Google’s Mobile Woes: The Search Bar

With the exception of transactions, discovery is one of the best aspects of any business to get into. While both discovery and transaction are intermediary plays, the former tends to push much more volumes compared to the latter. Perfect examples of such companies are Paypal (transactions) and Google (discovery), with Paypal representing the transaction piece, while Google represents the discovery piece when it comes to information.

It is always interesting to watch people use a computer, more for the manner in which even really tuned-in folks use Google as a quasi-DNS service. Vast majority of users I have observed refuse to use the address bar in the browser (leveraging the browser history and suggestions) and will open up a Google search page and enter the domain name there. This places a disproportionate level of power in the hands of Google and it is also one of the reasons why the company is so powerful in the information game.

The problem for Google is that they can’t replicate that one-stop-shop experience on the mobile. Even on an Android phone, searching is not an activity that is done easily. On a computer, a good chunk of time is spent inside a browser. On a mobile, phone very little time is spent in a browser and vertical apps have little reason to include a generic search feature. In fact, it would be considered antithetical to how mobile apps are meant to be used.

It is not that Google has not tried. There is a persistent search bar in most Android devices and then there is the Google Now, but neither lends itself to extensive searching compared to what users do on a desktop. There’s also the mobile version of Chrome, which is an excellent little browser, but it needs some serious firepower (processing & network speeds) to do its magic and the experience is awful on lower-end phones. Considering all of that and looking at the manner in which mobile usage is skyrocketing, eclipsing the laptop/desktop usage growth, mobile search volumes must be considerable concern at Mountain View.

The problem is also that the mobile experience itself not a singular one, but one of groups of silos and is heavily push-oriented. Computers tend to be devices where you have to provide the context for the usage. Compared to mobiles, it is a very pull-driven experience. On the other hand, mobiles tend to push the context at you and the apps are increasingly becoming self-contained silos. It is almost like having a separate browser on the computer for each site you want to visit and almost none of them provide an easy way to search using Google from within the app. And therein lies the problem for Google.

As if none of these issues were not a problem already, the newer markets where mobiles growth is most explosive are where Google has little influence as an intermediary. There are hordes of people in countries like India where, for many, the first experience of the internet is not on a computer, but on a mobile device. And as it happens, this first experience also tends to be a WhatsApp or Facebook, cutting Google entirely out of the equation.

Thus, the problem for Google on mobile is not that vertical search will somehow eclipse horizontal search, but that access to horizontal search is a problem that is not going to go away. Mind you, this is the case when Google practically owns the mobile OS with the largest market share out there. What must be even more worrying for Google is that there is no easy way out of this problem. A user who spends 90% of her/his time on Line/Facebook/WhatsApp, won’t start searching in a browser for something as the context switch (apps than tabs) is inherently more expensive on mobile.

In a way, the tables are getting turned on Google on mobile as the app that gets the user’s attention majority of the time will hold all the cards in this game. Eventually, Google will have to wind up doing deals with the top 20 or more apps in each market to establish the distribution for search on mobile as it successfully has done on the desktop. Which can only mean one thing for app makers — more money in the days to come.