Siri isn’t search technology, but it can still hurt Google

siri

Steve Jobs was clear last year that he didn’t consider Siri a search company, but instead, an artificial intelligence company. But that doesn’t mean that Siri can’t serve as a threat to Google on iOS devices.

With the rollout of Siri on iPhone 4S, the voice-recognition and virtual assistant service is even more robust than when it first appeared last year before Apple bought the company. And it’s showing that while Siri isn’t search technology, when paired with other services including Wolfram Alpha, Wikipedia and Yelp, it has the potential to divert significant traffic away from Google and other search engines.

Apple showed off how users can easily ask questions of Siri: anything from inquiring about the weather to getting definitions of words. They can also find restaurants and book tables if they need to — things that were available in original version of Siri. And with Wolfram Alpha integration, they can do more general web searches.

Siri can also do things like set alarms, schedule appointments and dictate text messages: tasks that don’t deal with search. But in many ways, if users get comfortable turning to Siri, it could affect the amount of searches Google sees on upcoming iOS devices. Instead of turning to their browser and typing in a search, they might just ask for the information by voice. And in many cases, it could bypass Google altogether. Many of the top keywords for non-navigational mobile searches are for things like weather, which is number one; dictionary; and celebrity name searches, which can all be handled to some extent by Siri.

Apple’s intent when it bought Siri was rumored to be building a search engine, though Jobs defused that speculation by saying, “We have no plans to go into the search business. We don’t care about it — other people do it well.” But Jobs also said earlier last year:

“On a mobile device, search is not where it’s at, not like on the desktop. They’re (consumers are) spending all their time on these apps — they’re using apps to get to data on the internet, not generalized search.”

With Siri, Apple doesn’t have to get into the search game if it can use Siri to direct people to the apps, services and information they need. That’s probably not a big money-gainer for Apple, but it could put a hurt on rival Google, which relies on search advertising. Google and Microsoft have told me that a quarter of all searches on mobile devices are conducted via voice, so it’s not unlikely that people would get comfortable dictating searches with Siri.

And if more apps can get connected through Siri, it would help them gain more visibility without having to worry about Google. That can be a boost for a company like Wolfram Alpha, which is trying to compete with Google in search. And it might also be helpful for a company like Yelp, which has to compete with Google’s own location services to get noticed in search results. It’s probably no coincidence that these two have signed on with Apple.

I don’t think Apple is trying to simply put the screws to Google with Siri. But it seems like it would be beneficial to lessen the iPhone’s dependence on Google, something it’s expected to do with mapping at some point. And if Siri can provide a great front-end user experience, it could not only be a differentiator for iOS, but also help deprive Google of some search traffic. Apple could advertise against the diverted traffic, and that would be a nice byproduct for the company. Of course, people have to actually like Siri, and for many, talking to a computer-generated voice is still unfamiliar. But Apple is great at introducing people to technology. And in this case, it has a vested interest in pushing the advancement of Siri: It can deny some revenue to a competitor.

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