Last month marked the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. Even for those of us who were there at the very beginning, it's hard to remember a time before the Internet. But the Web as we once knew it is disappearing right before our eyes. Does anyone type "www" as part of a URL anymore? Does anyone type a URL anymore--or really want to type anything at all? I think not.
We'd rather swipe a screen or press a button on our phone. Or, better yet, just tell our phone what we need. In fact, whether we like to admit it or not, we'd actually much prefer for our devices to "know" what we need before we ask, based on our preferences, interests, location, prior behaviors and profiles. Then, without having to ask, we'd just have the answers readily available whenever and wherever we need them.
I call this modality "Mocial," the merger of mobile and social. It is defined and driven by constant connectivity, high-velocity computing, and the massive stores of data (about all of us) that are accessible to virtually anyone at little or no cost. These new capabilities and tools set standards of speed and performance--as well as expectations of immediacy and accuracy--that even the best websites can't hope to compete with. And the bar just keeps rising. The truth is that we're all suckers for speed and simplicity: Save me time and make me more productive and I'm yours.
Fading From Site
Today's reality is that websites are pretty much yesterday's news, and the vast majority (to the extent that they haven't already been practically abandoned by their owners) are destined very shortly to be orphaned or consigned to the virtual dustbin. They're slow on a good day and too often plagued by latency issues; they're fundamentally static rather than interactive; far too many still aren't built or optimized for mobile use; and even the most conscientious webmasters can't really keep the data on these sites current because everything is changing way too fast.
Frankly, adding a couple of widgets, a sidecar Twitter feed, or a few other bells and whistles doesn't contribute much to the utility or perceived value of a site visit. Too often searching the web these days is an exhausting and unproductive waste of time, unless you know precisely what you're looking for.
We're very unlikely to return to a day when websites actually matter because all the positive movement and all the vectors point in the other direction. Mobile online use has overtaken the desktop and the gap is growing every quarter across all cohorts and age groups. In addition, and most strikingly, over 80 percent of current mobile online activity takes place through apps, not browsers, making it much harder to analyze who is using the web for what.
This has huge implications for Google, because the migration to mobile applications and the accompanying move away from transparency toward more opaque conduits of web usage have created what I call the “App Gap.” The problem for Google is that they can't monetize what they can’t see.
The rapidly widening social gap is even more problematic for Google. The vast volume of meaningful traffic, the influential action and engaged activity, and all of the buzz and energy are focused today on social actions and sharing, not on search or research. Search is a sporadic, need-based, and linear process. It's done in the moment and then it's over. Social is an emotional, expansive, and ongoing sharing experience which is not only contagious but exponential in that it grows and builds on itself.
In general, the more you share the more you're inclined to share (unless you get burned, or reach a certain age) because you become increasingly invested in the process. Information may want to be free, but it turns out (no surprise here) that we want to be with our friends. There are a number of complex and powerful drivers behind these changes, but one thing is abundantly clear: None of this is good news for Google.
As the novelty of search has worn off and the pure excitement of spontaneous exploration has dissipated, search has changed from a joy to just a job. It's an incidental and reflexive part of our day and nothing more. The more efficient and informed that search became the less interesting and serendipitous it was. In a sense, Google did its job too well.
Today search is a heavily manipulated mirror (reflecting back and confirming what we already know) rather than a window onto new worlds. Among other critical differences from the much more intriguing Facebook interest-graph approach is that in order to launch a Google search, you pretty much have to know where you're headed and you need to create at least a modestly informed description of what you're looking for. The search box doesn't fill itself. It's not an adventure, it's a task. The web today is about work, not wonder. And it's lonely out there because search is a solitary enterprise and we're all social animals.
The App Gap is just Google's latest problem as it struggles to continue to matter in a marketplace where the playing field has changed radically while Google's core offerings really haven't. Google needs to find a way into these new activity spaces, but many of its belated and reactive responses (and even its new and somewhat novel offerings) have fallen far short of the mark. Google was great when the web was about links, pages, and anonymity. But when Facebook made it personal and the smart phone made it social and mobile, Google simply lost its way. You can't engineer emotions and you can't arbitrarily construct connections and engagement with others.
Shopping and social are where it's at today, and in those sectors Google has become an also-ran. Maybe not quite as much of a yawn as Yahoo, but nothing to write home about. Far more people search every day for products on Amazon than on Google, even though its new Product Listing Ads (PLAs) are arguably better suited to mobile search than Amazon's offerings. The problem is that no one knows they're there because search isn't sexy any more. If there's one thing worse than being a chore or a commodity, it's being a tool or a utility. And the situation in the social sphere is even worse.
What about Google+? It has plenty of what I would characterize as "manufactured" members, but they're generally ghosts and they’re not engaged with the service. Worst of all they're simply not sharing. Google+ has about 2 percent of social sharing activity today while Facebook has over 50 percent, Twitter is at about 24 percent and LinkedIn and Pinterest account for another 19 percent.
If you don't have a substantial seat at the table, it's hard to have anything meaningful to say about the game or to the players. Without a window into Facebook's world, some perspective on Pinterest, or any idea of what's happening on Instagram, Twitter, or WhatsApp, it feels like Google's on the outside looking in. Given that, you have to wonder how much longer Google's advertising model will make sense to major media and advertising buyers. If you're not where your advertisers' targets are spending their time and money, at the end of the day you're nowhere.