Is the short and wild life of search engines over?

For some time now on we’ve been talking about the impact that the combination of mobile and voice is going to have on traditional search and the companies that will be disrupted as a result. It doesn’t take a genius to see what is happening here and those that are more mobile entrenched – readers from Europe and Asia and Africa will wonder what took us so long to recognize what they already know: Desktop search matters less and less. Mobile find matters more and more.

What happens when you obfuscate the search mechanism and just show relevant results? Companies like Google and Facebook – both of who’s primary means of revenue is still web display advertising – start to look elsewhere for their future revenue.

The API economy

This mobile revolution has been enabled by the very open nature that may prove its undoing. The disruption in search is well documented but the disruption in mobile is new and the way we got here is new as well. Companies have been built on layer upon layer of open API access – with one of the pioneers of this process being Google. These companies have taken the value layer out of the hands of the creators and have built some remarkable, revenue-generating products. Doing it in some cases before the API owner could do it. The powerful combination of mobile and voice is right at the heart of this. If something like SIRI can pull up location-aware search results from Google and Facebook and every other search engine and simply “tell” the results to the user how do the search companies make their money? Certainly not through ads. Certainly not through traffic. Who benefits? In the end, the user does but the owner of that technology – in the case of SIRI it is Apple – stands to benefit from this more than anyone.

Sure, Apple (or whomever) could license the data from Google but who is calling the shots at that point? The value of that deal will diminish over time until the data provided by Google is marginalized or replaceable by Apple’s own (what just happened with Google Maps on iOS). Google became the conduit to data through this exercise and now Apple seems to be poised to the exact same thing through SIRI.

The Voice Economy

Voice has been a promise for decades. Dictation to full on person to machine and machine to machine conversations have been the stuff of science fiction awaiting the right computing smarts. Well, we’ve found a portion of this. Today’s niche is mobile and short, succinct commands that can be understood, contextualized by time of day and location and speed (literal speed – as in KPH/MPH – as in walking, driving or standing still). This is what search isn’t. Mobile has changed that business. Search started as a broad index of results based on dumb terms in isolation. Search for your name and see what comes up. Straight up desktop search serves a broad purpose. Mobile-based contextual search creates opportunity. This opportunity is what the future will be based on. The new shift away from desktops has started. The shift away from display advertising is starting. The shift towards value-driven find is happening. Out with random search outcomes, in with actionable results.

Is Google done?

Android, for all its altruistic open-source love comes from Google – a for-profit publicly traded company who’s primary business will eventually be in jeopardy. Android is Google’s future and well on its way. Google generates $1-2 per handset for every single Android phone active on the planet. That’s a start. The changes that are about to happen to the Android platform will show us just how important it is to Google’s future. We’ve heard rumblings of the next attempt at the Google phone, tighter controls on hardware and tighter controls on what software makes it into their marketplace. All signs that the platform is growing up. Google’s mass-market strategy is working, now they need to figure out a way to mass-market some revenue.

Stepping away from results

One of the obvious things that is happening here is the need to step away from search results – it is far too passive an income stream for mobile. We always fall back on context when it comes to mobile because it opens up the holy grail for revenue. The things that Google is doing with location and way-finding – and the announcements this week from Apple and their new map platform – really look to me as being the necessary pieces to this puzzle for mobile monetization.

The only thing that keeps ringing in my head while the mobile battle is being fought is that the short life for search engines is over and this new era – the “find” era – is rife with disruptive opportunity. Voice is just the tip.

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

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