How Pinterest is Changing Online Search and Shopping

Posted by · November 17, 2011 7:47 am

The biggest complaint I hear about social media is that it takes too much time to use it.  People complain that they just don’t have enough time to manage multiple profiles and identities; and as someone who tries to do just that on a daily basis, I understand. It can be tiresome.

If you don’t want to devote too much time in your day to social media, then Pinterest, a website that lets people share their favorite online content by “pinning” it to their profile, may not be the site for you.  Not because Pinterest is hard to use.  In fact, the beautifully simplistic interface is quite the opposite; but because once you log on to Pinterest, you will be whisked away on an endless adventure of discovery that quietly takes hours from your day without you even realizing it.

Dubbed one of TIME magazine’s top five social media sites of 2011, Pinterest, which currently has over 2.5 million active monthly users, recently raised around $200 million in venture capital funding and is currently valued at over $40 million.  The explosive success of the site signals a shift in the way people find–and purchase–things online; and Pinterest could pose the biggest threat to Google’s and Amazon’s empire that the Internet has seen to date.

Design over depth

One of the things that sets Pinterest apart from other “web-clipping” websites is its visually pleasing design aesthetic.  Once you create an account on Pinterest (right now, you still need an invite), you are taken to a homepage full of images in neatly arranged tiles.  The focus on images, rather than text, gives Pinterest a magazine-esque quality and makes it easier to digest than competitor sites like Clipboard (which combines both text and images) or the antiquated action of bookmarking.

In an interview with USA Today, Pinterest founder Ben Silbermann said the website layout was hardly a happy accident.  Silbermann and co-founders Paul Sciarra and Evan Sharp spent two and a half months designing—and redesigning—the basic screen of Pinterest.  He says he and his colleagues instinctively knew that the success of the site would depend on the layout.  Fifty different versions later, they landed on Pinterest’s current design, a clean interface that feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the typically cluttered design of so many other sites (ahem, Facebook).

The other element that makes Pinterest unique is how easy it is to use the site. The Pinterest homepage gives you only a few different options of actions to take on the site: search, browse, invite friends, join a discussion, or create, edit or add to your Pinboards. Adding to your Pinboards is as simple as uploading an image from your local machine, copying and pasting a URL or clicking the “Pin It” button you can install in your Firefox browser.  (There’s also an iPhone app, but we all know I’m an Android gal. Hint, hint, Pinterest developers.)

While I’m sure Silbermann and his team will receive thousands of feature requests from Pinterest users, they would do well to keep the site simple.  Doing so will prevent Pinterest users from suffering from the information overload they face everywhere else on the web.

From Search to Discovery

Shopping is a visual process.  You see something you like. You desire it, and you purchase it.  To date, the traditional model of online shopping involves visiting a website, typing words into a search bar and/or scrolling through pages of results that may or may not be what you’re looking for.  The more specific the words you type into the search bar, the better your results.

The problem with this model is that it assumes that you know what you’re looking for.  But what if you don’t? What if you’re still trying to figure out what you want to buy? Sure, you could search Google or Amazon, but the results these websites return lack context.  If I perform a search for “black booties,” both Google and Amazon return a series of thumbnail images, many of which (as any true fashionista knows) fit the description of boots, but not booties; and none of which show me how those shoes will look when paired with an outfit.

This is where Pinterest is a game changer.  A search for the term “black booties” on Pinterest not only returns pictures of the exact type of shoes I am looking for, but also a number of photos of women actually wearing the shoes.  Now I can not only evaluate which style of bootie I might want, but I have a clearer pictures of what outfits I might be able to pair the booties with.

This type of organic discovery on Pinterest doesn’t just apply to clothing. The site is packed with ideas you haven’t thought of and items you didn’t even know you wanted in categories ranging from food, clothes and home design to architecture, history,  technology and more.

From data to dollars

Currently, Pinterest attracts a predominantly female audience; and as Aileen Lee and a number of research companies have pointed out recently, that’s not an undesirable demographic to have using your site.  The US Census Bureau reports that women are responsible for 80% of consumer spending, which translates into $5 trillion in annual spending.

The challenge for Pinterest will be the way in which they leverage the data they get from their users to influence buying decisions. Right now, brands like Nordstrom use Pinterest to share ideas and products with their customers.  Additionally, Pinterest gives users the ability to browse gifts by price range.  So, the site seems like it’s headed in the right, revenue generating, direction already.  If Pinterest is able to garner a fraction of online transactions, the company would be able to pay back its investors in no time.  (That is, assuming it doesn’t go public first.)

Are you Pinterested?

If you aren’t currently a Pinterest user, the holiday season is possibly the best time to start using the site.  Pinterest offers an endless amount of decorating, baking, crafting and gift ideas.  (Hint: If you’re struggling to figure out what to get your significant other, why not search for her Pinboards. Chances are she has one titled “Wish List” or “_______ I want.”) If you don’t have an invite, you can ask Pinterest for one; and if you already have one, well, it’s time to start discovering your next purchase.