Google’s search chief, oversees the 200 or so factors that determine where websites rank in the company’s search engine, which means he decides if your website lives or dies. His current challenge: figuring out how to spread that same fear and influence to mobile phones.In a recent interview at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, Singhal laid out a widely held thesis for why smart phones are fundamentally changing how people are consuming information: Phones have small screens that are annoying to type on, and people have grown so addicted to their phones that they carry them everywhere and go to bed with them by their side.
Also, in a shift with big implications for his company’s sway over the internet, smart phone users spend the bulk of their time in mobile apps instead of the open web on which Google built its business.
Add it all up, and “you have to rethink what search means pretty much from first principles,” he said.
That helps explain why Singhal and his group are engaged in a race that has erupted across Silicon Valley to become the Google of Apps. Singhal, an engineer who was born in India, joined Google in 2000. He has spent the past 15 years adding speed and intelligence to the Google search box, which is just 17 years old but already sits alongside the Golden Arches in terms of cultural and economic impact.
Today, however, as people spend more time on mobile devices, competitors are popping up everywhere and Google, while still a fast-growing and highly profitable company, is slipping in its position as the gateway to the internet.
Venture capitalists are funding new search startups that treat information and the web as legacy products and that focus on actions and apps instead. And while Google, with $65 billion in the bank, can buy any startup it likes, one company it cannot buy — Apple — is also joining the mobile search fray.
On Thursday, Apple released an early or ‘beta’ version of the next version of its iOS mobile software, giving I Phone and I Pad users the ability to tap Apple’s own search engine for searches of music, apps and local services — allowing them to potentially bypass Google.
Google is a mobile force in many different ways: In the United States and several other countries, search queries to Google on mobile devices now outrank search queries on desktop and laptop computers. It has the world’s largest mobile operating system, Android.
It makes billions of dollars a year selling apps through the Google Play Store and owns many of the world’s most popular apps, such as YouTube.But that has created competing priorities because apps have also diluted its position in search. Google claimed 68% of US mobile search revenue last year, according to the research firm Marketer. That lead, while still substantial, was down from 81% in 2012, a decline projected to continue as apps occupy more of people’s time.
My job is not to just look at the trend today. My job is to look at what’s beyond the horizon,” Singhal said in the interview. “And beyond the horizon, there is so much more people can do on their devices that is not possible today.”
Singhal, 47, was born in India’s Uttar Pradesh state and grew up on the edge of the Himalayas. He came to the United States in 1990 to earn a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota. He later received a PhD in computer science at Cornell University, where he studied with Gerard Salton, a pioneer in the information retrieval field, which laid the foundation for the algorithmic searches we now use to find plane tickets.
“Back then, I always found myself in cold places,” Singhal explained on his personal website.
He was working at AT&T’s Bell Labs when he was recruited to join Google in 2000 by Krishna Bharat, an Indian engineer who created Google News. He was Google’s 176th employee and rewrote many of the original search algorithms created by the founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Singhal reports to Sundar Pichai, who oversees almost all of Google’s product areas.
In the recent interview, Singhal illustrated the evolution of Google’s search business by taking out his phone and asking questions about things like music and trivia.
At one point he asked the phone about Rihanna to show off the company’s voice technology and demonstrate how mobile search results come with tappable actions such as the ability to play Rihanna music. A moment later, in what appeared to be a well-practiced demonstration, he asked the phone, “Which person was struck by lightning seven times and survived?” A robotic voice answered, “Roy Sullivan.”
“Kids love questions like this,” he said. singhal said that while mobile phones are changing the world quickly, people still want and need many of the same things, whether they are in apps or on the web. A good deal of time is still spent shopping for jeans or looking for a new place to eat lunch.