Monday, September 14, 2009

Bing's Visual Search Has Me Seeing Stars

Bing introduced visual search in beta this afternoon and its prospects have me envisioning its applicability in travel.

Speaking at the TechCrunch 50 conference today minutes prior to the visual-search launch, Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft senior vice president, online audience, told attendees that Bing has to take some major steps, as opposed to modest innovations, if it wants to compete with the likes of Google.

Mehdi placed visual search in that big-step forward category.

For now, Bing users can opt to search entertainment, famous people, reference, shopping and sports using visual search.

Users, for example, can search for HDTVs and then drill down and reduce the number of images by brand, type, screen size and resolution to pare shopping choices.

In an era when user interfaces are evolving with touchscreens, videos and imagery, substituting visual search for clunkier keywords seems like an appealing way to open up e-commerce and search to a segment of consumers who are looking for more intuitive ways to browse and take action.

Using images to search for HDTVs, cellphones, cars and movies seems like a way forward, but will it work in the complex world of travel where apples and oranges grow on the same vine?

I don't know precisely what Bing Travel will do in visual search, but I have to believe that it will get involved.

UPDATE: Bing Travel indeed has introduced a bit of visual search with a travel-related twist in the form of travel destinations with data partner Fodors Travel. There is no booking capability tied to this informational effort.

In the left-hand column, users can narrow their search by the best time to visit, continent, region and flight time, and then click on an image to access Bing links about that destination.

I didn't find it particularly useful, but this is day one.

Without tipping his hand, Hugh Crean, the general manager of Bing Travel, said Bing Travel "is working on launching a number of new and interesting travel scenarios."

So, there's more to come from Bing Travel in visual search.

Will we see consumers searching for hotels using property images and then whittling down their choices by brands, star ratings, price ranges and facilities like indoor pools or spas?

If the user interface is right, this could make for a more compelling shopping experience for some travelers.

Which would be easier and more interactive? Sorting out where to stay by clicking on a few images or plodding through pages of listings and links?

Many travel agents still prefer linear results on green screens to sexier GUIs, and some consumers will still prefer keywords to images.

But, visual search could open up paths for the more graphically minded.

Visual search has been tried elsewhere with poor to mixed results.

So, let's see if Bing can get things off the drawing board.

And, at the least, this Google-Bing donnybrook is great for consumers and innovation.

Google is so big it doesn't have to react tit-for-tat to Bing.

But, Bing's introduction of visual search will give Google another pesky nudge.

2 comments:

Historical Travels said...

It looks to me like the use of images is an appealing way to introduce something much more important to search, namely the use of a divide-and-conquer strategy that enables the user to drill down to what he is looking for. This is a tried and true method for reducing search times.

Ron said...

Just like text-based search, visual search needs to have a theme. For instance, Bing's visual search focuses on the "What" - nature, cities, beaches, etc. This is certainly one way to narrow down your choices, and they also provide some additional filtering on the side menu to reduce your workload.

For our visual travel search website, our theme has been the "Where". Where's URL (www.wheresurl.com) is map-based, and shows where places are located. Our filtering lets you choose the category of places you want to see (lodging, attractions, food/drink, shopping, etc.).

I agree that some people are used to viewing information in a text format, and it probably depends on their familiarity with the location they are viewing, or type of trip (business or personal). Sorting a list by price for hotels in Waikiki may work OK for your 20th trip there, but if it's your first, you may only be interested in beachfront properties.

It will be interesting to see how Bing's visual search does over time.