The Battlefronts of Search’s Next Era

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This post is the latest in a weekly series of excerpts from BIA/Kelsey’s recent report Mobile Local Discovery, The Next Era of Search. The series will lead up to BIA/Kelsey NEXT, a conference on the future of local, taking place December 9th & 10th in Los Angeles. 

What happens to search when the browser is no longer the front door? As engagement migrates to mobile, users’ front door is predominantly apps instead of the search-centric web. This is the topic of a new BIA/Kelsey report, Mobile Local Discovery, The Next Era of Search.

The question’s importance is heightened by search’s longstanding dominance. It has been the gatekeeper to the web for the past decade. And that dominance has been lucrative, especially for market share leader Google, which derives $50 billion annually from search advertising.

Search started in the desktop-heavy world of the 90’s and 2000’s, when trillions of web pages compelled an advanced index and a friendly entry point. But an app-centric mobile universe — pre-organized into neat little buckets — doesn’t compel a search engine, as we know it.

Our report looks at the state of mobile search. How is it impacted by new hardware (i.e. wearables), software innovation (Google Now) and shifting user behavior (i.e. millennials)? What will Google and others do to live in this new multi-screen world? And what will be the next decade’s local search business models?

Check out the excerpt below. Our last installment set up the topic with a view of the “Four Horsemen” of technology. Google is one of those players but is facing disruption and fighting battles on many fronts. The excerpt below picks up there, and a bonus slide presentation sits below that.

Battlefront 1: The Web: Mobile’s Wild West

Back in April, an ominous message echoed throughout the tech press and the blogosphere: “Are you ready for Mopocalypse?” For weeks, the topic dominated tech-world chatter. The impact was not as dramatic as anticipated, but the long-term effect will be significant and far-reaching.

For those unfamiliar, Mopocalypse is Google’s authoritative and proactive move to de-rank sites in mobile search results that aren’t optimized. This essentially means no horizontal scrolling, zooming or unplayable content such as Flash. Tablets, video and local search are exempt for now.

For years, Google has taken steps in this direction, with incentives to clean up mobile websites or use responsive design. But Mopocalypse has proven to be a bigger tough-love moment where Google is stressing consequences for bad behavior. It used the carrot; now it’s time for the stick.

But the question to reveal Google’s larger mission is why? It’s currently fighting a battle with the app world, and it’s behind if you consider that 85 percent of mobile time is spent in-app. The problem is that Google isn’t the front door to apps in the way it is to the broader web.

The reason apps are winning this battle? They are often cleaner and more functional than the relatively “wonky” mobile web. Making it less wonky — to put it bluntly — is Google’s goal. A friendlier mobile web will in turn boost traffic, most of which will flow through Google.

More importantly, an improved mobile web would be advantageous for mobile users. The mobile web has inherent advantages over apps, including its composition of websites that are interconnected through links. Apps, by comparison, are more fragmented and less interoperable.

Battlefront 2: Deep linking

While Google fights the battle to clean up the mobile web, it hedges its bet by strengthening a position in the app world. It currently provides tools for developers to “deep link” to apps from search results. This makes it a sort of front door to millions of apps.

Let’s say you’re searching for local restaurants on Google. When you find a restaurant you like, deep linking allows you to click once to be brought deep within the OpenTable app to make a reservation, rather than manually tapping in and out of apps and searching again within OpenTable.

One thing that makes deep linking potentially opportunistic is that it’s currently a large and unsolved problem. The interconnectedness Google cultivated on the open web is largely missing from the siloed and fragmented app universe. Google could be the right company to fix that.

A potentially lucrative area where Google could shine is app download ads. These have been big revenue drivers for Facebook and others. Google’s ability to index apps in the same way it currently indexes websites could position it well to be that app search engine.

Startups already tackling this problem include Vurb, URX and Button. Google has the size, reach and indexing muscle to outperform many start-ups. But it potentially faces a classic innovator’s dilemma: Cultivating the app universe could accelerate the mobile web’s decline.

Google has shown the boldness required to avoid this innovator’s dilemma to a certain degree — at least much more than other tech giants facing disruption to legacy businesses (such as Microsoft). This has been shown most recently by Google Now.

Battlefront 3: Google Now

Mobile search has long been in a battle with discovery-based content, such as apps and push alerts. This has a lot to do with the form factor: It is cumbersome to type (tap) on small touch screens. Google’s challenge is to alleviate this pain point in mobile search.

Google Now is its answer to the challenge. It mines data from other apps and Google properties such as Gmail, calendar, maps, etc. These data are used to create a personalized profile and push information predictively when certain relevance thresholds are triggered.

For example, by pulling in data from email, calendar, maps and weather apps, Google Now can tell you your flight is on time, it’s going to rain, and there’s road construction, so you should leave 20 minutes early and take another route. Examples will broaden as these data sources expand.

The user interface is also built in a way that departs from the traditional search “10 blue links.” It is instead very app-conducive, including “cards” that are the main design component. These represent personalized content sources that can be leafed through by swiping left and right.

When users aren’t in the app, content is delivered by push notifications to the home screen. These can be highly targeted and relevant if done right. And though this push approach could displace traditional active searches, it could grow Google’s net user engagement.

In other words, because Google Now perpetually searches on users’ behalf to push results when predefined relevance thresholds are triggered, these pings can be seen as a sort of proactive search result. Regardless of how they are categorized, they are a vessel for organic and sponsored content.

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BIA/Kelsey Clients can log in to download the report, and others can read more and purchase the full report in the BIA/Kelsey eStore

 

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