Google, I'm convinced, is not in the search business after all. It's in the business of screwing up my column predictions.
Last week, I concluded, "In 2011, mobile search spending may only represent 5% of search spending, but that in turn may be the 5% that matters most for those consumers." So what does Google do? It launches a mobile discovery engine.
The site, google.com/m/lcb, was discovered by ZDNet's Garett Rogers and then covered on Adam Broitman's blog. It's perhaps most comparable to Yahoo circa the mid-‘90s, with a link-populated directory about certain topics, and all the topics here being local areas (a commenter on ZDNet noted that "lcb" likely stands for "location-based"). Even without mobile Internet access, you can try out Google LCB on the Web at the above link, where it functions like the mobile version.
The idea behind LCB is to make it as easy as possible to drill down by browsing without fumbling on a keypad. No matter how well Apple and others improve phones' usability (I'm generally pleased with the mini slide-out QWERTY keyboard on my Samsung i760), typing on a full-size keyboard will always be faster. It's going to be a long time before the Millennials who are growing up texting will completely overtake the mobile market; we in the 25-and-up crowd aren't dying off just yet, and we're still paying most of the Millennials' phone bills.
Google LCB hasn't entirely done away with search. It delivers the results page without the query -- searchless searching. It's like those commercials years back for Polly-O String Cheese, "the best part of the pizza without the pizza" (if the reference eludes you, you can read a 1,900-word analysis of the commercial). Every link in LCB takes you to a results page where you drill down until you hit a listing and a map.
If the connection speed is fast enough -- a huge if when it comes to mobile Web surfing -- then browsing LCB can be much faster than typing. Even though searching is better for getting you what you're looking for, browsing LCB has three benefits:
1. You may still really hate typing. On my old Motorola Krzr, when my oldest nephew would text me, I'd call him back if the response required more than 20 characters. Somehow I still managed to be the cool uncle, but that's only thanks to the lack of competition.
2. With browsing, you don't need to think too hard. You just choose from the menu in front of you. Not needing to figure out the search query can be a time-saver in its own right.
3. If you're new in town, you might not know what to search for. With LCB, not only do you have general categories like food/restaurants, travel, retail, and entertainment, but you can see what other people are searching for in that city (all such links, like "penn station," "w hotel," and "car service," were relevant to New York when I tried it), giving the user some potentially new ideas. Then there's the "going to" section, including, for New York, tourist attractions like Times Square and the Statue of Liberty and then popular stores like the Apple store and Magnolia Bakery.
Google thus transforms itself from a search engine to a city guide. With a little more retooling, it could find itself directly competing with Zagat, Citysearch, and others.
Google's not the only one with a discovery focus. Consider Yahoo's beta release of Yahoo Go 3.0. In 730 words, it mentions search once, in reference to providing easy access to its oneSearch service, which, as you can imagine, is designed to help the user search as little as possible.
Personally, I get a kick out of the act of mobile search. There's something empowering about it, having access to the entire Internet and all the content in it wherever you go. And all of it starts with a simple search.
Or maybe it starts with browsing local listings, or accessing everything presented to you on Yahoo Go, or just sticking within the walled garden of carriers' on-deck listings. What's important right now is to give consumers all those options and then learn from their preferences, as search and discovery will both play important roles in the future of mobile.