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Google overhauls search to show more pictures, videos and context

Google demonstrates its newest search features, include activity cards, smart videos and Google Lens, at its 20th-anniversary event on Sunday in San Francisco. (Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images)
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Google has unveiled a host of updates to its search product, designed to make visual information more useful as pictures and video become more central to the Internet experience.

The new features showing up in searches include introductory videos about public figures, topic videos to help users plan trips or learn about new subjects, and an overhaul of its ranking system for displaying image-based searches, offering users more context and easier ways to shop online.

Previously a stand-alone app, Google Lens uses artificial intelligence to identify the contents of a picture without needing words to figure out what it is. Now, Google will integrate Lens directly into searches “to make your search experience more visual,” Cathy Edwards, director of engineering for Google Images, said in a blog post. She said the goal of these changes was to help users find information visually and improve specific image-oriented searches: when people shop for products, look for interior-decorating inspiration or tackle DIY projects.

The updates highlight the shift from text-based browsing to a more image-heavy Internet, now that smartphones and their smaller displays have overtaken desktop computers. “The growth of mobile devices and small screens made it even more important to be able to quickly scan visual results,” Edwards said.

In a demonstration, a user searched for “DIY backyard vertical garden,” which pulls up a variety of a backyard garden images. The user then tapped one of the images, and the display focused on a concrete planter, which brought up a list of planter products that share the same look as the original “vertical garden” image. Through the demo, Google made the e-commerce implications clear: Its new visual-first search tools will help people buy products based on the online images that catch their eye.

Other technology companies are trying to take advantage of intuitive, visual-friendly searches. On the same day as Google’s announcement, Snap Inc., the parent company of Snapchat, unveiled a partnership with in which users can shop for products straight from the camera function of Snapchat.

In accompanying images, a user points a smartphone camera at a friend’s sneakers and presses on where the shoes appear. Once the item is recognized by Snapchat, an Amazon window opens within the app, offering a link to that product or similar ones that are sold on the e-commerce website. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Google said the new Lens search tools will roll out in the coming weeks.