Google Goggles: The World is Your Hyperlink

Search experts are coming away from Google’s Search Event, held on December 7th in Mountain View, CA, with two words on their lips: “exciting” and “scary.” Both words aptly describe the most buzz-worthy new product to be unveiled at the event: Google Goggles.

In classic Google fashion, there is a friendly video overview of Google Goggles over at the Google Mobile Blog. For those who haven’t viewed it yet, Goggles brings picture search to Android phones in a big, big way. Here’s how it works:

  • Using your Android phone, you snap a picture of a logo, a book cover, or even a storefront.
  • Google Goggles identifies the object and then kicks back relevant information, whether its search results, user reviews, price comparisons or store hours.
  • You can save your visual search history just like you save your regular search history via a web browser.

The examples on the website are pretty impressive. A snapshot of a certain iconic bridge in San Francisco makes Goggles instantly spit back “Golden Gate Bridge” and offer a Wikipedia entry for perusal, while a picture of a business card automatically parses out the name, phone number and email address.

But what’s more exciting, and scary, are the capabilities that Google Goggles will wield once it emerges from its infancy. The exciting aspects of visual search are easy to fathom. There’s many a time words fail us when we try to come up with an effective search query. Questions like: “What species of tree did this leaf come from?”, or “What kind of pill is this?”, or “Is this rash contagious?” will be far more answerable (much in the same way Midomi revolutionized the “name that tune” conundrum).

There are also vast opportunity for novel surprises and real world “Easter Eggs.” Say you’re snapping photos in the Louvre and Google Goggles chimes in with “Did you know: In 1956, Ugo Ungaza Villegas threw a rock at the Mona Lisa – you can still see the mark near her left elbow.” It’s like Pop-Up Video in real life.

The scary part doesn’t have to do with any kind of “Big Brother’s watching you” via a comprehensive database of everything you’ve ever looked at paranoia. You can opt out of maintaining a visual search history. Instead, it has more to do with what’s likely going to happen to search marketing once visual search becomes widely adopted. Here’s why:

For better or worse, everything on the web has been search engine optimized. We see coders working diligently to structure websites to accommodate spiders. We see publishers and businesses in heated competition over domain names on par with the real estate turf wars in metropolitan areas. And we’ve all become a little bit more tolerant of the sometimes unnatural wording that appears in webpage titles and article leads for the sake of key phrase placement.

What the future may hold

So, with the battle for search engine supremacy moving into the physical world, how might businesses optimize for visual search? Google openly (and needlessly) admits that visual search “works well for some things, but not for all”.  This will inevitably hold true even as the technology becomes more sophisticated. Things like the Pepsi logo are a piece of cake for Goggles, while things like a literal piece of cake might be tougher for Google to peg.

It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see design firms adding “visual search optimization” to their menu of services in the next five years. This could mean anything from altering your logo to further differentiate it from a competitor’s, to branding the architecture of your storefront to provide more identifiable cues for Google Goggles.

We might also see some unauthorized visual tweaks, too. Say,  Urbanspoon mobilized a street team to slap stamp-sized stickers on menus, welcome signs, front doors, flyers, and telephone poles so that everyone snapping a photo of a local eatery would also be presented a few choice reviews from their website. If this model is picked up every sign and landmark could potentially resemble something akin to the obligatory strip of social bookmarking icons we see at the end of every blog post.

Of course, plastering every flat surface with commercial graffiti isn’t anything new, but the depth of hypertextuality that visual search lends every recognizable entity in the physical world is. We’re all quite used to pulling up an article on the New York Times or a blog post on Gizmodo and having it flanked by advertisements, teasers for related articles, and all sorts of widgets and digital white rabbits. But what will a stroll through downtown be like when the world itself is full of hyperlinks? Through the lens of Google Goggles, Times Square (already ground zero for Google’s local voice search) might be transformed into a coupon book. A forest path becomes a veritable index of botanical research, with each leaf, flower bud and fungus linked to a corresponding encyclopedia entry.

It’s also important to consider the potential dark side of hypertextuality, which we already see today on the Internet. Search engine algorithms are, by nature, susceptible to exploitation, whether it’s mischievous (see: Miserable Failure) or self-serving (see: the vast underworld of Blackhat SEO). For visual search, it can be as innocuous and applicable as presenting a Geico ad when you snap a shot of a car accident. Or it can be as annoying and malicious as the real world equivalent of pop up ads, bait and switch tactics and other misleading advertisements. I can’t imagine what that equivalent would be, but I wouldn’t put it past the less scrupulous marketers to come up with some way to exploit visual search in a way that inserts a thorn into all of our sides.

What’s clear, though, is that visual search is going to shake things up by further blurring the lines between the digital and physical worlds. Whether it’s going to be like Prometheus bringing fire to the mortals or like the Europeans bringing small pox to North America remains to be seen.

About Jack Busch

You can follow Jack on Twitter: @jackbusch.

6 Responses to Google Goggles: The World is Your Hyperlink

  1. Davor Gasparevic says:

    It seems that we have already stepped in the early periods of science-fiction predictions from 80's and 90's. Imagine telling someone from 1983 that there will be something like Internet? Some of them might agree, but most would just wave their hands.

    The same is with this, seems that the technology grows even more rapidly than humans can pleasantly follow.

    Good post btw.

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  3. T Foster says:

    the ultimate contextual relevance tool… Google will soon have all the data it needs to make any object or idea reference-able against others (assuming there is a relationship).

  4. Jack says:

    Looks like DoCoMo already had a bit of this back in 2006 – the video is in Japanese, but you get the gist without translation:



  5. eNicholas says:

    I love the idea of this new form of visual search!

    If anyone has the amazon app for their iphone then you will already be familiar with the ability to snap a photo of anything you want, then have a bunch of results sent to you based upon the analysis of that photo. I tested it out recently by snapping a shot of a dog, just to see what came back. As you can imagine, amazon sent me recommendations for dog books related to that breed.

    I think that Google goggles will help alot of the people online who aren’t really search savvy that make all sorts of long winded search queries. But I can also see the potential for a large amount of wasted resources… as people start randomly snapping photos in their general vicinity to see what is returned via search (for entertainment purposes).

    Great article tho Jack, I’ll be watching your feed in future for updates. You’ve inspired me to post about the topic on my own blog while exploring some options for people that want to know how to optimize for Google goggles: http://www.enicholas.com/search-engines/seo-google-goggles/

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