Is Google Really Your Best Option on Mobile?

Source: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

Snapping and sharing a photo, messaging a friend, or tapping out a quick search for a 10-second fact check: These are all common tasks for smartphone owners, tasks that you probably complete more than once a day. But only one is monopolized by a single company — a company that many people are too apt to trust with queries about their problems, interests, and idle curiosity.

If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s something better than Google for the countless searches you perform from your smartphone — even as you turn to Google to double-check a fact or to find the answer to a question — you might be interested to know that a number of companies are trying to challenge Google when it comes to mobile search.

Relcy, for example, has launched a mobile search engine that claims to offer “the fastest way to find.” The company has spent two years developing its technology. As Conor Dougherty reports for The New York Times, Relcy places an emphasis on apps with an associated action, like watching a movie, and is the latest in a series of startups that are working to reimagine the way search works on your smartphone.

Each of the startups that’s developing a search engine has its own vision, but many use a technology called deep linking, which breaks down the walls between mobile apps and makes them more connected, like content on the Internet. Deep linking is becoming increasingly important on mobile, and Dougherty notes that Palo Alto-based Branch Metrics is creating a mobile linking platform that enables developers to build deep links into their apps, and New York-based Button is building a system to tie apps together and pay for referrals. Another company, San Francisco-based URX, is building a new advertising system for publishers, leveraging the power of deep links.

Dougherty compares Relcy to another deep link-powered app, called Vurb, which is a search engine that “connects your apps to bring your favorite people, places, and things together.” When you search for a movie on Relcy, the search engine returns a synopsis, a listing of cast members, and then links to movie apps like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, populated with pricing and subscription information. Depending on what you search for, the search engine could return results across several different apps, some which you might have forgotten you downloaded, or surface new, relevant apps that you haven’t downloaded yet.

Relcy founder Rohit Satapathy told the Times, “When you are using (a mobile phone) it’s all about like right now, right here, on the go and you need something really fast, and that something should be presented to you in a way where you can really consume it.” He added that with an app like Relcy, “You don’t have to store that mental index of what app to use for what.”

But you might be wondering how what Relcy and its competitors offer is better than what Google offers. Google, after all, already includes apps in its search results, and can offer you many of the same results without requiring that you change your search habits. But Dougherty says that what places Relcy above Google is its ability to group results from the most popular movie and review apps. “The World Wide Web looks almost like an afterthought tacked on at the bottom, just in case,” he writes, highlighting that the major benefit of a search engine like Relcy is that it excels at surfacing content from apps. “When I searched for myself, for instance, the app returned my profiles from social media apps.”

But Relcy goes a step farther than simply prioritizing apps. Dougherty explains that the app essentially ignores the web, using Bing for its web results. Relcy and others like it illustrate the unique opportunity of an era in which most of the information you’ll be searching for likely resides in an app. Much of the information that’s relevant to a query is “structured data” housed inside apps, data that Dougherty notes is well-organized and easier to find and search than the content that inhabits the vast and unruly World Wide Web — if your search engine is up to the task.

For most users, a search engine that can find and surface the content in their favorite apps — and apps that could become their new favorites once they realize how much useful information is inside — would be a much more valuable, useful tool than a search engine that isn’t equipped with the technology to unlock the most relevant results inside the apps that they’ve downloaded or could download on their smartphones or tablets.

Of course, whether a search engine is better than Google will depend on how skillfully it can balance results from the web and from your phone, and how well it can recognize which results are relevant to your query and to the action you’re likely to want to take. After all, if the idea is that we don’t want to have to think about which app to open to find a movie or access some information, then we’re certainly not going to want to choose different search engines for different tasks.

It doesn’t help Relcy and other upstart search engines that Google is so dominant that we say we’re going to “Google” something when we need to perform a quick search. Dougherty notes that that force of habit will be difficult to overcome. Especially when you’re just looking for a quick answer, you’re not likely to want to deliberate about what app you’re using. But as you’re looking for a better searching experience, one that puts the information and actions that are available on your smartphone at your fingertips, a deep-link-enabled engine like Relcy increasingly looks like the most attractive option.

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