Google’s Mobile Discovery Engine

Here’s today’s column, with more discussion at MediaPost. It’s the second in a row that addresses mobile, and you can expect more on the way. If you’re doing anything interesting in the mobile space, send a line, whether or not it’s directly connected to mobile search.

Google, I’m convinced, is not in the search business after all. It’s in the business of screwing up my column predictions.

Last week,
I concluded, “In 2011, mobile search spending may only represent 5% of
search spending, but that in turn may be the 5% that matters most for
those consumers.” So what does Google do? It launches a mobile
discovery engine.

The site, google.com/m/lcb, was discovered by ZDNet’s Garett Rogers and then covered on Adam Broitman’s blog.
It’s perhaps most comparable to Yahoo circa the mid-‘90s, with a
link-populated directory about certain topics, and all the topics here
being local areas (a commenter on ZDNet noted that “lcb” likely stands
for “location-based”). Even without mobile Internet access, you can try
out Google LCB on the Web at the above link, where it functions like
the mobile version.

The idea behind LCB is to make it as easy as possible to drill down
by browsing without fumbling on a keypad. No matter how well Apple and
others improve phones’ usability (I’m generally pleased with the mini
slide-out QWERTY keyboard on my Samsung i760), typing on a full-size
keyboard will always be faster. It’s going to be a long time before the
Millennials who are growing up texting will completely overtake the
mobile market; we in the 25-and-up crowd aren’t dying off just yet, and
we’re still paying most of the Millennials’ phone bills.

Google LCB hasn’t entirely done away with search. It delivers the
results page without the query — searchless searching. It’s like those
commercials years back for Polly-O String Cheese, “the best part of the
pizza without the pizza” (if the reference eludes you, you can read a 1,900-word analysis of the commercial). Every link in LCB takes you to a results page where you drill down until you hit a listing and a map.

If the connection speed is fast enough — a huge if when it comes to
mobile Web surfing — then browsing LCB can be much faster than typing.
Even though searching is better for getting you what you’re looking
for, browsing LCB has three benefits:
1. You may still really hate
typing. On my old Motorola Krzr, when my oldest nephew would text me,
I’d call him back if the response required more than 20 characters.
Somehow I still managed to be the cool uncle, but that’s only thanks to
the lack of competition.
2. With browsing, you don’t need to
think too hard. You just choose from the menu in front of you. Not
needing to figure out the search query can be a time-saver in its own
right.
3. If you’re new in town, you might not know what to search
for. With LCB, not only do you have general categories like
food/restaurants, travel, retail, and entertainment, but you can see
what other people are searching for in that city (all such links, like
“penn station,” “w hotel,” and “car service,” were relevant to New York
when I tried it), giving the user some potentially new ideas. Then
there’s the “going to” section, including, for New York, tourist
attractions like Times Square and the Statue of Liberty and then
popular stores like the Apple store and Magnolia Bakery.

Google thus transforms itself from a search engine to a city guide.
With a little more retooling, it could find itself directly competing
with Zagat, Citysearch, and others.

Google’s not the only one with a discovery focus. Consider Yahoo’s beta release of Yahoo Go 3.0.
In 730 words, it mentions search once, in reference to providing easy
access to its oneSearch service, which, as you can imagine, is designed
to help the user search as little as possible.

Personally, I get a kick out of the act of mobile search. There’s
something empowering about it, having access to the entire Internet and
all the content in it wherever you go. And all of it starts with a
simple search.

Or maybe it starts with browsing local listings, or accessing
everything presented to you on Yahoo Go, or just sticking within the
walled garden of carriers’ on-deck listings. What’s important right now
is to give consumers all those options and then learn from their
preferences, as search and discovery will both play important roles in
the future of mobile.