Pinterest wants to be a search company, so it's putting search front and center

Evan Sharp Pinterest cofounder Evan Sharp. Pinterest

Since its beginning, Pinterest has struggled to communicate exactly what kind of company it is to the outside world.

“People thought of us as a social network," cofounder and chief product officer Evan Sharp recently told Business Insider. "But that was really a misunderstanding. It’s our fault for not being clear. We think of Pinterest much more as a search engine.”

To reinforce that Pinterest is all about search, the company is putting search front and center in its app with a new update available Monday.

“I think it’s a really important signifier that Pinterest is a search company," said Sharp.

But if you think that Pinterest doubling down on search puts it directly in Google's crosshairs, you'd be wrong.

"People come here for a different reason than they do other places," said global head of partnerships Jon Kaplan, who was hired from Google earlier last year. "They’re looking to discover new things and then go do those things in their real life. That’s a fundamentally different value proposition with other platforms."

Making search visual

Search + Lens on home feed Pinterest's new app design puts a search bar at the top of the main feed. Pinterest

Since 85% of Pinterest's searches happen on mobile, placing the search bar in the main home tab of its app felt natural, according to Sharp. He noted that improving search is a big focus within the company, especially after it launched its visual "Lens" search feature earlier this year.

Pinterest Lens allows you to take a photo of an object with your phone's camera and see related objects, and it's where Sharp sees the future of search going. He said that Pinterest is working to integrate its Lens technology into more hardware, like its current integration with the Samsung Galaxy S8's camera.

Shortly after Pinterest announced Lens, Google teased an eerily similar and identically-named feature for Android. Sharp isn't worried about the competition because he thinks Pinterest is the "the most passionate" about developing visual search.

"They’ve done a great job watching what we do and trying to integrate it into their product," he said of Google.

Growing its search businesses could also make Pinterest a more viable platform for advertisers, noted Kaplan. The company expects to make $500 million in ad revenue this year, but Kaplan said that it's only working with a couple hundred marketers right now.

That leaves plenty of room to grow, and the company is currently focused on improving its search personalization for individual users and object detection for visual Lens search.

“We're still in that phase where we have the technology and we’re trying to learn what user problems we can really solve," said Sharp. "It feels like technology is just now catching up to how we do things offline."

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