Why Google Should be Worried About Mobile Search

Last Updated Sep 10, 2010 2:35 PM EDT

At the 2010 Citi Technology event this week, Google announced that it had seen 4x growth in mobile search over the past year. This was intended as a boast, but when weighed against the explosive increase in Android devices over the same period, the gains don't look nearly as impressive.

The WSJ's John Paczkowski took the bait. "Four fold growth in a single year. An astonishing increase, though inevitable given the rapidity of growth we've seen in mobile recently." He goes on to quote Citi analyst Mark Mahaney, who says Google Mobile revenue will exit 2010 at $500 million.

But Android shipments have increased nearly 900% in the past year, meaning mobile search is growing at less than half the pace it should. And Mahaney's estimate is roughly a third of $1.4 billion my colleague Erik Sherman thought Google would make in mobile this year.

One of the biggest questions of the mobile era is whether search will continue to occupy the central role it achieved on desktop computing. Google and Apple (APPL) have competing world views here. Steve Jobs inflamed the debate with a speech back in April. "On the desktop search is where it's at; that's where the money is. But on mobile devices search hasn't happened. Search is not where it's at, people are not searching on mobile devices like they do on desktops."

At the press event to reveal Google Instant this week Sergey Brin spoke about the need to make mobile apps open to search engines. "I do think with respect to apps, it would be nice to adopt some kind of URL conventions, so that even content within apps is in fact searchable."

Well yes Sergey, that would be "nice" for your business. And when people think of Steve Jobs, the first word that comes to mind is usually "nice". But seriously, is Brin planning on doing anything about this?

"I don't think we've pushed too far yet," Brin said, "because typically most of the apps that do surface content are usually reflections of websites today anyway. But if there starts to be more unique content in apps, I think that would be a nice thing."

There's that word again, "nice." True, these were just off the cuff remarks. But they show that the leadership at Google is far too sanguine about the future of mobile search. The numbers tell a different, far more pressing story.

Image from Flickr user Focused Capture
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  • Ben Popper

    Ben Popper writes at the intersection of culture and technology. His work has been published in the NY Times, Washington Post, Fast Company, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many others. He lives at www.benpopper.com.