The big search engines Google, Bing, and Yahoo continually fine-tune their algorithms in order to provide better lists of websites to their users. In fact, Google has fundamentally reworked its entire search engine system with its Hummingbird update in recent months by introducing semantic search and synonym capabilities. With these semantic search capabilities, Google uses its data collection and tracking of other users who have searched for the same or similar keyword phrases to get a clearer idea of what you are searching for when you enter a particular search query. It’s pretty amazing.
Nevertheless, these search engines will forever be limited by the keyword. Put another way, no matter how much Google improves its algorithm, the effectiveness of Google delivering you to the content you are searching for will forever be limited to the quality and clarity of the words you type into it.

So when you’re only partially sure what you’re looking for, or when you’re just shopping around the Web, how likely is it that Google can get you to the information you need?

Put simply by the old programming adage — garbage in, garbage out.

Pinterest, the picture-oriented social networking website, is looking to move search a bit beyond the limitations of the keyword. What began as a scrapbooking website now encompasses an image network of over 30 billion “pins” that grows 25% every year. And from that wealth of content derives a seemingly endless source of information and idea generation.

Pinterest envisions that it can help users figure out what it is they really want by allowing them to start with a vague notion and use its vast library of images to help them gather information and narrow their focus. In other words, as an alternative to keyword search engines, Pinterest can use pictures to help users flesh out their ideas when the keywords they would try to search wouldn’t help them get what they want through Google.

The benefits of this sort of image-centric search method, for some types of information, are quite apparent. If I saw something and wanted to find it online but only had vague descriptors at my disposal, browsing images on Pinterest would be a great starting point. Pinterest also has strengths in browsing, perusing, and narrowing down a focus when you aren’t entirely sure what you’re looking for.

This particular type of search process is basically a virtual form of “window shopping” and therefore provides great value to online retailers, who should definitely be investing in their Pinterest presence.

Being that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” I would concur with Pinterest that sometimes a picture search is worth several keyword searches. To be sure, only some types of information can be located on the Web through the medium of pictures. But for the information that is image-based, Pinterest will continue to flex its muscles as a valuable search tool.

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