Microsoft rolled out Visual Search for Bing, its search engine, on Sept. 14. The beta feature allows users to search for information visually by clicking through image options, as opposed to typing in a search query.
Visual Search presents dozens of searchable image galleries. If users want to search for, say, a particular movie star, they can click on the "Popular celebrities" gallery and then scroll through the offered faces until they find the right one. In that particular example, users can refine the search by clicking on categories such as "Popular actors," "Popular musicians," "Achievements," "Gender" or "Age." Hovering your mouse cursor over the image results in pop-up information ("Zooey Deschanel, Singer/Musician/Age: 29").
Clicking on the image takes the user to a page of traditional search results, consisting of hyperlinks, Website summaries and images.
As announced at TechCrunch50, Microsoft plans on expanding the number of searchable image galleries in the future. Microsoft has also hinted that a larger revamp of Bing is slated to roll out later in September.
"A study conducted by Microsoft Research shows that consumers can process results with images 20 percent faster than text-only results," Todd Schwartz, group product manager for Bing, wrote in a Sept. 14 Bing blog post. "Visual Search is a new way to formulate and refine your search queries through imagery, particularly for sets of results that tend to be more structured."
Bing's Visual Search seems in many ways an answer to Google's Similar Images feature, which appeared in Google Labs in April. Similar Images, which can be found here, allows users to search using images rather than typing in successive queries. For example, typing in the term "Jaguar" will produce images of both the jungle cat and the high-performance vehicle.
"Using visual similarity, you don't have to refine the text of your search; instead, you can just click on the link of an image you like," said an official Google blog post at the time the feature became available.
Although Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz opined during a conference in June that interest in Bing would be "temporary," the search engine managed to survive its first summer with incremental market-share gains. According to research company StatCounter, Microsoft's share of the U.S. search market increased to 9.41 percent in July, days before the announcement of a search and advertising deal between Microsoft and Yahoo.
That partnership agreement, inked on July 29, stipulated that Bing would power search on Yahoo's sites; once the deal is completed, that should translate into nearly 30 percent of the U.S. search-engine market for Microsoft, versus roughly 65 percent for Google. For its part, Microsoft has said it regards the recent partnership agreement as a chance to flood Bing's backroom operations with data from Yahoo's user base, allowing the search engine to refine its processes and produce more useful results.
Previous to the Yahoo deal, pundits had wondered how Bing would fare once Microsoft's massive ad campaign-estimated at between $80 million and $100 million-subsided in the wake of the search engine's rollout.
Microsoft has indicated that it intends to back Bing for the long haul. During the National Summit in Detroit on June 17, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said Bing had "very good initial response" and that Microsoft would "have to be tenacious and keep up the pace of innovation over a long period of time."