October 25, 2007, 12:00 AM

Forget keywords, site search will move toward visual elements, expert says

Just as a salesperson in an apparel store will show a shopper several blouses in the colors and patterns she requested, web site search technology will let online shoppers request to see products in specific colors or styles, Allurent CEO Joe Chung says.

Just as a salesperson in a service-oriented apparel store will help a shopper find something by showing her a selection of blouses in the colors and patterns she requested, site search technology soon let online shoppers request to see products in specific colors or styles, says Joe Chung, CEO and co-founder of web technology firm Allurent Inc.

“People don’t shop by reading text, they shop by visuals like color and style,” Chung says.

Searching by visuals is already available on shopping comparison site Like.com, where shoppers can search for a red dress, for example, and see results only of red dresses from multiple retailers. They can also view images of products and search for similar items.

In addition, the site search engine from Endeca Technologies Inc. supports image-based searches for retail sites including Art.com’s Sistino.com, where shoppers can mouse over a color chart and click a color to search for artwork containing the chosen hue, an Endeca spokesman says.

Allurent is developing a site search platform that will let retailers display images tied to their product databases, Chung says. Shoppers will be able to use the site search function to click a product image, for example, to search for a list of pertinent products. Allurent expects to begin licensing the new technology next year directly to retailers as well as to other technology vendors, Chung adds.

Sucharita Mulpuru, principal analyst for retail at research and advisory firm Forrester Research Inc., says visual search is largely untested but could be particularly useful for some retail categories. “It’s unproven territory, but for aesthetic purchases it could be very helpful,” she says. “I like the prospects for categories like apparel, footwear and even home products.”

Many other online retailers have begun deploying search-and-navigation applications designed to improve the shopping experience by providing useful navigation through search results. But these applications typically rely on starting out with keyword searches, Chung says.

Allurent’s visual search platform will be flexible to suit the search strategies of different retailers or product categories, Chung says. “Different categories will determine what the right search paradigm will be,” he says. An apparel retailer that wants to merchandise its products around the movie interests of shoppers, for example, might let shoppers click an image of Brad Pitt in “Ocean’s 13” to search for the shirt and necktie he was wearing.

“We’re combining search and navigation into one entity,” Chung says.

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