Is Mobile Search About To Go Visual?

Amazon’s pick-up of SnapTell last week drew little media attention, but the move could go a long way in pushing image-based search toward mass-market adoption in the U.S.

SnapTell was founded four years ago and has recently gained traction with apps for the iPhone and Android devices. The company’s technology enables mobile users to snap a picture of a product, logo or other image and connect to an online store to make a purchase, access marketing info or download ringtones or other promotional mobile goodies. It builds on the concept of 2-D mobile barcodes, which have been touted as a revolutionary tool for mobile data since their debut 10 years ago though they have yet to find much of an audience in the U.S.

Amazon plans to run the Palo Alto-based startup as a stand-alone business within its search subsidiary, which morphed into a retail-search platform after failing to attract users as a more conventional engine. The A9 search engine is used by Amazon, Target and other online retailers, providing an opportunity for SnapTell to move beyond early adopters to a much broader scope of online shoppers.

SnapTell has a database of roughly 5 million product images that it compares with photos submitted by users. A consumer at a brick-and-mortar vendor can snap a photo of a pair of roller skates, for instance, and with a few quick clicks compare prices from Amazon or other vendors using A9. The technology could fuel Amazon sales as it delivers an easy way to surface its user reviews, ratings and pricing to on-the-go shoppers.

What’s more, the solution can work with any camera phone, and it doesn’t necessarily require a download (although its most effective use cases so far have been the iPhone and Android apps). Amazon could prominently showcase SnapTell’s functionality on its web site, demonstrating the advantages and ease of image-based search to vast numbers of potential users who have only run-of-the-mill camera phones, and could even offer the downloadable app directly from to iPhone and Android users.

With Amazon’s backing, SnapTell can also play a more effective role in delivering mobile marketing campaigns, as its offering eliminates the need for 2-D barcodes, which until recently were the only viable technology for image-based search. A host of competing technologies fragmented the market and prevented handset manufacturers and carriers from backing a single solution. That effectively shackled uptake in the U.S., even as they’ve enjoyed impressive usage in some overseas markets. (CTIA tried to address the situation by backing two technologies – one proprietary, one open standard – but that only drew the wrath of vendors that weren’t included in its proposal.)

Image-recognition technology is still a work in progress, of course. Photos from most camera phones are often lacking in quality, which could lead to inaccurate search results, and SnapTell’s image library will have to be expanded in a major way. But Amazon has the deep pockets, the product pool and the consumer reach to give image-based mobile search a much-needed shove. Now, it also has the technology.

Question of the week

Will Amazon and SnapTell push image-based mobile search into the U.S. mainstream?