Google's biggest threat in mobile search: iPhone apps

Google created the Android mobile OS because it wants its search engine to remain relevant as the world migrates more toward mobile computing. But Google's biggest challenge in mobile search is not other search engines or platforms, it's apps -- particularly iPhone apps.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief

When I filled up the iPhone with mobile apps as part of my recent experiment, one of the first apps that I downloaded and put on the iPhone home screen was the Google app. Since Google is the home page on all the PCs and laptops that I work on, I assumed my behavior on the iPhone would be similar to the computer. I was wrong.

Once I downloaded a fleet of useful iPhone apps, I quickly discovered that I used Google far less on the iPhone than I do on a computer - even over Wi-Fi, and even when doing many of the same activities. That is partly due to the fact that mobile search needs to improve, but it is also do to the nature of the smartphone itself.

When I'm sitting at a computer, I typically use Google at least 2-3 times per hour. It's usually the first place I go to get information. Google is not as much of a sleuth as it is a concierge. For example, when I'm pulling up a site, I often don't use a bookmark or type the URL into the address bar. It's just quicker to open my home page (Google) and type in the company name. This behavior is a bit lazy, but it's effective because it's the path of least resistance.

However, the opposite is true on smartphones -- especially the iPhone with so many specialized apps and no qwerty keyboard. In my tests with the iPhone, I discovered that Google is usually my last resort for finding information. In fact, I typically only use Google search 2-3 times per day from the iPhone.

Typing is just not as fast on a smartphone (even with the full qwerty keyboard on BlackBerry). Pointing, scrolling, and selecting are all much easier and quicker. As a result, many of the things that I would usually do with a Google search from my computer, I do through an app on the iPhone. For example:

  • Instead of looking up a business address on Google, I use the universal White Pages app on the iPhone
  • Instead of looking up a local business category (e.g. "Computer recycling") in Google, I use the Yellow Pages app, which will even automatically calculate my location via GPS, if I allow it
  • Instead of looking up a local taxi company when I'm traveling, I can use the Taxi Magic app on the iPhone (again, it will automatically get my location from GPS if I allow it)
  • Instead of looking up local restaurants in Google, I can use the Yelp iPhone app
  • Instead of searching for the professional credentials of a business associate on Google and being unsure if the results will have pages that might not work well on a smartphone, I can use the Linkedin or Facebook iPhone apps to do a quick people search.
  • Instead of using news aggregators like Google News and Techmeme - which I tend to use on my PC - on the iPhone I usually go straight to news sites with strong iPhone apps or pages, such as AP News, Reuters, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and MoneyWatch (a CBS sister site to TechRepublic).

The last example points to one of the reasons why mobile apps trump mobile search. With mobile search you don't always know whether the stuff you click on in the search results will be viewable or functional on your smartphone. But if you have a mobile app or site that's designed for that smartphone then you can be relatively confident that a search using that app will quickly return results (and links) that are optimized for a smartphone.

There's also another factor. The limited screen size and computing capacity of smartphones force developers to make their apps laser-focused on a specific task. This automatically guards against feature-creep and makes most apps simpler and faster to use. As a matter of fact, there are some sites and services where I prefer their iPhone apps or pages to their Web sites because the smartphone version is much more focused, easier to navigate, and faster.

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As I've been conducting my iPhone apps experiment I've also noticed that I'm starting to reach for the smartphone instead of the laptop more often, even when I'm in fixed locations such as conference rooms or even at home. The instant-on access, portability, and growing library of quality iPhone apps are all factors driving this behavior.

No matter how you look at it, these trends add up to bad news for Google in mobile search because it translates into fewer people needing its search engine. And the mobile trends are accelerating. According to comScore, U.S. users who access the mobile Web from a smartphone on a daily basis jumped from 10.8 million in January 2008 to 22.4 million in January 2009.

"This underscores the growing importance of the mobile medium as consumers become more reliant on their mobile devices to access time-sensitive and utilitarian information," said Matt Donovan, senior vice president of mobile at comScore.

There's also big business associated with mobile search. ABI Research sees mobile advertising ramping up at a time when most other advertising mediums are declining. In terms of mobile search specifically, ABI Research sees the market expanding from $813 million in 2008 to $5 billion by 2013.

"While mobile search incorporates more contextually relevant information such as location," said ABI Research director Michael Wolf, "consumers will increasingly look to search as a way to discover content and pertinent information that could drive purchasing behavior. Providers that can supply the most applicable solutions tailored toward mobile users will ultimately win in the marketplace."

Right now, specialized apps are providing a much more tailored experience than mobile search portals like Google and Yahoo. I believe Google realizes what's at stake and the trends that are working against it - at least partially - and that's why it has developed its own mobile platform with the Andoid OS.

Nevertheless, Android is fighting an uphill battle against the iPhone and its growing momentum in mobile applications. Plus, Android will have to battle RIM's BlackBerry platform and Palm's new webOS platform Both RIM and Palm already have a strong legacy of building a platform ecosystem for developers, an area where Android has struggled so far, even with its open source appeal.

The bottom line is that I fully expect smartphones to become the most widespread global computing platform in the next five years, driven heavily by the developing world, where the smartphone will be the primary PC for the majority of users. And as smartphones become more dominant, it is going to naturally migrate some power and influence away from search (and Google) and toward mobile computing applications.

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