I've spent some time playing with Microsoft's new visual search feature in Bing. One thing I think everyone agrees with is that it is cool. You can take a look for yourself at http://www.bing.com/visualsearch.

Of course, cool by itself doesn't pay the bills, so what I've been pondering is whether visual search is a step forward in providing access to structured content, or whether it's nothing more than a gimmick. Where do I come out? I'm still not sure.

Visual search is engaging and immersive. It quickly reminds you of the interface for the enormously popular iPhone. In this regard, visual search may be where things are headed, particularly because it is so intuitive. At the same time, I wonder if visual search can add all that much to B2B data products. The vast majority of business databases are focused on some combination of people, products and companies, and visual representation brings little added value. Would pictures of office buildings help you get to information on a particular company more quickly? I doubt it. Would headshots of CEO's help you build a targeted list of prospects? Not really. And while products sound more promising, I'm not sure, for example, that I could sufficiently differentiate different types of industrial lasers from pictures in order to narrow my search. All this said, what amazing pizzazz visual search could add to a user interface and sales presentation!

Of course visual search works powerfully for some categories such as celebrities, animals, politicians and travel. There are probably numerous other applications too. In short, this is new stuff, and everyone (including Microsoft) is still trying to determine what makes sense. The underlying technology, built on Microsoft Silverlight (reportedly already installed on nearly 75% of all Windows machines), is impressive. Watch in particular how the search box changes as you put your mouse over different images. Let your mind wander as you note that search results are geolocation-aware. Note the ability to sort the images in a variety of ways. Let's also note that Microsoft is licensing the underlying content for most of these search sets from third-party data providers.
This is impressive technology, and it's a whole new way to think about and look at search. Take a look for yourself and start thinking outside the (search) box!