Is Search Dying – and Will Your Business Die With It?

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There’s a dark secret that’s being discussed in hushed, desperate tones at Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!: the growth in the number of browser-based searches has slowed. A lot.

How can this be so? The growth in the number of personal computing devices – PCs, smartphones, tablets, netbooks – has accelerated over the past year. Shouldn’t the number of browser-based searches increase proportionately?

If you’re a site owner or online marketer, this is stuff you’d better start tracking – now. I think anyone would agree that developments in online media consumption, which includes Search, are driven by advances in personal computing technologies. New technologies are being deployed at a faster and faster rate. So marketers should pay close attention to upcoming technological advances, which will fundamentally change media consumption and marketing.

Here’s an example of how the pace of technological advances is accelerating. If you’re a science fiction fan you’ll probably remember the scene in Minority Report with Tom Cruise standing in front of a transparent screen, moving objects using hand gestures. Geeks liked me were thrilled to imagine ourselves using such an interface in the distant future.

 

Now fast-forward from that 2001 science fiction classic to five years later. At that year’s Ted conference Microsoft’s Jeff Han demonstrated the Surface technology, showing the movement of hand-gesture-manipulated objects on a horizontal screen – kind of a monitor table. The crowd clapped and whistled as Han drew squiggles and circles on the screen. But audience members, and the hundreds of thousands of people who watched the video of the event on YouTube, could only dream of someday actually getting their hands on such power.

 

That day came barely three years later, with the debut of the iPhone and the iOS operating system. Gesture-based manipulation of objects on a touch-sensitive screen was suddenly within the reach of millions of people. Many of these had never used a personal computer, or had tried and failed to use a keyboard- and-mouse-controlled PC, lacking the time or aptitude to learn. Even the real-world metaphor of the file folder is prohibitively difficult for most people to grasp. What is a file, anyway? How can a file be so many different things – a photo, a song or a book? And why do I need to navigate through folders to tuck my document in a safe place – one that I’m forced to remember or face the possibility I’ll lose it forever?

User interfaces featuring direct object manipulation have sparked a sharp increase in the number of people using personal computing devices. Sales of iPads in 2010, the year it was released, were reported to have negatively impacted sales of “traditional” desktop and laptop computers. I think this trend will continue, and the day will soon arrive when there are more gesture-based devices – powered by iOS, Android, Chrome and others – than there are devices that depend on an operating system controlled by a mouse and keyboard.

This has huge implications for website owners. It’s conceivable that many smartphone owners will never use a browser. Why should they, when applications can satisfy most of their needs? And “search” as we now know it may morph into “search in small spaces” – searching within an application.

For example, searching within a recipe application for the term “date” will lead the searcher directly to what she’s looking for: recipes made with dates. She won’t need to wade through pages of search results referring to all of the alternative meanings of the word “date” that are far afield of her objective.

More and more smartphone users will want and expect to conduct their lives and business in small, safe internet-enabled places. Present-day examples of this include Facebook, Xbox gaming, Skype sessions – and the list will grow.

How can you prepare for this shift? Start thinking about how the objectives of a website can be accomplished outside the website. Create an iOS or Android app that will allow customers to convert right inside the app. Experiment with in-game advertising (Google AdWords advertisers can do this now.)

And try to require a bare minimum of user input for the conversion. Easy, ubiquitous payment systems like the ones enriching the coffers of Apple and Amazon will facilitate this. And “off-browser conversions” will be even easier to implement after the next tipping point in the evolution of personal computing: voice input and output.

Yes, we’re about to enter the age foreseen by the Knowledge Navigator video created by John Sculley and others when I worked at Apple. We may not see the video’s anthropomorphic agent on the screen too soon, but the act of talking into a handheld device – and getting a vocal response from it – has already started, and may be in full swing by the time you read this.

 

Get a taste of this by using Google Voice Search. Or try the new iPhone iLingual application, which accomplishes real-time aural translation. For added comprehensibility, the app, having taken a photo of your mouth, will show a picture of your mouth moving – in the translated language!

You can prepare yourself and your business for this breakthrough by starting now to get experience with “unattended conversion processes.” Many site owners have gravitated to web-based transactions because, they rationalize, they’re more convenient for the customer – and cheaper for the site owner.

But with the growth of smartphones as the only computer device of the majority of people, consumers will more and more prefer or even demand transactions via a phone call. Can you afford to ignore them?

Wait – go back and re-read the first sentence of the last paragraph. Could that possibly be true?

My friend Alexis Gerard of Future Image told me several years ago that, for most people on the planet, their first camera was in their phone – and they would never own a camera. Likewise, we may already have passed the point where, for most people on the planet, their first personal computer was their phone – and they will never own a desktop or laptop computer.

 

You might find this far-fetched. After all, a US family of five might own 20, 25 or even 30 computer devices – laptops, desktops, phones, tablets, game machines and more

But when you realize that the vast majority of the world’s population holds a tiny fraction of the wealth of the average US citizen, you’ll understand why the “one person, one computer” phenomenon will be (or already is) very real. Example: according to Google, the average Hispanic smartphone user responds to mobile advertising at a rate that’s three times that of the rest of the US population. The reason is clear: many US Hispanics live below the poverty line, and couldn’t possibly afford more than one computer devices.

A few years ago, in response to a question about future directions for the company, then-CEO Eric Schmidt said “…mobile advertising will generate more revenue than advertising on today’s web.” At the time he was accused of hyperbole, but he was really talking about the phenomenon I just described. Even affluent people will find it more convenient to own and carry just one personal computer device. Why bother owning several when the CPU in your smartphone operates at a rate 500x the 1990’s-era Cray – and when storage is unnecessary since all data and documents are stored in “the cloud?”

Within the next year, many smartphones will be equipped with two cameras – one front-facing and the other rear-facing – and a front-facing projector. At that point we’ll see applications that act just like the crazy-futuristic ones Pattie Maes demonstrated at the 2009 Ted conference.

 

 

 

We might even see devices like this one, prototyped by Samsung in 2008: a pen that morphs into a tiny device that projects a screen onto a nearby vertical surface, and a working keyboard projected onto the horizontal surface on which it sits.

 

Excited? Apprehensive? Then remember the words of Apple Fellow Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Start moving your web-based business and marketing efforts in the directions I’ve described, and you’ll gain competitive advantages and first-mover advantages – instead of going the way of the dinosaur.

This is a longer version of an article I wrote for Media Magazine – thanks, Joe!

My Search Insider Summit presentation – no video

The full OMMA Future Advertising with video (>100mb)