This column originally appeared on March 21 on Real Money, our premium site for active traders. Click here to get great columns like this.
If there's anything that Google Search was known for from its very beginning -- well, besides providing more useful and relevant results than Yahoo! (YHOO) , Excite, Alta Vista and all other would-be rivals -- it has been the service's simplicity. While rival search engines tried to double as "portals" chock-filled with news, sports, weather and other content, Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) - Get Report remained focused on providing a fast, reliable and effective search engine, with even its ads limited to text and (eventually) small images guaranteed not to seriously distract from its core service.
And while Google launched a slew of complementary services, it refrained from integrating their content with Google Search except to the extent that doing so would enhance the quality of its search results. To this day, Google's PC search home page remains a textbook example of minimalist web design.
All of this makes the new features Google just announced for its mobile search apps and website, as well as some of the feature additions that preceded them, especially jarring. However, this sudden willingness to embrace the kind of "feature-rich" design embraced by Google's former rivals has everything to do with how different wants and needs are on smartphones compared with PCs. And the same certainly holds for Google's new attempts to un-clutter its mobile operating system.
On Tuesday, Google unveiled several "tappable shortcuts" for its iOS/Android apps, as well as for Google.com's mobile site, that lead to pages featuring things like sports news/scores, weather info, TV listings and information on local businesses. There are also shortcuts for services such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Translate and hotel and flight search engines. Google even threw in "fun" shortcuts that let users play animal sounds or casual games such as Solitaire and tic-tac-toe.
Somewhere, the team responsible for the old My Yahoo! home page service might be chuckling.
As it is, the home page for Google's mobile search apps have begun displaying (below the search bar) a customizable feed of "cards" showing news, sports scores, videos and other content it thinks a user might be interested in. It also leverages the personal info Google has gleaned from its various service to show things like appointment and bill-payment reminders, flight and order statuses and commute times.
Some of this content can be monetized -- for example, video links in the custom feed typically go to YouTube videos that might feature ads. But it looks as if Google's main goal here is to keep users hooked on its mobile search apps and site. And thus more likely to use that old search engine that easily remains Google's biggest profit-creator.
So why has Google refrained from launching similar features on its PC search site? Because when those accessing Google Search on a PC browser want things like news headlines, sports scores and movie times, they're generally content to search for it. Quite often these days, Google will surface the info within its search results. But if a PC user has to jump to another site's web page to get it, he or she usually doesn't mind.
On a device with a 5-inch screen and a touch keyboard, users might find searching to be more of a hassle. Especially when they're only looking for some basic info. In such cases, they might deem being able to access such info with a tap or two from a custom home page (one might call it a "portal") more convenient.
Aside from this, many smartphone users aren't keen on constantly jumping from one site to another, especially when many sites still haven't been optimized for mobile devices. And even jumping from app to app can feel inconvenient. All of this gives apps like Google Search and Facebook's (FB) - Get Reportcore app, which act as core utilities for hundreds of millions of smartphone users, an incentive to integrate basic content that users typically rely on other apps and sites to get.
Facebook's attempts to go in this direction have included launching its Sports Stadium, trending topics features and weather report features, as well as a service (Instant Articles) that lets users view full articles from select publishers within Facebook's app. Google's efforts, in addition to the company's aforementioned moves, include its support for "Instant Apps" that at least partly load from search result pages without any need for installation. There's also its AMP initiative to enable mobile web pages that load almost instantly when accessed via Google Search and News.
The top-line incentives for Google/Facebook to further hook smartphone users on the well-monetized Google Search and Facebook apps are of course pretty big. But there's also another incentive for Google: The company has to give Apple (AAPL) - Get Report a large revenue cut when iOS users click on search ads seen on Apple's Mobile Safari browser. It doesn't have to do this if they click on such ads via the Google Search app, or through the iOS Chrome browser. Google said last August it's getting about 60% of its searches via mobile devices.
In tandem with its mobile search page changes, Google unveiled a developer preview for the next version of Android, which is codenamed O. Though not containing any earth-shaking new features (at least for now), the OS delivers several useful nuts-and-bolts improvements.
Battery life, that universal headache, is improved by placing restrictions on what apps can do while running in the background. And those Android users who feel swamped by mobile notifications (that's a lot of them) will be pleased to know an app's notifications can be grouped and collapsed into "channels," with users able to control how the content from individual channels is shown. In addition, users can snooze notifications for 15, 30 or 60 minutes (they could already silence them indefinitely), and are promised "new visuals and grouping to notifications that make it easier for users to see what's going on when they have an incoming message or are glancing at the notification shade."
Google is also creating an autofill programming interface (API) meant to spare users the trouble of repeatedly entering the same personal info by letting them select an autofill app that can do it for them. Other Android O features include support for picture-in-picture video viewing and notification "badges" that can be attached to home screen icons (iOS says hello), and a streamlined Settings interface with a much shorter home page.
None of these features are going to make the average Android user leap for joy. But collectively, they show Google has been paying close attention to what frustrates many consumers about their current smartphone experiences, and what kind of improvements would lower that frustration. Just as its mobile search app/site enhancements show that it grasps how differently many consumers prefer to access information content on smartphones, and as some of the changes recently made to YouTube's features and ad formats point to an understanding of how different mobile viewing habits are.
The impact of some of these moves on Google's bottom line is much more indirect than it is for others. Regardless, with Google either on its way to getting over half its revenue via mobile devices or already there, investors certainly can't complain.