Mobile search expressions

The app install isn't just about delivering functionality. In the new mobile search, it's also an expression of preferences.

June 9, 2015
Jonathan Libov

As apps usurped the web as the primary interaction model on the phone, we all began to ask: “When will be able to search our apps the way we search the web?”

Now that Google and Apple have introduced key mobile search products in the span of two weeks — Google Now On Tap and the iOS Search API — we’re starting to get an idea what mobile search looks like. I think we’re also starting to get the idea that “When will be able to search our apps the way we search the web?” wasn’t exactly the right question. After all, The New York Times doesn’t store its entire archive on your device (i.e., you’re not searching the app, per se) and we know that at least Google (and maybe also Apple) will serve you results stored in apps that you haven’t even installed.

In the wake of the introduction of Google and Apple’s new search products, the question looks more like, “How does search change when a user’s app installs so clearly expresses where he or she wants to land?”

Consider a search for “Hunger Games” that I might perform on my iPhone. I really just want some bit of information about Hunger Games, and I might have some apps on my phone—IMDB, Fandango, Rotten Tomatoes—that can serve me that information from a particular angle and a particular format that the device knows I like. Hence a search that includes information from apps I like and use might lead to a more satisfying result than a search on the web for "Hunger Games" ever would.

While this sounds fairly obvious, it’s interesting to think about why this only kind of happened on the web. Google has long personalized search results based on your history (i.e., if I always click on IMDB results and my friend Rotten Tomatoes results, my friend will served first and myself, but it would have been a terrible user experience for Google to have asked you which websites to include, or prioritize, in results. Conversely, no one ever wanted to curate all of their favorite web sites that could be accessed from a single search box.

But we’ve all done that work now on mobile by dint of installing apps: Our devices can interpret app installs and ongoing usage as a very explicit and reliable expression of how and where we want to get our information. So while we lament the way that App Stores have scaled back the kind of serendipitous discovery we got from searching the web, we also see some upside: The new era of mobile search will be governed less by SEO and other practices orthogonal to consumers' interests, and more by the preferences that each individual has expressed.