Is Mobile Itself the Potential “Google Killer”?

Google has been the unrivaled ruler of the web for quite some time… but perhaps it’s not quite as untouchable as it once thought. One hole was recently poked in their armor by iOS 9’s support for content blockers. Facebook’s inclusion of web content within their app via Instant Articles is a bit older of a challenge and arguably more significant; it effectively keeps its app users off the web-at-large, which has historically been Google’s bread-and-butter. We once thought that perhaps Wolfram|Alpha’s development of a better search algorithm or Siri’s move to conversation-based search would be the Google killer of the future, but perhaps it’s the app-dominated mobile ecosystem itself that’s truly what will defeat the search giant.

A Data-Based “Proof”

Why do we say the mobile ecosystem itself is a potential Google killer? Well, it’s all in the numbers. According to a recent comScore report, 62% of all digital media time is now spent on mobile. In comparison to desktop activity growth, which has increased at a rate of just 16% since 2013, activity on mobile continues to surge ahead with a 90% increase in mobile app activity and a 53% increase in activity within mobile browsers. The report also notes that while mobile browser activity is on the rise, app audiences are much more ‘meaningful’, spending 18x more in apps than mobile web users spend in their browsers. With these statistics in mind, it’s clear that if a majority of our future will be mobile and most of mobile activity takes place inside apps, consumers will no longer focus on a web-based approach to consuming content, much less one that starts with a search engine. As we’ve said, Facebook’s Instant Articles is a leading example of this.

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Google on the Attack?

In September, Google released a statement saying:

“After November 1, mobile web pages that show an app install interstitial that hides a significant amount of content on the transition from the search result page will no longer be considered mobile-friendly.”

For those familiar with Google’s recommendations, this could be a warning of an algorithm update, this time specifically targeted at apps. Those on the lookout for SEO conspiracies have proposed that this and other Google studies are positioning the search giant as fundamentally “anti-app”, perhaps because of the implicit challenge apps present to the search giant’s dominance over users’ mindshare.

I don’t think that’s the intent of this update for a few reasons:

  • First, Google’s recommendation specifies that app interstitials that hide a significant amount of content are those that aren’t to be considered mobile friendly. This is not an unqualified ban on app advertising, it’s a move (like many they’ve made in the past) to ensure landing pages suggested by their service provide a good user experience, not the equivalent of a popup ad covering 99% of the mobile web page.
  • Next, Google is spending a lot of time and resources to improve their indexation of app-based content. Arguably, this isn’t something a company trying to scuttle the future of apps would do.   It does say Google acknowledges the move of mobile consumers to apps, that Google knows they need to pivot their search service to serve those mobile consumers and that Google still sees a future in search even if it is intra-app content they’re now discovering and suggesting to consumers. To use an app, you still have to find that app and know you need it, after all.
  • A third reason is Google Play. Perhaps Google’s future in an app-based world isn’t based 100% on search from www.google.com,but is a blend of content discovery, app discovery and technological innovations (as the launch of Alphabet, Inc. would suggest). Keep in mind, most of the US needs Android-based apps served primarily through Google Play, not those served from iTunes.
  • Finally, Google is offering a new beta version of the Google Search app. Perhaps they’re admitting that the future lies within an app and that they want to be one of the five that most consumers use heavily?

Is AMP a Response to Mobile, App-Centric Content Consumption?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe Google would be very happy to see a web-based mobile world instead of an app-based one. With that in mind, we can interpret their recent announcement and support of The Accelerated Mobile Pages Project (“AMP”) as validation of Google’s continual efforts to enhance web-based content. AMP focuses on speedier downloads and improved interactions with rich content like videos, animations, image carousels and other graphics (and of course, ads). It offers publishers an opportunity to capture new audiences and recapture those that may have parted due to negative experiences. Google’s official blog announcement discussed specific enhancements in terms of content, distribution and advertising capabilities, all which appear to be very attractive to publishers and advertisers. Google wants publisher sites to remain the ultimate destination for users, serving as more of gateway rather than a ‘walled garden’ of content.  So yes, AMP’s intentions are mostly (if not all) genuine, but we can also view it as a user-experience-based response to the shift away from the web towards apps.

The exact impact AMP will have on both organic and paid search remains to be seen – AMP content could be kept intra-app for that matter – however, we can generally assume that AMP-‘optimized’ sites will appear higher in the SERP than others and we can also likely conclude that an improved, web-based search experience will benefit Google in the form of more advertising-laden searches.

If Not the Web, What is Google’s Future?

Regardless of the way the pendulum may ultimately swing, Google will be forced to evolve at rapid rates in order to keep consumers, advertisers and publishers loyal to their services. Right now, publishers seem to be caught in the line of fire in the web versus app debate between Google and Apple. But we cannot forget, it is the consumer who will ultimately drive the decisions made by all.

So what if the consumer decides to do away with the web-based world? That scenario seems pretty unlikely, but let’s keep an eye on what Google does with its search app, voice-based search, their $25M purchase of the .app TLD as well as all of the Alphabet Inc. initiatives the company is more actively exploring. We’re betting on the search giant to focus on the push & rise of the Google Search app, voice-based (Google) search and the continued dominance of Google Play in the Android device app world.

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