I have seen the future of search, and it isn’t Google

Obsession
Mobile Web
Obsession
Mobile Web

I’ve seen the new face of search, and it ain’t Google. What is it, you ask?

It is a text message.

The rapid rise of mobile technology is wiping out desktop. At least for consumers, their phones have become the way they experience the internet. Mobile is not the new web, it is the only web. And it is very different.

Mobile is beautiful precisely because it affords so little. It already gave us the simplicity of scroll, and the swipe. But its biggest gift to us? A whole new way to search.

An interaction with Cloe, an SMS search app. (Credit: Ryan Hoover)
An interaction with Cloe, an SMS search app. (Credit: Ryan Hoover)

We are so used to Google search—its interface and format—that we rarely question it these days. After all, it always gives us the answer, right? Whatever you’re looking for, just type it into the browser bar (you don’t even need to go to Google.com anymore) and, voila: 10 links, or the so-called “answer.”

But why is it 10 links, and how can an answer to every single question be found in 10 links?

Imagine if in real life, someone would ask you a question, and your reply would be, “Here, the answer is among these 10 possibilities.” Absurd!

When people talk to each other, they arrive at “the answer” by means of a conversation. I ask you a question, you reply, you clarify, I might follow up, and then you reply again. A question, in real life, is a conversation that leads to an answer.

The email has long being hailed as the modus operandi for web. But, on mobile, there is a new king. That king is text messaging, and we are all addicted to it. We love the form, we love the speed, we love our emoji.

Let’s face it, the feeling that we get when typing a text message—that silly, quick, fun and instantly gratifying thing—is the feeling we never had typing on computer’s keyboard. Email is always work, text messaging is aways fun.

But beneath all the fun and emoji-silliness, we’ve been developing something groundbreaking and profound. We’ve created a simple format for quick conversations. We’ve created a new way to ask questions, and receive an answer via computer that is a lot closer to how people do it in real life. By using text messaging, we have been playing an iterative Q&A game. And this is a pretty big deal.

Enter this new kind of search. Imagine that, instead of an input field on Google.com, or a browser bar, you get a familiar text messaging interface that you can ask questions. Here’s what happens next:

  1. You ask questions in a natural form, like you do in real life.
  2. Your questions will be naturally compact, because you are used to the compact form of text messaging. But they won’t be one word or one phrase, like we type into Google. You can have typos and the odd missing punctuation.
  3. This format naturally lends itself unto the conversation. That is, you don’t expect 10 links—you expect a human response. And you expect to respond in response to this response, and so on.
  4. “The answer” will be things, objects, places. Links will become secondary. The answer will be one or two or three things, but not 10 rote possibilities. The choice will be naturally added via a conversation and iteration, not by pushing 10 links on the user upfront.
  5. You won’t be able to tell the difference between a person or machine replying to you. This is where all the amazing AI stuff (looking at you, Amy) is going to come in handy, and will really shine.
  6. You won’t think of this as “search” anymore, but as your command and control for all things needed—tasks, purchases and, of course, good old search. It will be like a textual Siri, but have far more capabilities. (And it will actually work. No offense Siri, but you have ways to go.)

Once this new world order is in place, you will quickly forget how Google worked. Phrase-based search and 10 links will become things of the past. You will quickly get used to, and love, this more human way to search. Via text message.

For early hints of what is to come, check out Magic and Cloe.

A version of this post appeared at AlexIskold.net. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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