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Summary:

Mobile apps that take users directly to e-commerce and other types of sites are a growing threat to traditional search engines, according to BroadPoint. While the growth of mobile apps has been heralded as a healthy trend, is it good for the Googles of the world?

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Mobile apps that take users directly to e-commerce and other types of web sites are a growing threat to traditional search engines, according to a research note from BroadPoint AmTech, released today. While the growth of mobile apps has been heralded as a healthy trend, is it good for the Googles of the world?

Search engines derive significant revenues from commerce-related queries, including ones as basic as searching for “Amazon” or “eBay,” according to the Broadpoint AmTech note. Add to the mix rapid growth in usage of mobile apps and that they’re treating search engines as the middle man to be removed, and search engines may be in trouble, says the report.

There are four primary ways that mobile apps are disrupting standard search models online and calling for change, according to the research note:

1. Bypassing Navigational Queries. “Savvy Internet users may find it hard to believe that people search for terms such as Amazon or CNN,” the report notes, “however, these navigational searches comprise a meaningful percentage of all searches and are often highly monetizable for Internet search engines.” The upshot is that mobile applications can completely bypass these types of queries, including mobile apps coming directly from e-commerce providers.

2. Disintermediation of Commercial Queries. “Product-related searches are traditionally among the most highly monetizable queries,” Broadpoint AmTech researchers note. They add that many emerging mobile apps exist solely for product queries, and ones that utilize technologies such as bar code reading can completely remove the search engine middle man from the product search process.

3. Placement on the Deck. “While virtually all smartphones provide open access to the Internet and high levels of customization for users, the importance for companies to secure prominent placement/default status on a phone’s mobile ‘deck’ remains important,” the report says. This phenomenon, of course, has gone on for years, and is part of why Google provides Mozilla nearly all of its annual revenues in exchange for a search box in the Firefox browser that feeds users directly into Google’s own search-and-ad ecosystem.

4. Convenience/Behavioral Risks. It’s becoming increasingly convenient for users to dive into mobile apps that either come from or are directly associated with large e-commerce sites, Broadpoint AmTech researchers note. “If users get in the habit of simply using the Amazon app to search for products or a Fandango app for movies, then Google would be seriously impacted,” the report concludes.

The Broadpoint AmTech research note makes a number of good points, but of all the large search engines, Google seems to be most aware of the possible threat that mobile applications represent to its traditional search business. In fact, the research note points out that Google’s own Nexus One phone could be an attempt to make “sure it can guide the development of the mobile web while protecting and expanding its own business model.” In other words, Google will want to put its own tools for directing users to its search ecosystem right on the desktop, and integrate it with the whole user experience.

Google already does that with Firefox, by buying search placement each year, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. This is also why Google is interested in the spread of Android-based phones, many of which emphasize its tools and applications, and steer users into its search/ad ecosystem. Broadpoint AmTech makes a good point about how mobile apps can have a material impact on search engine revenues, but one has to wonder if Microsoft and Yahoo are paying anywhere near as much attention to the issue as Google.

  1. Mobile apps are great for looking up a pizza place in a strange city, but they wont displace web browsers for people working in offices and corporate environments as well as the many home office users.

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  2. If mobile is the future of browsing and mobile commerce, and I believe that it is, one has to agree that it will impact search revenues. The other aspect is social or collaborative search. Being able to search from a Twitter feed is of course useful at times, but combining stream search with more traditional approaches is a good idea.

    I am looking at the education space and search relative to k-6 products. How does such space become segregated, and how does one identify content relative to the users needs? This could be analogous to corporate environments where browsing is frowned upon.

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  3. @Russell, I agree that mobile apps won’t displace browsers and search engines altogether immediately, but they will increasingly reduce the usage pattern of going directly to those tools to search.

    @Nicholas, combined ways to search do have promise.

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  4. Mobile apps have the potential to disrupt the traditional search engine placements, as they increase brand loyalty for publishers. The likelihood of user looking for a pizza hut app is more as an order can be placed or the nearest location can be traced from within the app.

    The other aspect if social media, where links to apps are starting to resemble the widgets on the internet, and soon will morph into recommendation engines to use apps. Twitter, Facebook and other mobile apps have enormous potential to monetize this. No wonder the Google’s and Microsoft’s are clamoring for their data.

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  5. This is really another way of saying that the short tail may rule on the mobile desktop. When you have lots of time and space–you’re browsing in your office/home– long tail economics makes sense. When you need quick answers on a small mobile screen, you’ll want the convenience of picking from a useful subset of apps.

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  6. Interesting post. I also thought of the possibility of a mobile app recently that might disrupt traditional search but in a different way. I thought what if someone made a sort of bookmarking app that:

    a) Lets users bookmark web pages, products, locations, tasks etc and associate keywords with them (mostly exists already).

    b) Reminds users of those bookmarks whenever those keywords come up in any activity the user performs on the phone, even communication – e.g. in a phone, email or sms conversation or a phone-wide search.

    Not a fully-formed concept obviously but there seems potential in letting advertisers target such keywords. The point is to take keyword-targeted advertising on the phone beyond just web-based search. The challenge will be in finding a real killer use case for the user.

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  7. Seems to me a mobile app from an e-commerce site is another version of a walled garden. As an educated consumer, I’d see this as a nonstarter because other than my wife, I am not wedded to any brand forever.

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  8. Bookmark favorite webapps in phone’s html 5 browser, for everything else, use search. No native apps needed.

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  9. Aaron Johnson (CyKiller) Monday, January 4, 2010

    Shocked their referenced article didn’t state anything from the development standpoint. Most third party apps for search use Google string code. They outweigh commercial apps by far, and the fact that Google is one set platform for your results, its way more convenient than multiple apps.

    Also, Microsoft is definitely paying attention, expect “Bing search express” to stop on every WinMo device in the future. MS is following every step behind Google, not that it’s a good thing but sometime patience is not passive as many companies in the past has shown. In my opinion, I think the proprietary apps in some genres, which offer convenience over Google or any other search is great. It will indeed take away from the search engine market, but not enough to affect it badly. Sure store apps, fandango and the like will be used a lot but will users abandon what most use as a source? That is the question.

    The answer is no, the reason is more apps like Bing app which on Webos actually made me delete the Best Buy app…… its all about convenience. Don’t get me started on the fun search apps like ChaCha search, KGB, and other future mesh search apps that will be on the rise. As they roll out, we have to realize…Google, Microsoft and other big search players are the source for these apps.

    CyKiller

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  10. search companies shouldn’t ignore the app threat, but it seems to me the consumer who Googles “Amazon.com” isn’t the kind of consumer to install and use an Amazon.com mobile app.

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