents Show Revenue, Growth Forecasts”)

Pinterest’s Visual Search is Already Ahead of Other Networks

Earlier this month, Pinterest launched its new visual discovery tool called “Lens” to all U.S.-based Pinners. Using visual search tools and artificial intelligence, the app detects objects in the real world and suggests Pins that are similar on the platform. CNN called it the “Shazam for objects.” The app, which is still in beta, considers the shape, color, product category, and more to make relevant suggestions. 

Lens, however, is only the latest in a wave of visual search tools launched by social networks and brands. Amazon’s app allows users to upload a picture of an object and then get a price from its “Everything Store.” Shutterstock and Google offer “reverse image search tools.” Instagram and Facebook are also quickly innovating to improve their machines’ understanding of the content within images.

Experts believe, however, that Pinterest is already ahead of the competition. According to, “Where Pinterest has an advantage in the visual search race is in its vast database of images, which are typically product-led, clearly labeled, and posted in relation to similar items.”

But it’s more than a database, Pinterest is in fact attempting to add “value judgements” to visual search in order to suggest like content or how to put the object to use; for example, a necklace to go with a sweater or a recipe for pumpkin soup. And by capturing responses, the system can generate better suggestions for that user and all users in the future. In other words, it is not simply trying to find like objects, it is attempting to understand human behavior and our complex tastes.

All that said, Pinterest is the first to acknowledge that the system is “not perfect.” Their machines have a great deal to learn before they will be able to consistently deliver relevant and shoppable Pins to their users. Like all things Pinterest, it is the Pinners who will teach the platform. With every Lens search currently conducted, the company includes a “+” sign for users to add more information about the object. Without their contributions, it will take much longer to focus the Lens. 

Monetizing Inspiration

During the Lens announcement, Pinterest co-founder Evan Sharp took a photo of a pomegranate to show how Lens can surface relevant content. His search delivered recipes for pomegranate bread and other food. The real opportunity here, however, isn’t for the proliferation of pomegranates (or any other well-deserving fruit), it is for brands and content publishers.

Visual search enables buyers to find products for purchase no matter where they are, on or off the web. The technology is now available for any company, not just technology innovators like Pinterest, Amazon, and Google to improve their product discovery. Brands need not wait for the Lens to get more knowledgeable. They can deploy visual search on their own sites so that users can upload images and purchase actual or like-items that they have discovered from their catalog.

The technology can also be applied to content publishers’ sites like Vogue for example. When users find an item among the ads, videos, and stories that they love, brands need to be able to capitalize on that moment of inspiration when conversion-to-purchase rates are highest. Visual search can also deliver then, making any visual content shoppable.

There may be no tougher industry today than retail. Thousands of brick and mortar stores close each year. Wholesale and subscription models online are eating away at brand’s web presence. But people will always need goods and our increasingly web-native populations are buying more and more online. Visual search technology is every brand’s best hope for remaining competitive.

Author: Oliver Tan

ViSenze CEO & Co-Founder 

New Call-to-action 

  Visual Search,   Deep learning,   E-commerce