Alibaba Cloud eyes visual search opportunities in retail, travel sectors

Australian retailer The Iconic last year became the first Alibaba Cloud customer to roll out the service

Alibaba Cloud is working with a number of its customers to roll out the company’s visual search service.

Dr Pan Pan, from Alibaba’s Visual Search technology team, told Computerworld that the Chinese ecommerce giant’s cloud computing arm was working with customers in the retail, travel, and trademark search spaces to implement the technology.

(Alibaba Cloud in late 2016 launched a Sydney data centre, which was its first data centre in the southern hemisphere.)

Alibaba Cloud’s Image Search service has two key modes. One is product search, which is designed for online retail and allows the retrieval of information about products that are similar or identical to an input image. The other is a generic search feature that allows the retrieval of images that are similar or identical to the input image.

According to Alibaba, the key difference between the modes is that the former supports image categorisation and uses “contextual information extracted from images to find images that exactly belong to the specified category.”

Alibaba supports both online and offline image search.

“The Iconic is our first customer using this service through Alibaba Cloud but we are working with a few other customers around the world,” Pan said.

The Iconic late last year launched a ‘Snap to Search’ feature powered by the cloud service. Snap to Search is integrated into The Iconic’s mobile app. Users can shoot or upload a photo of an item of clothing. The service then searches the retailer’s range for similar looking products.

“Visual search is one way we're removing barriers to online shopping at The Iconic by not only merging offline discovery with online purchase, but also by making online browsing easily shoppable,” the retailer’s chief technology officer, Zoe Ghani, told Computerworld.

The CTO said that Snap to Shop’s early adopters are using it to find and purchase outfits they spot offline.

“Similarly, users are uploading screenshots of outfits they’ve seen on apps such as Instagram to look for either similar products or exact matches they can purchase instantly on The iconic,” Ghani added.

“Visual search is still in its infancy within Australian and New Zealand online retail, but the results of Snap to Shop to date has made us incredibly excited for its potential to influence and enhance our customers shopping experience with The Iconic.”

Alibaba first began offering visual search through the company’s own services in 2014, Pan said.

“Of course we are continuously improving our algorithms so that the accuracy is [getting] better and better,” he said.

“We are using two ways, in general to measure the performance,” Pan said. One method is offline evaluation where users indicate whether the result of a search is accurate or not. “We also use online metrics to measure improved performance,” he added.

“We found in the scenario of visual search people are more interested in finding identical or similar products. So in this case the CTR [click-through rate] and also the conversion rate are a very good way to reflect how the algorithm works.”

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