Pinterest Refines Its Search Feature

By Kristen V. Brown
San Francisco Chronicle

Pinterest, the social network of choice for cocktail recipes and perfectly manicured succulent gardens, is making a play to broaden its user base beyond the do-it-yourself set.

On Thursday, the online scrapbooking mecca announced a “guided search” feature, a function intended to help Pinners sift through the billions of images posted to the site.

The idea is that when users start searching for something fairly vague — say, road trips — the search engine steers them toward subcategories, hoping to deliver what they’re looking for even when they might not know how to ask for it.

“Pinterest, after all, is about discovering things you didn’t know were out there,” said CEO Ben Silbermann.

The plan is to make Pinterest a more effective tool for “visual discovery” — and, presumably, to attract users who fall outside the site’s vastly female demographic.

Pinterest has always billed itself as a visual discovery tool, but the new search engine function represents a shift away from collection and compilation and toward search and discovery.

It positions the company more effectively as an alternative to traditional search engines such as Google, allowing users to effectively browse for products or images rather than just Web pages.

“The problem of how you discover things is a really tough one,” Silbermann said at a conference last May. “Problems like, ‘What should my living room look like?
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‘ That’s at the heart of our interests right now.”

Pinterest wants its users to think of it as more than just a place to find inspiration in photos of gourmet meals and artfully torn jeans. It wants to be the place people go to search for a new couch or hairstyle.

Pinterest, founded in 2010, has increased its number of pins by 50 percent in just the past six months, and there are more than 750 million boards on the site. Pinterest has been valued at an estimated $3.8 billion. Its first advertising platform, expected this year, has been eagerly anticipated in marketing and advertising circles.

But Pinterest has had trouble growing beyond the image of a digital clipboard for women. According to a Pew Research survey published in December, while 21 percent of U.S. online adults use Pinterest (more than Twitter and Instagram), women are about four times more likely to use Pinterest than men.

Guided search works by suggesting subcategories to complement an initial query, suggestions algorithmically crowdsourced from the captions, comments and other data attached to other users’ pins. When a Pinner taps one subcategory, the search engine returns suggestions to further refine the hunt.

The search feature, introduced at a lavish Pinterest headquarters party Thursday that included craft stations with activities such as pocket-square folding, was announced alongside a new custom categories feature and updates to the related-pins feature.

Guided search is available now on the Pinterest mobile app for iOS and Android, and will soon appear on its website as well.

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