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Why Ignoring Google Lens in 2019 Could Be a Costly Retail Mistake

Editor's Note: Dave walks approximately six million steps (3,000 miles) a year in an attempt to stave off the ravages of Father Time. The vast majority of those steps are taken in and around the sidewalks of suburban retail, where he conducts market research.  This is the second post in his recurring series of observations from the streets of retail.

As another new year dawns, the retail industry is once again awash in portends, prognostications and predictions. Most years, I find one prediction to be pretty much like the next, and generally they discuss similar things (AI and IoT are particularly popular themes this year). However, amidst all the crystal ball watching, I have yet to see anyone in the retail trade talk about something that may sneak up on us before the year is through. And since nobody likes it when important, impactful things sneak up on them, I will add one more thing to the lengthy list of predictions for retailers to keep an eye on in 2019: Google Lens.

While Google is certainly talking a lot about its new Lens app as if it were a new "super power" added to our mobile utility belts, I don't think the retail industry is paying all that much attention. And based upon my experiences during several recent hikes through retail in the suburbs of Southern California (more on that in a minute), I think ignoring Google Lens for much longer may be a mistake.

An Elusive Win-Win: Google Lens Makes Life Easier for Shoppers and Retailers

I am bullish on Google Lens in part because it delivers an oft-touted but rarely achieved outcome: a win-win. Google Lens makes life simpler for both shoppers and for retailers. For shoppers, Google Lens makes it easy to access context- and location-aware information about the world around them. They simply point their camera at something that interests them – be it a building, a book or a bathing suit - and then let Google do the rest. Lens quickly retrieves and presents relevant information about the objects in focus within the camera lens.

Point the camera at a mall, for example, and Lens will most likely present a mall directory and store hours. More to the point, when one points the camera at a product, Lens will present product details and maybe even related items.

Google Lens even eliminates the need for standalone bar code scanner apps and QR Code reader apps, as well. Shoppers simply point their camera at a product's label or tag, and Lens will interpret whatever text and codes are contained therein. No downloads, no separate apps.

Just point, and learn.

Google Lens also makes life easier for retailers. Store, product and promotional content that already exists is simply re-purposed by Google. Product details can be extracted right off the product detail pages of existing web sites. The same with store hours, contact information, product reviews and even promotions. No developer kits, no new channels to manage.

Just publish, and educate.

Visual Search: About to Come of Age?

Visual search is certainly not new. Facebook has been recognizing faces in photos for the better part of a decade, and Pinterest estimates that over 600,000 visual searches are now conducted on its site every month. Pinterest Lens is actually ahead of Google Lens when it comes to visual search-based shopping, with lots of potential clearly in the near future. But Pinterest Lens has not yet captured the attention of the masses.

The deployment of Google Lens however, is, in my opinion, a game changer. Google apps are nearly ubiquitous on the desktop, and their mobile presence is also dominant. Google apps account for 5 of the 10 most popular mobile apps across all phone platforms, with Google Search reaching a whopping 61% of the potential US audience.

Hence why I think it's time we pay attention to Google Lens. When Google first announced the availability of Lens on iOS in October, given Google's reach and legendary reputation for simplicity, I suspected that perhaps we should start paying attention to Google Lens sooner, rather than later. And my experiences with the Lens app during a few recent walks around retail confirmed those suspicions.

A quick summary of my Google Lens experiments might help you understand what led me to be so bullish on its impact in 2019:

Store Information: Very Reliable, but Not Very Helpful

As I cruised the sidewalks of a local shopping center during one of my walks, I tested Google Lens on the storefronts of several Aptos clients. And while the results were remarkably consistent, they were not overwhelmingly helpful. In each case, I was presented with the store name, the location, a link to their website (directly to the local store page including store hours), and an option to call the store.

Google Lens Storefront Results Google Lens presented reliable, if not necessarily helpful, store information about stores all across the mall.

I found the store results to be reliably accurate, but given that I was standing directly in front of each store, they just weren't all that useful. I obviously knew the store locations. Further, every storefront I have likely ever seen has had a sign listing their hours hanging very close to the entrance. So that information wasn't all that helpful, either. And finally, calling the store seemed far less convenient than simply stepping inside.

I was left hoping for more meaningful insights. Perhaps a list of local promotions and experiences would have helped, or a list of people - or better still, my friends - who have visited the stores, including reviews of their experiences. Nonetheless, I felt that all the "bones" of a good experience were there, and as Google continues to collect feedback from Lens users, I have a hunch that richer, more insightful content can't be far away.

Product Information: Hit and Miss, but the Hits Were Extremely Helpful

After testing the outcomes at each storefront, I next walked inside those same stores to try my luck on actual merchandise. I scanned products of different categories and different displays. I tried products displayed on (or in) mannequins, shelves, hooks, windows and racks. And the results, while decidedly a bit mixed, were very encouraging.

Google Lens product search results Soft lines were less reliable than hard lines, but Google Lens nonetheless held its own with product searches.

At Tilly's, Google struggled to match the exact items displayed on the mannequins. The search results did include very similar items, but they were from other retailers. Helpful to me, to be sure, but somewhat less helpful for Tilly's. Nonetheless, finding those similar items still seemed to me a pretty impressive feat given no tags or other distinctive markings were visible to the camera.

At Bed, Bath & Beyond, Google Lens found the exact item I scanned, and presented me with product details and related results. It did the same with a book I tested on a table inside my local Paper Source store.

Scanning Bar Codes: Definitely Helpful

Finally, I decided to put Google's updated OCR capabilities to the test. So, I scanned a bunch of bar codes. And for the most part, they worked very well. After testing several tags from both hard lines and soft lines, I only came across one bar code that did not yield a direct hit: a tag on a sweater for which Lens could only muster similar items, not an exact match.

Google Lens bar code scans Bar code scans were easy and effective with Google Lens…and no separate code reader apps required.

The Future of Visual Search is Coming into Focus

As I headed home, I walked away feeling like visual search in general, and Google Lens in particular, are about to pop. If the dramatic rise in popularity of smart speakers has taught me anything, it's that screen fatigue is real. Simple, intuitive experiences that require minimal interaction with small mobile screens will continue to grow in popularity. Both of which bode well for the future of visual search.

And while hard lines - particularly items where product names are visible to Google Lens – are far ahead of soft lines, do not be fooled. Support for soft lines will continue to grow. Google recently reported that Lens can now identify more than one billion products, which is fully four times the number of products identified at the product's launch, just one year ago. Google Lens now also includes a "Style Match" feature to help you find where to buy outfits you see while out and about.

Conclusion: Google Lens Will Be in the Picture in 2019

Pinterest Lens will push Google, and Google Lens will push Pinterest. Numerous retailers, including Target, have begun embedding visual search into their branded apps, and they will push both Google and Pinterest.

So if it were me, I wouldn't wait. Google will keep expanding its data set, its investment in artificial intelligence and its reach. All of which will take a little more time. Hence, I don't think Google Lens will change the world in 2019. But, when visual search pops - and it will pop, mark my words - I would want to be ready.

Here are a few tips to help you avoid getting surprised by this emerging technology:

  • Spend a little time early in 2019 investigating visual search.
  • Walk your stores and scan some products, see what your customers will see.
  • See how easily Google Lens finds your stuff.
  • Learn how effectively Google Lens reports on your stores.
  • Shop your competition as well, and see how well Lens represents their products and brands.

I also believe it would be a good idea to look beyond how Lens will impact your shopping experiences. I would also begin understanding how the app might impact marketing as well. A few things to consider when considering the impact of Google Lens in 2019:

  • How might Google Lens impact SEO? For a few hints, check out Twitter's take on #ImageSEO
  • Are there new advertising opportunities inherent in Lens? As soon as more consumers embrace visual search, advertising will definitely be impacted by a big way.
  • Should your pay per click strategy change in a visual search world? Marissa Guse of @RocketClicks has some great PPC insights to help get you started.
  • How can visual search impact conversions, and how do you measure that impact?

I believe now is the time to answer these important questions, and to embrace the Era of the Camera. And to do so before the implications and opportunities come into focus for your competitors.

Get the picture?

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