Google Lens: the what, why and how for ecommerce

At the end of last year, Google launched a redesigned version of their feted Lens app. But what does this tool really mean for ecommerce and content? We explore.

What is Google Lens?

Google Lens is a tool for smartphones that can identify items via camera roll photographs, then convert this information into Google searches for those items.

To understand what it ‘sees’, Lens uses machine learning to leverage the search engine giant’s vast reams of query data. This method allows it to identify objects with continuously increasing accuracy. In fact, Lens is currently able to recognise more than one billion products – over four times what it could ‘see’ at its launch.

Furthermore, Lens can read. With a simple shot on a camera phone, it can convert letters on a physical page to digital text. The result is an effective copy/paste translation from the paper page in front of you into your search bar.

What does this mean for ecommerce?

Smartphone cameras now play a vital role in not only our social but our working and administrative lives. We use them to capture receipts, energy meter readings and shopping lists on the fly. And, of course, we use them to photograph things we like – to be precise, products we would like to buy.

Whether it’s a dog on the street or the barcode of an interesting book, Lens allows consumers to translate items – or places, logos and activities – that they see in real life into products they can search online.

For example, let’s say a consumer snaps a picture of a dress they like in a shop window. They could then use Google Lens to tell them not only the label of the dress, but where it is manufactured and where they can buy it. They might convert then and there, or they may return later and click ‘add to basket’. Either way, Lens offers a highly intuitive method of discovering products for purchase, and it’s only a matter of time before adoption of this shopping method becomes more widespread.

But the app’s functions aren’t limited to straightforward product identification. As Google Lens VP Aparna Chennapragada puts it:

“With the style search feature in Lens you can point your camera at outfits and home decor to get suggestions of items that are stylistically similar. So, for example, if you see a lamp you like at a friend’s place, Lens can show you similar designs, along with useful information like product reviews.”

How can brands embrace and utilise Lens?

Lens is a mechanism for visual search. For all the impressive technology that enables it to identify objects by sight, it is still fundamentally translating those objects into common Google searches.

Much like voice search, the information that Lens initially serves customers is taken directly from Google’s Knowledge Graph – the data behind the panel of pictures and/or text that now appear at the top of most search engine results pages (SERPs). From there, Lens offers the option to search Google for the item in the normal way, taking them into the standard mobile shopping experience.

As a result, for brands hoping to appear in Lens search results, the familiar rules of SEO apply. Websites that make it into the Knowledge Panel and featured snippets, as well as the first page of the SERPs, will be the ones to gain the most prominent visibility.

Content, of course, is a key ingredient in this battle. Metadata, informative product descriptions and semantic SEO – content that uses a range of key terms and natural language to comprehensively address customer intent, rather than a single search query – will all come into play.

Furthermore, there’s the question of conversion. If a consumer is using Lens’ ‘style search’ functionality, they will be browsing a number of very similar-looking products from various vendors. In this case, written content – namely persuasive product descriptions, that offer true value to the customer – will play a vital role in helping your merchandise stand out in a visually identical crowd.

Finally, Lens remains, at least for the time being, a primarily on-the-move technology. Searches on Lens access websites on smartphones, contributing to the 52% of global internet traffic that moves via mobile. This, together with Google’s recent emphasis on mobile-first indexing, will contribute to ecommerce’s growing need to observe mobile content best practice.

Google Lens is a promising new tool for online retailers who can meet its challenges with content. This time last year, Google announced plans to roll the technology out to all Android phones running Google Photos, as well as the Google iOS app. As these goals come to fruition, and Lens’ user base grows, ecommerce brands should keep a close eye on this new technology and the opportunities it offers.

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