Pursuing the Unlaunched Search

First published November 29, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Google’s doing an experiment. Eight times a day, randomly, 150 people get an alert from their smartphone and Google asks them this question, “ What did you want to know recently?” The goal? To find out all the things you never thought to ask Google about.

This is a big step for Google. It moves search into a whole new arena. It’s shifting the paradigm from explicit searching to implicit searching. And that’s important for all of the following reasons:

Search is becoming more contextually sensitive. Mobile search is contextually sensitive search. If you have your calendar, your to-do list, your past activities and a host of other information all stored on a device that knows where you are, it becomes much easier to guess what you might be interested in. Let’s say, for example, that your calendar has “Date with Julie” entered at 7 p.m., and you’re downtown. In the past year, 57% of your “dates with Julie” have generally involved dinner and a movie. You usually spend between $50 and $85 dollars on dinner, and your movies of choice generally vacillate between rom-coms and action-adventures (depending on who gets to choose).

In this scenario, without waiting for you to ask, Google could probably be reasonably safe in suggesting local restaurants that match your preferences and price ranges, showing you any relevant specials or coupons, and giving you the line-up of suggested movies playing at local theatres. Oh, and by the way, you’re out of milk and it’s on sale at the grocery store on the way home.

Can Googling become implicit? “We’ve often said the perfect search engine will provide you with exactly what you need to know at exactly the right moment, potentially without you having to ask for it,” says Google Lead Experience Designer Jon Wiley, one of the leads of the research experiment.

As our devices know more about us, the act of Googling may move from a conscious act to a subliminal suggestion. The advantage, for Google and us, is that it can provide us with information we never thought to ask for.  In the ideal state envisioned by Google, it can read the cues of our current state and scour its index of information to provide relevant options. Let’s say we just bought a bookcase from Ikea. Without asking, Google can download the user’s manual and pull relevant posts from user support forums.

It ingrains the Google habit. Google is currently in the enviable position of having become a habit. We don’t think to use Google, we just do. Of course, habits can be broken. Habits are a subconscious script that plays out in a familiar environment, delivering an expected outcome without conscious intervention. To break a habit, you usually look at disrupting the environment, stopping the script before it has a chance to play out.

The environment of search is currently changing dramatically. This raises the possibility of the breaking of the Google habit. If our habits suddenly find themselves in unfamiliar territory, the regular scripts are blocked and we’re forced to think our way through the situation.

But if Google can adapt to unfamiliar environments and prompt us with relevant information without us having to give it any thought, the company not only preserves the Google habit but ingrains it even more deeply. Good news for Google, bad news for Bing and other competitors.

It expands Google’s online landscape. Finally, at this point, Google’s best opportunity for a sustainable revenue channel is to monetize search. As long as Google controls our primary engagement point with online information, it has no shortage of monetization opportunities. By moving away from waiting for a query and toward proactive serving of information, Google can exponentially expand the number of potential touch points with users. Each of these  touch points comes with another advertising opportunity.

All this is potentially ground-breaking, but it’s not new. Microsoft was talking about Implicit Querying a decade ago. It was supposed to be built into Windows Vista. At that time, it was bound to the desktop. But now, in a more mobile world, the implications of implicit searching are potentially massive.

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