Will Mobile Search Dethrone Google?

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Current events raise that always-intriguing question: What would it take to disrupt Google’s search dominance? Leaving aside its European Commission slugfest, Google is under assault from the usual suspects. Last week Yelp cried foul and Facebook started toying with a personal assistant. Next week, we’ll see how far Apple’s taken Siri.

First social, and now, mobile present potential user-behavior and tech-architecture catalysts that could re-set the search landscape. So far, social search has been a non-event. Mobile could be a different story. Most mobile searching is local, and mobile search is already a critical component of the connected local economy. Google itself says that more than half of its U.S. searches now originate from mobile devices. Its revenues lag significantly, at least according to Goldman Sachs.

U.S. Mobile Ad SpendingThe stakes are high, both for Google and for the rest of the local economy. That’s especially true for the merchants spending heavily on paid search and SEO. Forecaster eMarketer projects U.S. mobile paid search spending to increase from $8.7 billion in 2014 to $28 billion in five years.

What makes mobile search different?
Why would Google’s market leadership be vulnerable to mobile search incursion? Innovation in search can occur at the user experience level, the core indexing and ranking algorithms, and the business model and ecosystem that supports search. Each of these faces potential mobile disruption:

User experience. One-handed typing on a relatively small smartphone screen fundamentally changes the search query and response. On-the-go “impulse” searching outweighs the extended desktop session, yet both will coexist in a given considered-search process. Mobile search providers have to handle mistyping and voice input, and a results page that’s a long list of blue links won’t cut it. Mobile search will depend more on context, preferences, and personalized suggestions. And as people get used to this experience, it will migrate back to the desktop.

Indexing and ranking. Google’s combination of brute force and brilliance at crawling the entire Web and assessing relevance based on the Pagerank secret sauce requires mobile fine-tuning. Relevant information, links, and behaviors are off-site or happen cross-device.

Apps. Apps dominate mobile activity, despite all Google’s efforts to encourage HTML 5 and mobile-friendly website development. Apps need to be indexed and deep linking monitored.

New competitors. Would-be competitors are wise to all of the above. Startups like Vurb and Button are offering apps and infrastructure to make the mobile search to transaction a more graceful and integrated app-centric experience. Besides Apple and Facebook, established local players like Yelp, YP, and Angie’s List have nothing to lose and everything to gain by thinking mobile first.

Early results
So how’s Google responding? Pretty well, so far.

Kicking off the the race with the current line-up, Google has the early lead. Mobile search market share is hard to come by, but triangulating across sources and methodologies suggests that right now, Google’s mobile search share is on par with its desktop share, and may be even higher. Net Application thinks Google did over 90% of recent mobile HTML searches versus 70% of desktops. The more reliable comScore credits Google with over 60% desktop share, and, though it doesn’t break out mobile searches yet, it rates Google’s search app with a 50% U.S. mobile reach. Android has a similar or better share of smartphone usage and Google is still Apple’s search provider for Safari.

Google has been hard at work reconfiguring search results pages for mobile display. In fact, it’s already migrating some of those changes to the desktop experience. On Android, “Google Now on tap” aggressively integrates search with other mobile app experiences, naturally including Maps and Mail, but also third-party apps from the likes of Spotify, OpenTable, and IMDb. Google is demonstrating almost similar functionality on its Google app for iOS.

Not too long ago, Google handled information about apps by indexing related webpages. But now it’s courting app developers and coaching them how to get activities and information on their apps into its index. While this is an extra burden for developers and marketers who want to practice the equivalent of mobile SEO, Google is a little more transparent here than on the desktop.

Apple’s doing the same but, of course, with different techniques, so that Siri and Spotlight can surface the app or the relevant information. There’s no sign that Apple is replacing Google with another search engine, but ultimately Apple would prefer to minimize browser-based mobile search.

If you’re handicapping this particular race, consider company motives and core strengths. Apple can play up personal-data privacy and app partnerships, because its fundamental business is selling iPhones to loyal customers. While Siri has been disappointing, Apple’s user experience expertise is undeniable. Google is no slouch at optimizing UIs for search and personal utility apps, and has proven prowess in big data and cloud infrastructure where Apple has stumbled. Google’s heavy hand in commerce alienates some app developers, but in the end, its business is selling ads, including to them.

David Card is Street Fight’s director of research.