Google Visual Search: Break Away from the Box

As we’ve argued previously “mobile search” has so far been a small-screen version of its PC sibling: a box producing links and images on a tiny version of a Web page. But as 2010 begins we’ll see “mobile search” start to break away more and more and take on more of the “native” attributes of the handset (location awareness, voice input, camera).

Local “discovery” (what’s nearby) apps and tools are starting to do that, leveraging the phone’s location awareness. In addition voice is starting to assume a more prominent role as a query input mechanism. Verizon’s Droid ads featuring voice search are an example of the increasing visibility of this utility. And the camera is increasingly a search tool. Product barcode scanning is one use case, which is gaining traction. Augmented reality (AR) is yet another example. However, AR is mostly novelty now — although it will evolve and mature quickly.

In that latter category Google Goggles or Google Visual Search, as it’s more descriptively called, is a potentially compelling use of the camera as a search tool. Currently being tested, it will allow a user to take a picture of an object, building, product, etc. and retrive information and maybe commercial content (e.g., coupons, what’s on sale). AR “browsers” such as Wikitude and Layar offer an early version of visual search. But, so far, these are somewhat awkward integrations of third party data displayed in the camera viewer.

Google Visual Search is a more ambitious version of what Amazon has done with products: you take a picture of an item and Amazon will find it for you in the database. In the recent CNBC documentary “Inside the Mind of Google,” there was a bit on “Google Googles.” Here’s the video segment that has it (about 3:58) 

Picture 13

Google is one of the few companies, Microsoft is probably the other, that can bring all the evolving elements of search together on the handset: location/maps, camera/AR (including barcode scanning) and voice with the massive databases needed to make it all work. Unlike the PC where search is “flat,” (box + links) search on a mobile device will be “variegated,” featuring the integration of different tools and capabilities together in context sensitive and relevant ways. 

And if Google can do “visual search” well — again, being able to tie the database together with images and location is the key — others will have a hard time breaking through in “mobile search.” On a related note, as a kind of baby step in this realm, Google has integrated QR barcode search with local business window decals.

We don’t need to worry about the business model for Visual Search, it’s pretty obvious: text and display ads, videos with pre-roll, sponsored contextual links and coupons could all be presented in results, depending on what was relevant and appropriate to the information shown. 

Update: Google Goggles available from Google Labs today.