Business Report

Does Apple's Siri Threaten Google's Search Monopoly?

The iPhone speech aid is boosting visits to search engines such as Yelp and Wolfram Alpha.

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.

Magic 8 ball: The voice-controlled digital assistant on the iPhone 4S, Siri, artfully evades troublesome 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 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.

Luc Barthelet, executive director of Wolfram Research, which also makes the software program Mathematica, says that the week the iPhone 4S, featuring Siri, came out, the number of queries to Wolfram Alpha increased 20-fold.

Wolfram makes money by selling apps and collecting fees from partners, not from ads. Rather than providing a page of links in response to a query, Wolfram Alpha provides direct answers to questions like “Who was the 17th president?” or “What are the biggest cities in the world?” Barthelet says that Google, which also offers voice recognition on Android phones, could do the same thing. “But what would happen to Google’s business model if they just provided answers? They want users to look at the results. That’s what makes their ad space valuable.” 

Google faces other threats. There is Facebook, with its 800 million users, and also dedicated phone apps that, for example, will check bus routes or find movie listings. Like these, Apple’s voice aid offers a novel way to interact with information on the Internet. Michael Thompson, senior vice president of the mobile division of Nuance Communications, whose speech-recognition software powers Siri, claims the technology is “taking away the toll-booth functionality of the search portals.”

Others doubt that Siri can steal Google’s thunder in online advertising, because voice recognition is still imperfect and most people researching major purchases will continue to do so on home or office computers. Still, ad dollars will follow searchers, whatever tools they use. Ralph Paglia, a consultant at Tier10Marketing who advises car dealerships on digital marketing strategy, says he is now advising clients they should pay for premium listings on Yelp so that Siri users can find them. “I don’t care if they’re in the office or at home. People will use Siri in a wide range of circumstances,” Paglia says.

Google didn’t respond to questions about Siri, but its executives have begun talking about Apple’s product. In September, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt called Siri a totally “new approach to search technology” in testimony submitted to Congressional antitrust investigators. Schmidt was hoping to convince Congress that Google doesn’t have an unfair monopoly in search. “History shows that popular technology is often supplanted by entirely new models,” Schmidt said. 

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