Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Web search is an ancient technology by Internet standards. Heck, if Google were a person, it would almost be old enough to leave home for college. Yet the company is in the fight for its life in search, an area it seemed to have sewn up. 

Google (oops, Alphabet) on Monday made a couple of changes designed to keep the world’s leading Web-search service up to date with the profound changes in digital habits wrought by smartphones. First, Google and Facebook agreed to team up to let Google’s search engine for the first time siphon up some results from Facebook’s app.

The idea is if users search their smartphones for "Barack Obama," Google can lead them directly into the president’s page in the Facebook app. (Today, the search would offer up a link to Facebook’s mobile website, not the app.) 

Google has been scrambling to strike such arrangements -- known as "deep linking" in the search world -- to allow it to sniff inside of the apps where people spend most of their mobile lives. Google has to go app by app to reach such mobile linking deals, and Facebook is by far the biggest deep-linking prize. 

Second, Google is also adding more ways for smartphone users to get answers to complex questions that have tended to befuddle a Web-search engine. This is in keeping with Google’s three-year-old effort to give data boxes on people, places and other pieces of information. Search for “How tall is Tom Cruise?” and Google provides an answer, not necessarily a page of links where users might be able to find the answer. (Spoiler alert: He is 5 feet 7 inches.) Apple's Siri and Microsoft's voice assistant Cortana have the same mission of serving up what we want without the fuss. All this is because people on phones don’t want to dig through Web links while they’re in line at Starbucks, they WANT TO KNOW RIGHT NOW how tall Tom Cruise is. 

Ad Power
Most of Google's growing ad sales are tied to Web searches. But the ad empire is threatened as people spend more time on smartphones, where people live in apps rather than search on Google.
Source: Bloomberg

Both tweaks are part of Google’s effort to stay relevant as growing use of smartphones reshapes what it means to search for information. Google built a $500 billion company by becoming the starting point for the Web. On smartphones, though, the primary gateways are apps, not the search box. In the U.S., people on mobile phones spend 87 percent of their time in apps, according to comScore, and just 13 percent on Web browsers, where Google rules and gobbles most of the money

The evolution spotlights how Google can’t stand still in its original business even as its parent company plows ahead with futuristic efforts like hot air balloons that ferry the Internet to remote corners and helping people live forever. Web search isn’t as sexy as cars that drive themselves, but the advertisements tied to Web searches generate most of Google’s $70 billion in annual revenue. And for the first time in more than a decade, the built-for-the-Web company has real search headaches.

Apple is starting to let iPhone owners find what they’re hunting for without spending a second on Google. Try typing Taylor Swift’s name in Safari on an iPhone, and you can go straight to her songs in iTunes. No Google required. If you’re hunting for a new watch while vegging out on the sofa, you’re most likely going to grab the phone from the coffee table and go straight to the Amazon app, not try to mash words into a tiny Google search box.

Google Alphabet investors are well aware of the mobile conundrum, and sentiment about the company waxes and wanes along with feelings about the threat to search from smartphones. At the moment, sanguine is in.

Go-Go Google
Source: Bloomberg

But that hasn't changed Alphabet's mobile reality. The revenue the company has collected this year from each ad click has dipped 10 percent, in part because ads on a smartphone aren't as valuable as those on a computer Web search. So far, Google has more than offset that damage by luring more searches out of people.  

To stay ahead of changing habits, the company has to continue to fight like mad to be a one-stop destination for everything we’re looking for. Otherwise people are going to learn to live without Google. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net