Where Does Local Search Fit in a World of Apps?

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Where is Google’s place in a world where the browser is no longer the front door? On the desktop, trillions of web pages compel an index and a friendly entry point. But an app-heavy mobile environment — already siloed into neat little buckets — doesn’t beg for a core search engine.

This is obviously worrisome for Google as the world transitions to mobile and 80 percent of mobile minutes are spent in-app. This isn’t a new notion, so the question becomes: what’s Google doing to carry its dominance into a world with alternate entry points to the digital abyss?

There are lots of answers to that question but a few have become clear from recent moves and announcements at I/O last week. Generally, one thing is evident: Google isn’t succumbing to an innovator’s dilemma — and it is embracing the very formats that threaten search most.

With apps for example, Google wants to be the go-to search index. This involves deep linking — a sticky challenge because of app fragmentation. But if it can nail deep linking, it maintains “front door” status and revenue streams like app install ads.

An even bigger foe for Google is the broader discovery paradigm, especially local. As background, mobile search has long been in a battle with discovery-based content such as apps, push alerts and social sharing. This has a lot to do with small screens, typing, and user intent.

Google Now is its answer, with more deep-linking features announced last week. The social network now mines data like email, calendar, weather, maps, etc.. It can tell me that my flight’s on time, that it’s going to rain and there’s road construction… so leave 20 minutes early and take this better route.

The interesting part is that Google Now could grow net search query volume. Because it perpetually searches on users’ behalf to push results only when pre-defined relevance thresholds are triggered, these pings can be seen as “queries,” albeit different than the kind we normally measure.

Even if a push-based world results in less search queries, Google Now-esque pushes can be greater in value. We see similar with mobile local searches who’s targeted relevance creates higher CPC’s and CTRs than desktop equivalents (they’re also now greater in number as predicted).

But the real wild card for Google — and pretty much everyone else — is wearables. There are clear local implications for mapping and local discovery. And here too, it will be all about push notifications. But push can be a blessing and a curse, as Sense360’s Eli Portnoy recently pointed out.

It will be telling to watch push strategies develop around wearables, with respect to user tolerance levels. It requires a delicate balance, given that the risk of creating a nuisance is much greater when a device is strapped to an appendage instead of buried in a pocket.

I’ve joked recently that Morse Code could end up being wearables’ killer app, given the biometric haptics of the Apple Watch that buzz your wrist with message-signifying pulses. Morse would not only align with the form factor, but the hipsterific penchant for all-things-retro.

In all seriousness, developing the right formula goes back to Google’s innovator’s dilemma. It knows the future of local search is both active and passive, and it needs to get on board with the latter or die. But discovery a la Google Now and wearables would build from search rather than kill it.

Put another way, search dominance has empowered Google to subsidize products like Gmail, Maps, Drive, etc. These loss-leaders create brand loyalty, but also access data that will fuel Google’s future — Google Now or otherwise. This is why Google just gave away unlimited photo storage.

Every decade or so, new platforms and form factors create openings for massive disruption. But the story often doesn’t end well for Incumbents (Kodak, Nokia, Microsoft?). Google has proven astute at disruption, but its greatest test will be whether or not it can effectively disrupt itself.

speaker_MichaelBolandMichael Boland is chief analyst and VP of content at BIA/Kelsey. Previously, he was a tech journalist for Forbes, Red Herring, Business 2.0, and other outlets.

Mike Boland has been a tech & media analyst for the past two decades, specifically covering mobile, local, and emerging technologies. He has written for Street Fight since 2011. More can be seen at Localogy.com