We’ve heard the search-related mantra “answers not links” so many times over the past few years that it sounds like a cliche. However in a mobile context the phrase has more meaning: a page of Google search results is ill-suited to the mobile use case.
While Google has done many things to make it easier to get data and queries into smartphones with voice search, visual search, specialized apps and Google Instant the company still doesn’t deliver “answers.” It delivers a mobile-optimized version of its PC experience.
Google now faces an “innovator’s dilemma” of sorts as it seeks to adapt search and SERPs to a mobile-centric internet going forward. That dilemma has been made more acute by the advent and popularity of Siri.
Apple’s Siri, which will probably be extended to the iPad and maybe “Apple TV” this week, has put some near-term pressure on Google. Siri is more task oriented and “transactional” than Google Voice Actions. It’s also quite likely that Siri will later connect to a broader set of developer and publisher APIs and deliver “search results” that are much more specific and “deeper” than what Google does today on smartphones.
Today Siri ties in to WolframAlpha and Yelp for local search results, quite awkwardly in the latter case.
In an extreme scenario Siri totally replaces or marginalizes the Google mobile SERP, enabling users to navigate to preferred apps or accomplish tasks without the intervention of “search results.” For example, the pre-Apple Siri allowed users to ask for “a reservation at XYZ restaurant at 7pm on Friday” and be taken directly to the OpenTable reservation page — bypassing the navigational SERP altogether.
A lot depends on what Apple actually does and how quickly it opens up Siri to third party APIs. Google understands and sees this “disintermediation” scenario very clearly, and is preparing a more complete response to Siri for Android. This involves “artificial intelligence” and machine learning together with personalization wrapped up behind a voice interface with more “personality.”
While Google’s pre-existing Voice Actions and voice search are effective, they’re more limited than Siri and have no personality. A number of recent videos produced by Motorola show Google Voice Actions working faster than Siri (because of 4G), but this obscures other limitations of Voice Actions and avoids capabilities of Siri.
An article in TechCrunch over the weekend asserts that Google is busy working on its Siri alternative (formerly called Majel, the actress and wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry). That initiative was described as follows:
The project, helmed by the Android team with the involvement of search engineer Amit Singhal, has three parts according to a source.
1) Get the world’s knowledge into a format a computer can understand.
2) Create a personalization layer — Experiments like Google +1 and Google+ are Google’s way of gathering data on precisely how people interact with content.
3) Build a mobile, voice-centered ”Do engine” (‘Assistant’) that’s less about returning search results and more about accomplishing real-life goals.
Google has wanted to emulate the talking computer on Star Trek since long before Siri appeared. However, Siri has added new urgency. Siri is a major driver behind iPhone 4S sales, which have helped close the gap between the iPhone and Android. The recent acquisition of Alfred (from Clever Sense) is part of this larger effort by Google to build a new “intelligent assistant.”
There are various Siri alternatives now in the market from third party developers including Nuance (Vlingo), Evi, Speaktoit and Cluzee, among a couple of others. They’re trumpted as “Siri Killers” or “Android answers to Siri.” The truth is that none of them quite measures up to Siri. Many will disagree with that statement but that’s my personal experience with each of them.
If Google manages to build an effective assistant, which it’s certainly capable of, it will need to balance its delivery of “answers” or trans-actionable responses (e.g., the OpenTable scenario) with its continuing need to monetize mobile. Marginalization of the SERP will potentially diminish Google’s mobile revenues, which the company does not want and cannot afford to do.
Accordingly it must balance the “answers not links” mobile imperative with the need to protect and grow mobile search-ad revenues. In this way Google confronts its own version of the “innovators dilemma.”
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