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How Consumer Trust Factors into Visual Search’s Popularity

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, though consumers might want to update that idiom to indicate that a picture is more “trustworthy” than its alphabetical counterpart.

Chalk it up to our fraught political climate and so-called fake news but people increasingly put less faith in the written word, especially online, versus images and photos. That’s the crux of the matter in research conducted by the Intent Lab, a joint effort between performance marketing agency Performics and Northwestern University Medill School, which said in a release that visual search is “reaching an inflection point with consumers.”

Visual search takes on different forms. In one instance a visual search tool allows people to choose icons and images to guide their search. Another leverages the user’s smartphone camera, often via an app platform, to snap a photo that generates search results via computer vision and other technologies. Amazon and Forever 21 are among the fashion retailers leveraging visual search tools, while Pinterest developed a “lens” functionality for its mobile app that empowers people to photograph real-world objects and find visually similar results.

The Intent Lab said that young consumers “overwhelmingly” favor images over text-heavy descriptions when they’re shopping, and have used voice and visual search tools (36 percent) in equal measures. What’s more, consumers describe the value derived from images as greater than that provided by strings of words, as 59 percent described the former as more important across categories versus just 41 percent who said the same of text. In the highly visual apparel and furniture categories, the emphasis on visuals leaps significantly. Here, 85 percent agree that images matter far more than words, The Intent Lab found.

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“We’re learning that visual cues provide a lot of quickly accessible information, and consumers find pictures easier to trust,” explained Ashlee Humphreys, a Medill associate professor and the Intent Lab’s principal researcher. “However, they’re not immune to suspicion; consumers still think they can be manipulated, and they trust pictures from other consumers more than a company’s images.”

The Intent Lab said that distracting, unrelated ads proximal to an image “erode” the trust consumers have in those visuals. This could be why consumers’ satisfaction with their digital experiences was the lowest in October 2018 since the Intent Lab began monitoring this sentiment in 2016.

So what’s destroying consumer trust? Nearly a quarter (24 percent) point to a mismatch with that they perceive to be promoted products appearing atop a search results page—especially when those highlighted items don’t quite mesh with what they’re looking for. Another 16 percent believe social media influencers, presumably on platforms like Instagram, were paid to create some of the top-performing visual search results, while 15 percent believe they’re the “biased” work of brands looking to attract eyeballs.

Esteban Ribero, Performics’ senior vice president of planning and insights, said usage of visual search capabilities stands to increase if companies can solve the trust issue. “Most marketers wrongly assume visual search is only important early in the consumer journey,” he added. “Our study proved that visual search is relevant throughout the consumer journey, especially in the evaluating stage in which consumers are comparing their options.”