OK, Terminator jokes aside, the more I think about what is going on, not just within search, but within the digital universe overall, the more I accept that search moving forward will become a much more fragmented experience -- no longer dominated by a small list of very large players. It's also likely search may not continue to be the focus of digital domination.
For many markets, it is still truly Terminator-like, with Google operating in a singular SkyNet fashion, controlling the ebbs and flows of digital activities. But the analogy does not stop there. For all the fragmentation within search, the battleground is really shifting to a fight over consolidation and control of consumers' content consumption. Search just happens to be at the center of this.
However, this isn't an article about the future of search and advertising - these are my rambling thoughts about the reality of now. Facebook and all its millions are invisible to the engines. Murdoch has walled off much of his content. Consumers continue to use Hulu, eBay, Amazon, Wal-Mart, Kayak, LinkedIn and other sites with their own search functionality to conduct very focused tasks. This verticalization of search is evident even within Bing's recent enhancements to travel and entertainment SERPs. You could argue that it's working, too, because as of last week Bing reached #2.
In addition to these changes, we now have search functionality coming to TV. This fall Google TV rolls out in here in the States. On one hand, I applaud Google for this because it has taken far too long for search functionality to infiltrate on-demand. I'm sure many of you agree. To date, accessing this has been a painful click, scroll, and wait-to-load endeavor. The ability to search programming will only improve the experience. What seems interesting to me is that Google is going after its own walled garden versus putting its algorithm on everyone else's boxes; cable, satellite, or otherwise. You cannot blame Google, because Apple is already connecting TV, phone, computer, and tracking what everyone is doing across those devices. Talk about Skynet...
If you look at mobile, this analogy becomes even more evident, as one cannot argue that Google and Verizon's efforts around net neutrality are anything but open and neutral. Apple already has a leg up here, with consumers conducting millions of searches every day -- though distributed across a multitude of specialized apps versus a single engine. And Apple is very particular with whose apps make it on its devices for greater control over the experience. Also, the company has not forgotten about search by enabling users to search their entire device(s) for contacts, calendar appointments, files, and anything else via Spotlight. Google is chasing Apple down aggressively with Droid adoption, but this now puts Google squarely in the device/OS business and less focused on SEM.
This would imply that search would become specialized by content and vertical, which would increase the fragmentation. This would then enhance the need for all those dependent on search functionality, like device and OS manufacturers as well as cable/mobile providers, to become "walled garden gate keepers" of content on-line, on-mobile, and now on-TV. To the advertising community this comes with the added benefits of tracking and targeting.
Just a couple of issues ago, The Economist wrote about the return of the "walled garden," even going on to question its implications on consumers, culture, nationality, and our industry. This comes with both opportunity and sacrifice. The sacrifice on the business side is the fragmentation to execute search campaigns, and the opportunity comes on the side of usability for the consumer. The difference between success and failure will be simplicity, ease of use, and providing devices and connectivity that add enough value to a consumer's life that they are OK with content silos, and knowing (with some not knowing or not caring) they are being tracked.
As battle lines get drawn, I'm very interested to see where publisher alignment goes -- and if this could mean a dismantling of Google (the search engine) as we have come to know it, since as the company's device gains momentum, it will have to let go of its SEM dominance, because consumers will be conducting search via specialized apps with key content creators.