Google, Mobile Search And The Paradox Of Competition

How much does Google figure into the “future of search,” whose advances will largely be determined by mobile and non-traditional devices? That’s a hard question to answer.

On the one hand Google is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) brand in the world, with almost unlimited resources to develop technology or buy companies it sees as threats. (Google Ventures has for example invested in Expect Labs, which is building a next-generation mobile search capability.) On the other hand its traditional search model and content presentation are not well suited to a range of new search and discovery scenarios that are emerging. No one wants to see a traditional Google SERP on car-dashboard screen, for example.

If Google has its way it will still be central to the way consumers retrieve information for decades to come, on all manner of devices and in all manner of contexts: PC, TV, mobile, tablet, in-car, wearable, kiosks and so on.

Google is quickly trying to counter threats to its business in several ways even as it experiments with new technologies and search scenarios (e.g., Google Glass). For example, its revamp of voice search and expansion of Google Now is partly a response to Apple’s Siri and the rise of virtual assistants. And the fact that users can now obtain their airline boarding passes on Google Now is mostly a response to Apple Passbook.

This morning the NY Times has a general overview of mobile search and how mobile apps are offering new competition to Google. The article asserts that part of the reason Google escaped the FTC’s wrath on “search bias” is because the search market is evolving too rapidly — in the mobile arena. While that’s true, as the article points out, Google is more dominant on the “mobile web” than on the PC.

As the chart above reflects, outside of China, Google “owns” browser-based mobile search. It has a 95.8 percent share of mobile web search globally and only slightly less in the US. Most of mobile ad revenue is in search and almost all of it is Google’s.

Google’s success in mobile search is due in part to its aggressive mobile development efforts but much of it is Android. Android, controlled by Google, is now the world’s leading smartphone platform. Android is to iOS as Microsoft Windows was to Apple in the 1990s. This analogy has now been made so many times it’s almost a cliche. However Google Chairman Eric Schmidt himself recently used it.

If the FTC missed the boat it wasn’t on PC “search bias,” it was on exploring the relationship between Google, Android, mobile search and mobile advertising. However the Europeans have yet to conclude their inquiry, which does reportedly include Android.

As I’ve argued before, if Android continues to increase its share, it’s not inconceivable to imagine that regulators could ask that it be spun out of Google and made into an independent entity. The question is: how high would its share have to get before that might happen?

Notwithstanding the success of the iPhone 5 Google/Android is rapidly closing in on a 60 percent smartphone market share globally. And outside of China almost every one of those Android devices is a Google search device that helps generate ad revenue and reinforce Google usage. Google’s products are increasingly integrated an all support and reinforce “the Google habit.”

Google said on its last earnings call that it now had an $8 billion mobile “run rate.” That includes more than ads but the “vast majority” of that revenue is advertising and mostly search. Google has executed in mobile brilliantly and almost flawlessly. Even the “maps debacle” on iOS has resulted in a new and improved Google Maps app that is more well-liked than the old, pre-Apple Maps experience.

Yet Google remains vulnerable. Mobile apps give consumers direct access to content, making Google unnecessary in many cases. Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, OpenTable, Kayak, NY Times, BBC, Hulu: all of these can be directly accessed via apps. And personal assistants such as Siri sit “on top” of Google in the same way that Google sits on top of publisher content on the PC internet.

On the PC Google was and arguably still is the most reliable way to navigate to sites or retrieve information when sources are unknown. However what consumers ultimately want is not Google itself (except in the case of Maps and a few other areas) but content, “answers” or specific information. Recognition of this is partly what’s driving Google to acquire more content (ITA, Frommers, Zagat) and to provide more vertical content and “answers” (Knowledge Cards) instead of traditional links: it’s what consumers want.

Indeed, Google’s mobile and smaller tablet search experiences push third party links below the fold in an increasing number of instances. Third party links become secondary options after Google’s “own content.” It’s strange to me that groups like FairSearch.org focused almost exclusively on the PC experience when mobile presents what is probably a more viable antitrust argument against Google.

For its part, Google is trying to straddle its traditional function (sourcing third party information) and its new function on mobile devices (getting people “answers” more quickly). As it does that it’s trying to manage and accommodate its old user experience and UI to the demands of new devices. At the same time it’s trying to not create too many different UIs and user experiences on different devices.

This is all a challenging balancing act but one that Google seems to be pulling off so far.

Yet even as Google asserts its dominance in browser-based mobile search it confronts a new group of search-insurgents (e.g., izik/blekko, Grokr, KickVox, Facebook Nearby, others) trying to offer richer experiences on mobile devices. It also contends with consumers increasingly directly accessing vertical content via mobile apps.

Who will win? It’s hard to bet against Google but it’s equally hard to imagine Google search hegemony into the indefinite future.

For the past several years the “future of search” was a murky thing, mostly dominated by Google in its present form. Now mobile devices, “ambient awareness,” big data and natural language processing (all of which Google is into) are starting to shake up the market and offer the possibility that search of the future looks almost nothing like the PC search of the past.

Postscript: It was pointed out to me that the FTC apparently did look into mobile competition and related issues in rendering its antitrust decision regarding Google. Here’s the relevant portion of the FTC’s letter announcing the conclusion of its inquiry:

The FTC also conducted an extensive investigation into allegations that Google biased its search results to disadvantage certain vertical websites; and that Google entered into anticompetitive exclusive agreements for the distribution of Google Search on both desktop and in the mobile arena. The agency decided not to take action in connection with these allegations.

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile | Features: Analysis | Google: Maps & Local | Google: Mobile | Google: Web Search | Top News

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Ittiam

    One of the best transitions I have seen any company make from old order to new order

  • Pat Grady

    Good thing you used words like hegemony, or the FTC might have understood you.

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com/ George Michie

    A fine article, Greg. I’m in the “it’s hard — possibly silly — to bet against Google” camp. Vertical search apps, like vertical search engines will capture some share. But vertical search engines haven’t killed Google on desktop, and I don’t see apps doing it on mobile devices. Apps get buried by the plethora of other apps. Your browser is always there, mobile or otherwise. I agree with you that Google’s dominance is unlikely to last forever, because forever is a long time, but I suspect neither of us would forecast their demise any time soon, either.

  • Michael Martin

    Greg,

    Doesn’t Siri rely on Wolfram Alpha than Google, especially for direct answers to questions?

    “…And personal assistants such as Siri sit “on top” of Google…”

  • http://twitter.com/gsterling Greg Sterling
  • http://twitter.com/gsterling Greg Sterling

    Agree.

  • http://twitter.com/gsterling Greg Sterling

    I did that specifically to confuse them.

  • http://twitter.com/LeadsDubai LeadsDubai

    nice article. just want strong contender to google. Monopoly in any biz is not good. We need options

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1468792448 Mark Smith

    Greg, the big boys know the significance of vertical engines. It seems that, both Microsoft & Apple’s (purchase of chomp) are already trying to refine their verts. Google/Android will be next. We found a specific app. vert. engine that both have adapted and it works great. – MIMVI.COM. Give it a try and see what you think.

  • http://twitter.com/gsterling Greg Sterling

    On the PC there are select markets where Google does not dominate: Russia, China, South Korea, Japan . . . perhaps a couple of others. However in mobile Google has even greater reach than on the PC internet.

  • fran farrell

    Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Google has seized the opportunity to integrate the first three in search. Image and video, music and voice recognition; Google recently employed Kurzweil who converts text to touch to soundtracks. Changing the means of communication from language to language, written or verbal, keyboard or gesture makes no difference to Google Search. Google Search assists the user find, absorb and file knowledge for immediate and future use. Mobile means only one hand free, PC, Mac or iPad means no hands free and Google Glass means both hands free. Tell me again how Google is losing the battle for the future.

    If there was a Pantone color scale for smells, Google’s street view sensors could characterize 5,000,000 miles of smells to the horror of politicians everywhere or the joy of those vicariously visiting botanical gardens.

  • http://www.facebook.com/itsme.Rajesh Rajesh Babu

    As long as the apps themselves can be found only thro. marketplaces like the android market (google play), google will be in the driver’s seat with power and innovative ways to dictate terms to app developers. Yes we need more competition and alternatives and I hope the mobile hardware giants move towards other alternatives like ubuntu for mobile or an OS of their own.

  • http://twitter.com/RankWatch RankWatch

    That’s really very keenly observed Pat. I still do think that Google will be the unprecedented winner of search on all platforms. They know how to win the unknown before some even start the process of winning it.

  • Alan

    If they can’t win naturally they can always just buy their way in.

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