Mar 11, 2014 · 6 minutes

Smartphones have made it easier for companies like Facebook and Google to learn more about their users' locations, communications, and personal information. But they have also made it harder for these companies to control what their users do -- and that frightens them.

That's the takeaway from a Wall Street Journal report describing Google's efforts to learn more about the information tucked away inside mobile apps. The Journal describes Google's plight and its attempts to find a solution:

The company was built with the help of an army of 'spiders' deployed to crawl the Web, and sophisticated algorithms to rank the value of pages. But in the mobile age, those spiders can't easily navigate the apps where users are spending most of their time, threatening Google's roughly $50-billion advertising business.

In response, Google in the fall launched an initiative to better see — and direct — what smartphone and tablet users do on their devices. The effort seeks to mimic what Google built on the Web, with an index of the content inside mobile apps and links pointing to that content featured in Google's search results on smartphones. In other words, the open nature of the Web allowed Google to thrive, and the silos within which mobile apps operate threaten the company's continued success. So it will attempt to convince developers that they should modify their software so it can reassert its control, and they can make sure their users keep coming back for more. Google's spiders spun the threads that connected the Web -- now they will try to do the same for mobile apps.

But other companies have already tried to break through the data silos and connect mobile apps. Twitter's Cards enable users to bounce between its app and other apps with ease. A couple of smaller developers, including Contrast and Agile Tortoise, have built popular apps that allow their users to launch or take action in dozens of other apps. Facebook, as the Journal notes, has also tried to take control of mobile with its App Center.

There's no denying the popularity of Google's mobile apps. It offers some of the most popular search, mapping, video-watching, and social software available. But the company hasn't had much luck using those products to connect other apps and control the way consumers interact with the Web to the same extent it has on desktop computers.

Google was able to operate almost without contest on the Web. (Services like DuckDuckGo appeal to privacy-minded searchers and Bing pleases Microsoft fans, but both are minuscule compared to Google's search service.) It won't be able to do the same with mobile apps -- it's just too easy to launch an app with the tap of an icon or allow another app to take control.

That doesn't mean that Google will be powerless in the shift to mobile apps. Its efforts to court developers and have them build the proper infrastructure into their apps are well under way. But it does mean that Google won't be able to control the websites people visit, the news they read, or the places they go as well as it could before. Native apps have allowed consumers to escape from the web Google's spiders wove, and it will take time for them to spin another.

Reactions from around the Web

ReadWrite suggests that now is the time for Google to promote HTML5 over native tech:

Google knows how to index the web. By investing heavily in improving and promoting HTML5, Google could help to build the mobile web, and monetize it handsomely.

This isn't without precedent. Back in 2001 IBM announced that it would spend $1 billion to make Linux an enterprise-grade operating system. Thirteen years later, Linux dominates a broad swath of markets. Perhaps it's time for Google to make its own $1 billion commitment, this time to HTML5. Search Engine Land notes that desktop searches aren't yet endangered by mobile searches:

While it’s not implausible on a global basis, it’s unlikely that “mobile search” in a North American or EU context is about to exceed PC query volume. Yet it we consider the directional lookups and similar activity happening within apps to be part of “search” then it’s entirely plausible.

Whether or not mobile search at Google is actually on course to exceed PC search query volume this year, it’s clear that if the company can become a more viable tool for mobile content discovery (within apps) consumers will use it more often. Gigaom argues that creating the leading mobile search service could help Google+:

Whoever can do the best deep search will also be in a position to become the most central social sphere as well. So, deep search might be the way that Google finally makes Google+ critical instead of irrelevant.
Business Insider writes that Google isn't the only company that could benefit from its mobile dominance:
Adtech companies — who derive a lot of their income from developers who buy ads for their apps — want deep-linking standards set across the mobile web, setting up an environment for apps that looks a lot like the current desktop environment for keywords: Search for an app, and you'll get some paid ads running alongside useful "organic" results.

But those developers will only get their money's worth — and apps generally will only become easy to find — when developers use basic search engine optimization for their apps, such as deep linking and app search in Google. Pando weighs in

I wrote in December 2012 that Apple likes having mobile apps in separate silos:

Apple could have fixed [these app silos] with iOS 6, and, surprisingly, came about this close to doing so with its new share sheets. One button press offers a variety of actions, including the ability to share an item to Facebook or Twitter, add it to the Home Screen, or print it (which I’m sure is the most-pressed action) via AirPrint. How hard would it have been to allow developers to add their own apps to the list, turning most multi-step processes into two simple taps?

For now, users and developers have to work around Apple’s restrictions, watching as it makes special exceptions for its partners (Twitter, Facebook) and its own actions (Print, Add to Reading List) and thumbs its nose at the little guys. The new share sheets prove that Apple can bridge the gap between the apps – it simply doesn’t want to. Then in April 2013 I wrote about Twitter's Cards and their effect on the app store hegemony:

Twitter’s new Cards, along with Facebook’s App Center, are likely to be many iOS users’ first exposure to fluid inter-app communication. This isn’t a small developer releasing a capable app to a niche audience; this is two of the world’s largest information-slash-connections-slash-social networks demonstrating how much easier things are when users can choose which app they want to view something in.

Seamless transitions between sites is a hallmark of the Web. Could you imagine what it would be like to have to visit your homepage every time you wanted to visit a new website? That’s how people interact with their smartphones now, jumping in and out of the Home Screen every time they want to use a different app. These new Cards are Twitter’s attempt to change that. James Robinson wrote in March that using mobile apps might destroy the Internet as we know it:

The shift to mobile has enabled these companies to develop powerful silos of information. In the case of Google and Facebook, this advantage can be used to mint money and increase the value of its ad offering. It has the potential to create a small oligarchy, protected by user data, with everyone else fighting for scraps in the market or working as resellers onto these platforms.

Which is why the Internet as we know it could die.

[Image courtesy Wallpapers99]