The future of search may look a little like Kirsten Goldenberg, a 14-year-old high-school student in Los Angeles. When she needs help with a homework problem, she no longer turns on her laptop to bring up Google’s search box. Instead, she pushes the microphone button on her iPhone and asks Siri, the sassy digital assistant that understands voice questions.
“You can ask Siri anything, and if she doesn’t understand, she’ll ask if she should search the Web. It’s really helpful,” says Goldenberg, who sold her collection of American Girl dolls on eBay to raise funds to buy the new Apple phone when it came out in October.
Some analysts now believe Siri could disrupt Google’s dominance of one of the most valuable franchises in technology: search-engine advertising. Google captured 65 percent of U.S. Internet searches in October, according to market tracker Experian Hitwise—more than twice the combined total for competitors Bing.com and Yahoo. Being No. 1 has allowed Google to pull in over 75 percent of U.S. paid search advertising and generate much of the $29.3 billion in revenue it reported for 2010.
Now Siri is starting to get between searchers and Google’s advertisers. It has the potential to replace the do-it-yourself ethos of search in which the user picks among a variety of suggestions. Siri is like a hotel concierge whose judgments about where to dine in a strange city override other options. “It’s moving from personal computer to trusted personal adviser. It changes the whole business relationship,” says Jonathan Rotenberg, president of Centriq Advisors, a Boston-based management consulting firm.
For Rob Enderle, a technology analyst in San Jose, California, Siri “showcases how you get around a dominant player like Google.” He contrasts Apple’s approach with that taken by Microsoft, whose effort to challenge Google head-on with its Bing search engine has already cost several billion dollars. Enderle believes Siri could partly displace Google, especially in niche applications like looking for local business listings or in situations where voice commands are more convenient, such as when people are driving.
Siri was developed as an artificial-intelligence project at SRI International, and was acquired by Apple in 2010. Currently, Siri often relies on Google searches when it can’t answer a question. But if a user asks Siri for “the best” Chinese food or a “nearby” Honda dealership, Siri defers to Yelp’s website, where dedicated “Yelpers” have posted their opinions and ratings. Ask it for a specific fact, such as the circumference of the Earth, and Siri will try to retrieve the information from Wolfram Alpha, a search engine that answers factual and mathematical questions.