With Google’s current dominance over search, it’s natural to speculate about possible threats. Microsoft’s Bing, for one, is investing big time resources in hopes of gaining market share, and up-and-coming services such as DuckDuckGo are also intriguing. But the strongest competitor might not be a traditional search engine at all, but rather a fundamental new way for people to search.
I’m talking about Siri, the virtual personal assistant voice application for the Apple iPhone 4S. Some are boldly declaring Siri as a “Google Killer,” “the new face of search” and “the end of SEO.” But are these predictions well-founded?
First, the convenience of Siri does indeed mark a major shift in search from which we will never return. Being able to speak a query into a smartphone is much more intuitive than typing it out into a search box and clicking enter. Mobile search in general is also rapidly increasing. According to one study performed earlier in 2011, 75% of those surveyed said that mobile search made their lives easier and 32% used mobile search more than computer search engines. This latter figure especially is expected to grow significantly in the coming years.
Although Siri is not perfect right now, (and many of its imperfections are humorously documented on a Tumblr blog), the technology will only continue to improve. So should Google and other search engines be shaking in their shoes? To answer this question it’s necessary to dig a little deeper into how Siri finds the answers to your questions.
Siri can’t be considered an absolute competitor to Google because it still does turn to the search giant for results in many cases. But Siri uses Google as a sort of last resort, preferring to use other more specialized vertical search engines if at all possible.
For local results, Siri turns to Yelp, where an active user community has posted enough reviews and ratings so that a question like finding “the best Indian restaurant nearby” becomes an easy task. For factual questions, math problems, or even popular sayings, Siri uses Wolfram Alpha, the impressive “answer engine” that has been operating under the radar of a lot of people until now.
Although many users might not use these services on their computers (or even know they exist), they will if it is the default on their smartphone.
But is this enough to conclude that Google is in trouble? For one, it’s been using voice enabled search on Android devices for a while, which is pretty much the same technology. And it is likely that something similar to Siri’s local searching could be done with Google Places data.
But the idea of Siri seems to run directly in contrast to Google’s core business model, which is to provide sponsored advertisements alongside a list of search results. As Forbes pointed out, it’s unlikely Google would ever try to make you listen to an ad before hearing the answer to your query. (Although satirical news source The Onion has a different prediction.) This could potentially undermine the very concept Google relies on to make billions. Apple, on the other hand, is only using the application as a draw to sell more phones, and in this case it helps, not hurts, business.
Another interesting question is whether users will want to get one answer to their question immediately, or whether they will still prefer to look through a list of results before making a decision. Do you trust the algorithm will know the best Indian restaurant in your area, especially when it might be relying on 1 or 2 people who have reviewed it, or do you want to look over four or five candidates?
The answer likely depends on the type of search query, and it is unlikely that virtual personal assistant apps will become adept at answering complex questions or performing research any time soon. But it’s still unwise to underestimate where they might be in five years.
Andrew Walsh is the owner and editor of Social Web Q and A. He is a freelance writer, academic librarian and web entrepreneur. Check out his book Savvy for the Social Web.