Mind reading with Google Chrome

pizza1.jpg

All web browsers come with an address bar (1) and a search box (2). For most of them not named IE, the search box is by default Google’s. Until last week, however, no browser came with a single box for both navigation and search. Google Chrome changes that, and a lot more.

Chrome is a multi-platform, online/offline web browser with a sparse UI that claims to be faster, more secure and stable than IE, Firefox or Safari. But because it’s offered under the liberal BSD open source license, other bowsers can leverage Chrome bits (like the fast V8 JavaScript and Skia graphics engines or memory and security sandboxing) to gain parity. Google says nothing would please them more.

One box too many

There’s one Chrome feature, however, that will be very difficult for Mozilla, Apple, or even Microsoft to effectively emulate: Omnibox, the progeny of the browser address bar and the search engine box.

chromeomnibox.jpg

Traditionally, the address bar is for entering DNS information as a web address to locate a specific URI. Since long, dynamically generated URLs are not made for human consumption, users have been observed to ignore the address bar and directly enter their destinations into the search box, even in the form of a URL. This evolved practice redounds to a long list of benefits to the user, and in the process, has been a prime accelerator of Google’s $160 billion market cap. So why not merge them?

googleonly.jpg

That’s a leap too high even for Mozilla and Apple that have been receiving millions in compensation from Google to place the company’s search box as default in their browsers. After all, the ubiquitous address bar has been a primary component of any browser since the web browser was invented. Wouldn’t it be great, however, if there was a single box that can handle navigation and search simultaneously…and it came from Google! Apparently, Google thought so.

Google as information broker

Google’s business model is one of information brokerage, just like an investment bank or a hedge fund. It monetizes web users’ dataflow through the use of its market-dominating search vehicle which provides advertisers with relevance. Google tracks users’ navigational history and search intent, and maps it to web’s linking/preference hierarchy. Advertisers have been more than willing to pay for that information to the tune of $5.3 billion last quarter alone.

google-bm.jpg

So the mapping process whereby Google can use predictive analysis to determine what a given user might to do next is supremely important. It aids the user in avoiding unnecessary steps to get to a web destination and advertisers in getting the user to arrive at a purchasing decision, and of course Google in getting to charge for it.

One box to rule them all

For all other browsers, the entire process generally starts with a user entering a URL into the address bar or keyword(s) into the search box. From Google’s perspective having two boxes is not only inefficient but also quite limiting, because while Google can track its own search box, anything entered into the address bar is lost as an opportunity for Google to directly capture the user’s intent and manipulate it.

pizzadirect.jpg

For example, if the user enters “pizza” into the address bar (3) and there’s no nosy ISPs redirection involved, he may be taken directly to “http://pizza.com” (4). It’s a simple matter of a DNS look-up and there can only be a single corresponding web address. This being the primary function of a web browser, there’s no money to be made here (5).

Context is intention?

But if the same “pizza” is entered into Chrome’s Omnibox, Google begins a search after each keystroke, even before the word is completed and the user hits return/enter (6). Things get very interesting at that point, because unlike the static, 1:1 DNS resolution provided by the address bar, Omnibox (6) has context. Google can discern intention and thus predict destination. After all, “pizza” can mean different things in different contexts and Google knows it better than anybody else.

pizza-chrome.jpg

On a cooking site, “pizza” likely means pizza recipes; on YouTube perhaps videos on how to make pizza; at CitySearch.com not only pizza restaurants but, because of the user’s location already known to Google, a list of pizza restaurants in a specific city; and when Omnibox comes to mobile devices with GPS, pizza restaurants directly around the block plotted on Google Maps (8, 9).

Omnibox promises to take Google Suggests a step further by elevating it from interactive keyword completion for search to destination selection for navigation, all in a single box.

Apple and Mozilla have browsers and perhaps the ability to best Chrome on all technical challenges, but they lack Google’s search prowess. Microsoft had a shot at this. Paid-for keyword navigation was pioneered by RealNames in 1998 and was offered through Microsoft’s IE to navigate MSN pages. While RealNames had significant growth, it was dropped and forced into Chapter 7 by Microsoft perhaps because it threatened Microsoft’s search business. AOL, Barefruit, Paxfire, Golog and others have also been providing variations on keyword and mis-spelled-URL originated direct navigation. But none has the reach and scope of Google. Chrome’s Omnibox is free: free to users and free to site owners. Therein lies Google’s impending dilemma.

Omnibox giveth…and taketh away?

pizza-choices.jpg

Omnibox gives Google the ability to contextualize intent, make suggestions and directly take users to appropriate destinations (9). Imagine the utility of this in mobile devices where data entry is cumbersome and application switching is technically and cognitively costly. This is not unlike a more refined version of the Google Mobile App for the iPhone, not as a separate app, but as the sole navigation box of the device’s main web browser:

googlembileapp.jpg

The user could practically live 24×7 in Chrome’s Omnibox. A new breed of geo-tagging, GPS-aware, social-networking, map-driven, collaborative-filtering mobile applications may find their unique advantages subsumed by Omnibox’s ability to detect and (re)direct users’ intent. Users may no longer need a slew of dedicated, often single-purpose applications when they can remain in the main web browser, enter a keyword or two into Omnibox and let Google arbitrate their existing navigation history, personal preferences, context, and compare it all to web’s link hierarchy to refine choices in real-time without any effort on their part. There’s no need to download or purchase multiple apps and painstakingly enter personal metadata. An always-available Omnibox could be a nightmare for any start-up that fancies intention brokerage at a price…an awkward position for many Android “partners.”

$64 billion questions

Google’s ability to “mind read” users’ intentions via Omnibox and funnel traffic automagically to likely destinations is a phenomenally attractive proposition to both users and advertisers. However, the promise begets its own questions:

  1. Would Omnibox redirecting impair Google’s current keyword-based advertising business?
  2. Why would advertisers continue to buy keywords if they can get traffic through the Omnibox?
  3. Would Google then open up Omnibox “suggestions” for bidding?
  4. If such suggestions are auctioned, would users trust them as much?
  5. If they don’t, would Google leave such a huge opportunity on the table?
  6. Could Google find a lucrative balance between these two business models?

What’s your prognosis?