Microsoft Goes After Search Market With Pictures

What You Need to Know About Bing's Visual Search

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SAN FRANCISCO ( -- Are pictures really worth a thousand words? Microsoft hopes so.

Today, the Seattle-based software behemoth took the stage at TechCrunch50 to unveil visual search, the newest feature for its new search-engine, Bing.

Bing's visual search
Bing's visual search
Bing's visual search displays search results by pictures, rather than text, which comes in pretty handy for certain types of searches. Say you're searching for a pink handbag to buy: Click the handbags category, filter by color, and see loads of images to choose from. Want to refine your search further to only pink bags under $50? Click on the left-hand filters to narrow your results. Want to see only pink shoulder bags? There's a filter for that, too.

The TechCrunch50 stage is normally reserved for startups but one can argue that in comparison to the search gorilla Google, Bing is but a baby. A panel of judges evaluates the 50 startup ideas featured at the event, and it was impressed by what it saw out of the software giant.

"Visual search can be powerful, depending on the context where you need visuals to make a decision," said entrepreneur, investor and TechCrunch50 panelist Yossi Vardi. "It's a good paradigm but should be implemented in areas where users need it to make decisions."

Attendees were generally impressed, if cautious: "I'm a visual person, so I thought it was definitely very cool," said Joe Zhou, cofounder of startup Syllabee, which takes lecture and class notes for college students. "It works for shopping, it might work for movies and celebrities. But [visual search] has been done before; it's just never gained traction."

Microsoft launched the service in beta at, although you'll need Silverlight, the company's version of Flash, to view the individual pictures within the gallery. Right now Bing's visual search works for some 50 categories, ranging from cars to movies to celebrities. The company will add new category galleries each month, said Stefan Weitz, a director at Bing.

Users can access visual search through the gallery page but it will increasingly be offered as an option on the main Bing page for search terms where pictorial results might be appropriate. For instance, if you search Bing for the word "dog," a "visualize dog breeds" link will pop up as a search result, and if you click on the link you will arrive at a gallery containing pictures displaying all kinds of dogs along with filters, such as "small dogs" and "rare breeds."

At the moment, only 4% of all searchers on Bing will see an option to jump away from text results to the pictorial results.

It's still early, but not too early to consider how this kind of rich-media searching will affect marketers and their ability to be found. No advertising currently runs in Bing's visual search, and a Microsoft spokesman said it was too early to discuss monetization. But if you're a handbag maker, how do you ensure your product pops up in the gallery? Turns out that Microsoft gets its feeds from industry data providers and retailers. Mr. Weitz said Bing's handbag gallery feeds off data provided by Zappos, among others, while it leans on PC World, for example, for digital-camera information. Thus, to make sure your merchandise pops up in Bing's galleries, make sure you're present in the feed of more than one industry heavyweight.

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