Why Google’s Competition May Be Gaining in Mobile Search

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For years, venture capitalists steered clear of the most successful Internet product ever: search. But now, investors are betting that a handful of new mobile search startups can question Google’s dominance. 

One of those startups,Vurb, might have the answer. The San Francisco-based search app gathers information from various mobile apps pertaining to a specific vertical — food, transportation, entertainment — and provides a seamless interface, known as a “Card,” for users to browse and share.

Street Fight caught up with Vurb’s founder Bobby Lo, who will join us as a speaker at Street Fight Summit West in San Francisco June 2nd, to talk about how search changes on mobile and why Google may have a chink in its armor.

Can you talk a bit about the evolution of Vurb from 2011 to 2015? The company encompasses so many elements of mobile, of search, of local. How have you kept up with all of these various trajectories over the past few years?
The Internet’s been around for two decades or so, but if you think about it, the fundamental structure hasn’t really changed. If I’m planning something like a movie and dinner, I have to start off with a site like IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes. Then I go to Fandango to buy my tickets, followed by Yelp, OpenTable, Google Maps, Uber, so on. At the end of it, you end up with lots of different browser windows and tabs. For a user, it’s jumping from silo to silo. None of these sites share context around each other, so there’s a lot of interaction redundancy. There’s a lot of cognitive overhead, and having to understand the visual layouts of all these pages. It’s just a very, very inefficient process.

Through the evolution of web, we haven’t seen much of a change in the technology. Web browsers have made incremental steps around how fast you can render a web page, but at the end of the day, the structure of each service or each site having its own destination and being walled off has to change. This is our company’s thesis: if we can break down the silos that separate all of these services, and turn the entire model on its side — if all of these services work together in a more cohesive way — then users get a much higher value out of their navigation or interaction across the web.

That concept of centralization is not necessarily new — it’s what led to Google in the early 2000’s. Why would mobile create an additional need to solve that problem again.
The reason why we have so many different services is that all of these services are the best at what they do. In the very early days of the Internet, we had portals like AOL and Yahoo that brought content all under one umbrella, but you had these specialized services. People wanted to use them; that became the age of search. Take that a step further. There are so many websites out there that people are like, “I don’t even know where to start. I have to go through this very fragmented process.”

Now it’s the advent of services that bring information together, whether it’s a simple curation tool like Evernote or Pinterest, or systems that connect various APIs and services together. Or a thing like Google Now or Siri, which basically just reaches into cloud and grabs you an answer. Now we’re seeing the trend move toward, “I just need the best way to accomplish my task.” This is where Vurb fits. We want to connect you to the most relevant app services and tools. You want to use Yelp, you want to use Foursquare, because they’re the best at what they do. But how do we actually make that more contextual and cohesive? We worked on that, and it’s kind of the core technology of the company.

You’re seeing articles every day saying the web is dead or mobile web is dead. All of the pain points on web are even greater on mobile, because now your screen [is smaller], now you have to download and discover the right apps. Switching from app to app and sharing that information is far more painful on mobile. So we decided to say, all right, based on our limited resources and the size of the opportunity, it makes a lot of sense for us to really focus on the mobile side and become the thought leader in mobile — not just around search, but around the entire mobile experience.

What is it about mobile that most necessitates a new type of search engine?
The mobile web experience is very poor. The web model that we’ve had for many years no longer translates to mobile, because it’s just not the native experience that people want. To that expense, we see studies showing that 80 percent of time people spend on mobile is within apps, not the mobile web. If people are spending all of this time in apps, the problem is a lack of a good general search engine or search framework for the information. If I open up Google on my phone in my web browser, I’m still going to get ten blue links. Maybe some of those links take me to apps, but a lot of the time they just take me to the mobile web. This is new territory even for the major search engines — how do I create a more relevant mobile search experience? If people are going into specific apps, they have to go to one for restaurants, another to search for movies. How do we create a search experience that takes you to the information within these apps?

The Cards Vurb uses has all of the important metadata — the address, the ratings. No longer are you talking about just a name; you’re talking about a real place. You’re actually sending someone an interactive piece of information. This is only possible when you think about mobile holistically. Conventional search has always been: type in a query; get ten blue links or apps; pick one. But the user really wants to use search to help get from Point A, to B, to C, all [within] their phone, and communicate that information at the end. We see it as more of a complete experience.

How does the objective of local search change from desktop to mobile?
When you’re searching on your phone, you’re on the go. You want the information quickly. And if you’re at home, it’s not something that you may take action on immediately. But if I’m on my phone, I’m seeing, oh, I have a meeting at this place. I can pull the information and it’s not just hours of operation or whatever. It’s actually saying, do you want to call this place? Do you need to know how to get there? Do you want to send this information to someone else? The context and the action and the intent become so much more relevant from a mobile realm than desktop.

There’s a trend, particularly in local, of creating these full-stack experiences where a single application owns everything from search and discovery to purchase and fulfillment. How does that affect Vurb?
It’s very hard for companies to say, I want to vertically integrate, I want to create this full-stack experience, because there are companies focusing on one thing and doing it very well. Yelp focuses on the restaurant discovery and review side, and they do it very well and have a very strong network effect. This is why, in thesis, we decided tp partner with the best restaurant discovery platforms and then we connect [that] with the best transportation experience, rather than having a particularly locked-in experience.

Similarly, with OpenTable, their restaurant coverage is only for restaurants that are on their platform and have reservations through them. But when restaurants are now moving over to SeatMe by Yelp, or Reserve, now you create fragmentation. So there’s a lot of tension in the strategic business objectives of these various companies. For Vurb, we can be a very neutral platform in bringing all of this information under one roof.

Whether it’s for technical or business reasons, why couldn’t or why wouldn’t Google do what you’re doing?
What we’re doing is just fundamentally different from Google in many, many regards. The closest thing is probably that there’s a search aspect in both companies. Google’s model, from the ground up, has been: you’re going to search for something; I’m going to give you items, results, links, apps; you’re going to pick one and then go on your way. In more recent times, they’ve created the great Knowledge Graph experience, like that card or that blue box that you see containing a lot of summary information they pull from different providers.

But at the same time, Google is also competing with a lot of these companies. When you search for a restaurant, you’re going to see the Google Plus ratings and reviews on top of everyone else. That creates a lot of conflict in the ecosystem. For us, it’s working with lots of partner apps and services and bringing in a taste of the content and capabilities of these various apps. We view it more as a partnership model, an interactivity model, that goes into the core of trying to understand your intent and take you from A to B to C all the way to the end of your task. Google has always just routed you to this site or service or app.

How is the function of deep linking changing?
Deep linking is pretty much a mobile-exclusive term. For the web, links are links; you can link to any web page from anything else. That’s how Google originally built their architecture. It’s the page rank algorithm that can say, hey, this page has linkages into these specific pages on these various websites. On mobile, that doesn’t really exist. You can’t really go into an app and understand relationships from one app to another, just because most apps don’t have deep links into other apps, and there’s no reason to. The advent of deep linking in the mobile industry is kind of the understanding of the call to action that mobile app experiences need to be more cohesive across all the various apps that users touch.

There has been a huge trend in encouraging deep linking. That’s why you can now deep link into Uber, and pass Uber the street address or the destination of where you’re going. You can deep link into a specific restaurant page from the Yelp app. I think deep linking is going to continue moving very quickly in the mobile industry. Google is trying to index a lot of these deep links so that when you’re searching, they can take you to that specific screen within that app. There’s going to be a lot more activity around deep linking, for sure. We’re going to see more things in the ecosystem to promote the usage of deep links, and it’s deep links that really enable apps to have partnerships with each other.

You recently launched a smartwatch application. From a search perspective, do you see wearables as an extension of the smartphone? And what do you think is a bigger step in the search experience: desktop search to mobile search, or mobile search to Apple Watch search?
The Apple Watch is only useful when you’re carrying your smartphone with you. It’s basically a second screen that gives you push notifications. It’s information at a glance. I still think it’s somewhat early. I think there needs to be a couple more iterations, but I think there’s tremendous potential around it.

The bigger step will be desktop to mobile, just because you look at the size of audience and you look at the growth trajectory of mobile and the share of time. Apple Watch is still such a nascent area. It will grow rapidly, but when I think about impact to the user and the practical usage, people are still going to do most of their activities on their smartphone over a watch.

How will the way we define search change over the next few years?
Search will continue to get smarter, based not just on the algorithms that determine the best apps and services, but also being context and intent-aware. Where are you when you’re searching for this? What have you been doing? What are your tastes? There’s a lot of personalization recommendations. Where the industry is going, I think the trend for search is [giving] the user the most relevant information in the most precise and succinct way that doesn’t involve having to go into a lot of different web pages and apps to get that answer.

Annie Melton is a Street Fight contributor.