I noted with interest that Microsoft (s msft) has announced a new feature in its Bing search engine, focused on visual searches. You can try it here (note that it requires you to have Silverlight installed). Like some of the dedicated visual search engines, it presents a way to do web searches by clicking through collected visual images, instead of entering keywords. Initially, it’s only available for certain types of search categories.
To perform searches, you start with a category such as “Digital Cameras,” where a search will present you with a large tapestry of individual photos of camera; a portion of the digital camera-related results is shown below. Clicking on any camera in the tapestry will take you to dedicated search results for that camera. This seems, in particular, to be a good search metaphor for, say, shopping for tech products online, where the look of the product might matter a lot to you. For general use, though, there are some other visual search engines that I favor.
As Webware notes, the new visual search feature in Bing “showcases the real value of having a search engine that blends structured data into the results.” As long as you perform visual searches on topics that are mainstream, for which Bing will tend to have a lot of structured data pre-indexed, you’ll tend to get rich sets of results back. The digital camera shopping example I supplied above is a good example of that. You can identify the camera you might like by its design, then jump immediately to lots of specific data about it. For less mainstream topics, though, the visual metaphor won’t be so useful, which is probably why Microsoft only supplies a limited number of topic categories as it beta tests the new feature.
There are a few other visual search engines that I think I’ll probably continue to use more regularly than I’ll use Bing’s new feature. Two of my favorite ones, which I wrote about here, are Viewzi, and RedZ. The best way to get a sense of what these do is to try a search, but Viewzi essentially lets you toggle between many types of visual presentations for any search topic, and RedZ gives you a rotatable set of web page thumbnails, as seen below for a search on digital cameras. You can then cycle, or rotate, through the results just as you would cycle through album art on an iPod with the Cover Flow feature.
If you haven’t tried it, I also recommend giving SpaceTime3D a try. It’s a little like RedZ, in that it presents you with arrays of web page thumbnails that you can cycle through to see what may interest you, but it presents bigger and nicer representations of the pages, and has a very slick interface.
I don’t rely on visual searches all the time, but for tasks such as shopping for new technology products online, researching people and news stories, and anything else where a picture can be worth a thousand words, these tools are useful.
What do you think of Bing’s Visual Search feature?