How Google and mobile search are redefining what we call a successful app

Shane Schick

Once, we made all our online searches sitting down. Today, I would say I still check Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) primarily from my desktop or laptop, but there's a big difference when I'm searching on the go, via smartphone. Whereas desktop searches are most often work-related, mobile searches are usually urgent, near-panicked quests to look up an address, remember the name of something I'm supposed to pick up or find some kind of fact that simply cannot wait until later. Slowly but surely, it's becoming clear that mobile searches are what really matter.

In its coverage of Google's recent antitrust investigation, the New York Times observed the "mobile revolution" was an overlooked development that has occurred over the course of the past few years: "When the commission began its investigation 19 months ago, the iPhone did not have the Siri voice search, Apple did not have its own mapping service and Yelp's mobile apps had no ads--not as much competition for Google in mobile. By the time the inquiry concluded, all of that had changed."

And, of course, it's still changing. Google is still the market leader by far, (When was the last time you "Binged" something anywhere, on any device?) but the market for more focused and niche-driven apps may be richer than some developers realize. Even Yelp, as locally-focused as it is, may look far too broad-based in a few years' time. Instead, a growing number of apps use other criteria to try to hone in on searches within consumers' favorite activities. This could include shopping for books, furniture or clothes. It might be an app that lets you search through workout routines to match your fitness goals. Gaming apps that let you search for friends within your social networking circles also fit the bill.

Today, most apps are judged on their overall performance--how quickly things load, whether features work as described and so on. Now think about how we judge the performance of desktop-oriented websites. The same criteria applies, but if a search bar is available in the upper-right corner and it doesn't track down the things you know are in that site somewhere, where do you go? You go to Google. It will be the same thing with mobile apps, and developers should prioritize search functionality accordingly. (As Yelp has demonstrated, it's also an area ripe for monetization through advertising.)

Search doesn't just have to work well, though. It has to deliver results in just the right way. Developers are already well aware of responsive design and the need to create effective user experiences across smartphones, desktops and tablets. On many apps, Google-style blue links may be all you need no matter what you're using. In other cases, results might require photos (think recipe finders), recommendations or integration with third-party social media services.

I don't see Google going away anytime soon, but the irony is that the world' biggest search engine may evolve into a tool for searching through mobile apps that can provide even more granular searches themselves. Google's stated mission is to organize the world's information. For developers, it's a bit simpler: organize the information your app's users can't live without.--Shane