If you remember earlier days of the internet, the discussion was often about eyeballs. How do I get more eyeballs looking at my site; how to I get them to stick around longer? Eyeballs were motivation for free services like Yahoo, and later Google, hoping to become the coveted homepage which would appear first whenever you opened your browser. Getting these eyeballs was about selling advertising through banner ads and then more sophisticated advertising.
Google was the most clever here, realizing that eyeballs weren’t free and that a homepage had to offer something of real value to users every time they used the internet. Used is important; sure the internet is a source of entertainment, but it’s also a place where we find things (including that entertainment) and answer questions. Google’s solution is to develop new and innovative ways to use the internet, like integrating all that search with the real world of mapping and route finding.
The business model for each of these companies hasn’t changed much since that original default homepage concept. Google has lead the way with adwords and microcontent, but if Google, (or Bing, or Yahoo) is the gateway to all that useful content from so many dozens of other companies such as Yelp, Wolfram Alpha, or Weather.com, or this blog, they can collect advertising fees for their efforts.
Alert readers will already know where I am going with this by my choice of content providers (well, except this one). Apple’s iPhone 4S and Siri have done something more than just make voice recognition finally useful. (Note: I haven’t actually used it yet, but reports are that it does work pretty much as well as television commercials would lead us to believe.) They made a very clever end-run around Google and the other search engines. Using restaurant search from Yelp, a giant searchable database from Wolfram Alpha and local weather from weather.com, Siri replaces Google as a gateway to information in such a disruptive way, I’d be surprised if their competitors saw it coming.
Back in the day, companies competed for all those eyeballs, offering better and better services (targeted search, local weather reports, entertaining content) and figured they’d figure out a way to pay for it later. Perhaps they were all so focused on finally covering their costs that they didn’t even notice the rug being pulled out from under them. Although, it remains to be seen how Apple will pay for the content, it’s not like either Apple or Weather.com can advertise when Siri tells a user to bring an umbrella. Still, holding the key to the treasure trove of information on the internet is, as Google can tell you, very powerful indeed. If voice-initiated internet search takes a significant share, it behooves companies to start thinking about how that effects their promotional strategy, before the next unexpected disruption comes.