Apple Knows, People Want to be Led

In a recent New York Times article on Apple’s new iAds mobile advertising system, Steve Jobs delivered an interesting quote:

‘Search is not where it’s at’ on phones, he said. ‘People are not searching on a mobile device like they are on the desktop.’

A Google spokesman responded with some stats about the growth of mobile search, none of which really addressed the point. Intuitively Jobs seems to be correct so, if he is, what are the implications?

In the last website redesign I did, we were keenly aware that Google had become the web’s homepage and that users dipped into the interior of our site for a story and then backed out to a search results page. This means that we could no longer count on our audience entering the site from our homepage and had to try to keep search engine visitors by some means found on interior pages. Search engines are now homepages and site homepages are becoming increasingly marginalized.

Now look at mobile. People don’t use search engines the same way. On a smart phone they go to an app that will solve their current problem. Many of these apps, of course, are search based, but that search is typically controlled within the app. Some examples are Yelp, Siri, Fandango, and Shazam – very useful search based apps, but controlled. On mobile devices, and now the iPad, product and brand are regaining the value they once had, but which was stripped away by search engines. For many pundits, this is cause for great consternation, but they forget one important thing – people want to be led.

People want to be led for a variety of reasons – lack of expertise, time prioritization, timidity, ignorance  – but we all sooner or later reach the point where we think, “Good heavens, just get me to the good stuff!” We’ve been through the phase where to avoid being told, “You just don’t get it,” everyone had to praise the chaos of crowd sourced news, RSS readers, and open source everything. In each of these cases, and many others, companies emerged to make sense of the chaos and bring people products and information they didn’t have to create or curate themselves. To lead users to the good stuff. Crowd sourced information and design, user generated content, and open source software will continue to be critically important components of our world, but there is also room for products that do more of the work for us. For any given product or service, most users don’t have the desire or skills to be creators, leaving the largest market open to those brands who are able to lead people to the good stuff. People who want this leadership aren’t losers who “don’t get it,” they simply have different priorities. Maybe the guy who works all day on open source code just can’t be bothered to cull the web for his favorite RSS feeds so he just goes to for his news.

So back to mobile. Apple understands that people want to be led. Their closed systems bother me, but I still buy their products, and so do a lot of people so it’s awfully hard to criticize their strategy. For the rest of us, this is an opportunity to create and leverage brands in the digital world. With that comes the necessity of building a great product, but the potential is there. To be sure, this isn’t a reversion to some glorious time in the past, it’s simply another evolution of our world. We don’t know exactly how it will play out, and we know it will continue to evolve, but right now, there is an opportunity to be seized.

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