Google: Future of Search is Context

Recently, at LeWeb ’10 in Paris, France, Tech Crunch’s Michael Arrington interviewed Marissa Mayer, the new head of consumer products for Google. Google’s next big thing, Mayer revealed, is something called “contextual discovery.” What does this mean?

Contextual discovery, explained Mayer, is a little like getting search results without having to actually perform the search. If you’re web browsing on your computer, it might work in the form of a panel on the side of your browser or across the bottom that shows you items related to where you are or where you’ve been online.

Contextual discovery in terms of physical location in the real world lends some excitement to the discussion. With so many smartphones equipped with GPS, the device can give you the information you need, and even add a social component. For example, if you’re in a restaurant, contextual discovery might mean that the device can give you a menu – but it may not be the same menu the waiter just handed you. Mayer explained that the menu from your phone might include a social component, such as notes on the dishes that your friends liked.

The user interface, Mayer acknowledged, is the real challenge. It’s important to get the information to the user in a way that is helpful without being too intrusive. (Remember Clippy?). Google is looking at a number of options; no doubt the variety of devices in use, and the ways in which they are used, makes this complicated. Timing and context are both important.

For example, when you’ve just arrived at the airport, it’s useful to have your phone pop up a guide so you can find your way around – especially if it includes the parking area with “You are here” and “Your gate is here” information. But once you’ve settled in at your gate, you may want to turn your phone into a book reader (or turn to a separate book reader); then, maybe, you’re only concerned about restrooms and your flight status. It’s possible that you’ll be interested in finding out more about what you’re reading – getting the definition of a word, perhaps, or finding out the latest developments relating to your book’s topic – but that will need to be handled in a way that acknowledges that “contextual discovery” may not be your primary interest at the moment. You want to get that little piece of information, and then get back to your book.

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Mayer noted that contextual discovery may work to give different information to different people depending on their situation. For example, if you’re a tourist in a location where you have never been before, and you’re walking by a landmark, your mobile phone may give you certain information about it. In contrast, if you live in an area and pass by a particular location every day, your phone might tell you a little something about it that you didn’t know before. That makes a fair bit of sense. After all, you can’t expect someone visiting Epcot for the first time to be curious about the same things, necessarily, as someone visiting it for the one hundredth time.

The future of search isn’t just about contextual discovery, however. It’s also about getting the social aspects right. Earlier I mentioned Mayer’s example of a social aspect to the restaurant menu delivered via smartphone. Google Hotpot is a new service within Google Places that might tie into this. It lets users rate restaurants quickly and easily. Once you’ve rated several places, Hotpot gets an understanding of your tastes, rather like Amazon’s or Netflix’s recommendation engines. At that point, it can start making suggestions for places you might like to try.

How is this social? When you add people as friends in Google Places, you’ll see their recommendations when you search for places on Google. Also, not forgetting the “contextual” part of contextual discovery, when Hotpot recommends a place, it explains why you might like it – perhaps you gave four stars to a similar place.

Mayer noted that Hotpot is not a Yelp killer. It’s collaborative filtering plus a social component. It’s also a clear sign that Google is still trying hard to get the social aspect right. The company doesn’t intend, to paraphrase Arrington, to sit by like Microsoft watching Facebook rise. In addition to home-brewed projects like Hotpot, Google plans to acquire a lot more companies – “We’re on track for almost one acquisition a week,” Mayer noted. It’s not hard to predict that these acquisitions will bring something social to the table.

What does this mean for local business and SEOs? It’s more important than ever to be aware of the ways that your customers and prospects find out about your business. Contextual discovery will further blur the line between the real world and the digital world, with the goal of enriching both by providing the right information at the right time and place. Think about what you can offer someone passing through your area; though Mayer’s interview never mentioned advertising, it seems unlikely that Google wouldn’t take advantage of this possible revenue stream. Perhaps a 10 percent off coupon for stopping in? Or a discount for someone if they refer a friend? These are old marketing strategies that could become new again.

Google plans to roll these features out “sometime next year,” according to Mayer. With so many people already using search and checking the Internet on the go, it might even be a smooth transition. It’s the next logical step for both mobile and local search, but whether Google can get the social aspects right remains to be seen. As Mayer noted, Google is patient. Having gotten search, mobile, and local right, it can afford to be. 

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