How Google’s Search Chief Has Been Living The “Mobile First” Life For Over A Year

Amit Singhal

Amit Singhal. Credit: Google

You’ll often hear the mantra of “mobile first” with technology companies, but the head of Google search isn’t just saying it. He’s been living it, doing almost all of his searches for more than a year on mobile devices.

Amit Singhal is Google’s senior vice president of search, overseeing all of the company’s search products, a role he’s had since he joined Google back in 2000. I’ve interviewed him many times over those years. One of those times was a few months ago, when he mentioned casually that he’d gone all mobile with his searches, as he put his two smartphones down on a conference table while we talked.

Really? All his searching on mobile? Indeed, he replied. When more people are searching on Google with mobile devices than desktop, he felt it made sense to not just be talking about mobile first but to actually be living it.

Intrigued, I asked to talk with Singhal further about his all-mobile life in a follow-up interview. Here’s our Q&A on the topic, which was conducted last month.

Q: When did you make this switch to just using cell phones and mobile devices?

SINGHAL: I think it’s been close to a year or so where I’m living on cell phones. I admit that when I have to type long work emails, yes, I do go to a browser because typing long emails is hard still. But I largely live on these things.

A funny story is that we are living in temporary housing right now because our house is being renovated and we didn’t get wi-fi, because for two or three weeks, it was too much trouble. And I don’t have a laptop at home. I have nothing with a keyboard at home these days.

Q: And is it just the phones? Do you have a tablet, as well?

SINGHAL: No. No tablet. Nothing with a keyboard, not even a tablet. This [picking up his Galaxy S6 Edge; he also has an iPhone 6+] is big enough.

Q: Do you like one [of the phones] over the other?

SINGHAL: We have users on all platforms, and I love them all [he says with smile].

Q: So when you come into the office, is that when — if you have to do the long emails — you would do the main switch [to desktop]?

That’s the only time I go to desktop or a laptop. Occasionally, there are some security things [that] don’t work here, so I have to go deal with that. But other than that, I’m mostly in meetings six to seven hours a day. I do not walk around with a laptop or a tablet, which roughly means I’m forced to live on these things six to seven hours a day. And one hour is when I do those long emails.

Q: Do you have a battery pack that goes with them?

SINGHAL: [Laughs] That’s why I carry two! Just in case one runs out.

Q: What’s been the biggest sort of thing you’ve discovered as you’ve gone through this? Maybe the biggest shift? I’m especially curious if you’ve thought, “Wow, I’m thinking about mobile in a different way” that you hadn’t anticipated.

SINGHAL: I think the biggest realization that I am having is that the compute model of web on one side and apps on the other side, neither is kind of perfect. That’s the biggest realization I’ve had. Because the web still hasn’t been fully designed for mobile.

I shudder whenever I land on a site where I have to to type in a login and password.

That’s why we’re doing AMP [accelerated mobile pages] and so on, to move it forward. But still, I shudder whenever I land on a site where I have to to type in a login and password. I’m just speaking from the heart on this. Even though Chrome has my password saved and everything, it still doesn’t feel great.

Q: Do you shudder because it’s awkward to try to enter all that stuff?

SINGHAL: Yeah. It’s incredibly awkward. I forget passwords, most of the time. So I find the link for “I forgot my password. Please send me a temporary one.” Then I go back to Gmail, then cut-and-paste, then maybe there’s an extra white space I don’t see. It’s a nightmare because the cut-and-paste is not precise, I’m using a thumb that’s the size of a quarter.

Imagine on the web if your mouse pointer was yea big [making a fist with his hand]. Would the web design look like how it looks today?

On the app side, I haven’t downloaded many apps. And so the identity problem is fundamentally messed up. Yes, most apps do save my identity, but I don’t download an app that I would use once in three months, maybe.

My doctor sends me a blood test. Now, I haven’t downloaded my medical foundation’s app. It has a web site that works perfectly fine, and thankfully, I don’t have to get a blood test every day, so it’s like a once in six months thing.

So that’s been the biggest realization. That has guided us quite a bit on the positive side, in that the two big projects, AMP being the most recent one, app indexing being the one before, that has guided us to bridge this gap.

AMP is a far better system of delivering content. And app indexing, with the 40 percent of Google [search] traffic getting an app indexed link in the top five [results] saves me from trying to search within the apps for the following reason.

Mobile is fundamentally a “tapped” device, it’s not a “typed” device.

Searching within the apps, I find incredibly painful. Mobile is fundamentally a “tapped” device, it’s not a “typed” device. I pretty much count how many taps that I have to do before I get what I want. Now, we [Google] using autocomplete have built models that are so awesome that within two or three taps, I roughly get what I want, which is two or three characters all lined up.

Most apps don’t have those autocomplete models. I have to type a lot to get to what I wanted to say to the app. So I often find myself searching on Google because three taps, I get a query. Boom. I go into my app, to the right page. Life is good. So that’s been one of the learnings.

Q: Do you have an example of an app or content that’s easier to jump into?

SINGHAL: Any kind of contentful app, like, you know, Wikipedia. It’s simple. It’s not a real app, a functional app, but that’s an example of contentful app. So are the numerous apps that I tend to use, only a handful of them, but those are the examples of things where I just don’t have to type. And that’s so good.

Q: Also in terms of search, have there been things you’ve realized, as you’ve done searching on mobile, that you thought, “I hadn’t really thought of the presentation or hadn’t thought about the user behavior, we need to change it up or make it better in some way?”

SINGHAL: The biggest realization is that it’s a tapped device, so all kinds of things have happened based on that realization. For signed-in users, we can suggest the last few queries before they type a single letter. That changes how people use [search], because many people do repeat queries.

Here’s an example. I type “mo.” I didn’t type in “Mountain View” [showing how typing just “mo” presented “Mountain View” as a suggested search]. That is long! Whoever named this city? [Laughs, implying they weren’t thinking about someone searching for it on mobile]. Look at all the history. This is from my search history. Yes, “Mountain View library” [one of the suggestions shown] is relevant to me, periodically. Boom, done!

So this changed how we have basically thought about search. Look at this. This is the other thing that I personally use. Not too many people know about it. This is my father-in-law. Three letters [showing how typing those brought up his father-in-law’s contact info]. If I have to call him, it takes longer than that sometimes in various dialers. So this is just an example of what has happened.

I realized… that on mobile devices, I wanted to act more.

The other thing that has happened is that I realized that on mobile devices, I wanted to act more. The balance between acting and consuming is more shifted towards acting. Acting as in call a business. Right? That’s the simplemost acting. Or like booking a table or something is an example.

Q: Are you saying that you want to do more of that or you want it to be easier to do it more?

SINGHAL: I want to do much more of it, and so what we’ve done in our interfaces is made actions easier. Like, I’ll show this because I used this today. Today’s my 24th wedding anniversary. [Speaks into his phone] “Book a table for two at Tamarine tonight at 7 p.m.”

[Ideally, the request would have triggered the ability to book from that search via OpenTable, something Google supports. But in this case, an error happened.]

Once our OpenTable integration doesn’t time out, it times out periodically, I can simply book a table. I did that earlier today, but right now it’s timing out.

That’s an example. That’s an action, I need to book [a] table, I need to have dinner. Calling a business is the simplemost one. I navigate regularly. I just pick up my phone, I tap the mic [button] and say navigate to wherever, and that has become such a habit now for me because that’s an action, as well.

So that been a realization that mobile is more of a “do” device.

Q. What are things you’re finding are still sort of lacking?

SINGHAL: One thing — this is just my life, not really a description of a broader thing – it’s the timeout, for example, that I just had. Why has this service just timed out and so on?

About what doesn’t work very well today [generally]? On the web, I used to hop from query to query much faster. Suppose I’m booking a trip to some place, and I run into a hotel review that I like. I cut and paste the hotel [info] by dragging [with a mouse to highlight the copy] and stick it somewhere.

That is really painful [on mobile]. My train of thought is interrupted, because I kind of cringe at the thought of trying to select text on mobile. The copy-and-paste, that’s just not designed for that [i.e., it doesn’t work as well as with desktop].

To my pleasant surprise, I have been using the Chrome Now on Tap feature. That works very well, but then my frustration is that it only works in Android [He said Chrome originally but meant Android]. It doesn’t work when I’m reading something that’s not an app [that supports Now on Tap].

Do you see? These are all kind of glitches that we know how to solve technically. But it’s not the technical part. It’s providing that consistent experience that works.

Our train of thought gets interrupted because physically doing some of these things is so hard. Our brain over the last ten years or fifteen has been programmed to kind of say “Hey, okay, I’m reading about Maui, and if I run into a hotel, I’ll cut-and-paste into Google.” Done. Moving forward. But thinking about doing that on mobile…. [Sighs, to signify the frustration].

Q: Do you tend to type more or do you voice search more?

SINGHAL: I’m swiping and voice searching far more than letter typing.

Q: Are you doing them both equally? Or do you tend to do the voice searching more for certain things?

SINGHAL: What I’m noticing is that when I’m at work, I’m usually surrounded by people in meetings. I can’t talk to my phone as much, because I’m in a meeting, trying to look at something in parallel or so on. But in my personal time, I find myself talking to my phone.

Since my child [He has a 15-year-old son] doesn’t work, he has nothing but personal time. I have rarely seen this guy type on his mobile device. He does his homework — I’m not kidding — like this, with a pencil in one hand, his phone in the other hand.

We’ll be in a room, he’ll be in his room, and we’ll hear Google talk back all the time. I’m like, “Dude’s doing homework. Good, good.”

I’ve seen him so many times, he’s like [speaks into his phone] “When was the Second World War?” This has become his habit. We’ll be in a room, he’ll be in his room, and we’ll hear Google talk back all the time. I’m like, “Dude’s doing homework. Good, good.”

Q. What do you think are the biggest challenges generally coming up with search for you [in 2016]?

SINGHAL: The biggest three challenges for us still will be mobile, mobile, mobile. And I say still we’re far ahead of the game, as you have noticed, compared to anyone or anything else. We’re far ahead of the game.

I feel proud about that, but I still don’t feel happy with the entire product offering. I feel very proud on how much progress we have made with voice search and swipe typing and autocomplete.

That shows in the fact that our mobile traffic has overtaken our desktop traffic. It shows that we have made it easier for people to use search, very easy. That’s going to be one.

I’m really enjoying our predictive Google Now these days, because I get so much good stuff from it now, after we have been revamping it and we recently launched the revamp. I’m really enjoying this.

[He opens Google Now on his phone, showing various cards of information, then comments on them].

Here’s my All Hands [meeting that he’s about to leave to]. My parking location, I’m into cricket, apparently there’s a game tomorrow morning, where India’s playing South Africa. The [Golden State] Warriors [basketball team] are kicking ass. Here is all the stock information. The temperature. This is really cool. I actually am interested in a whole bunch of this stuff.

This stuff is for me. Not everyone will get it or should get it [the exact mix of cards and information he sees].

I find myself coming back to it over and over and over again. And again, it’s all a work in progress.

I’m having those “Oh Wow” moments fairly regularly now, which is amazing

Wow! [he exclaims, coming across a news item in Google Now about Mark Zuckerberg pledging to give away 99 percent of his wealth]. He said he’ll give up 99 percent of his wealth?

Look, I learned something. See, these “Oh Wow” moments make me come back. I’m having those “Oh Wow” moments fairly regularly now, which is amazing.

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