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Visiting Google HQ

On Monday morning, fully half the Zeitgeist team awoke from its slumber, left its abode and walked the 15-minute walk to Mecca. While not a dedicated fanboy, the integral part this company has played in the evolution of the Internet over the past decade, (Zeitgeist first remembers using their search engine in 1999), is undeniable. The morning would be spent in the hallowed halls of Google HQ. Mobile advertising for the Android platform would be the focus.

After munching on a croissant, downing an Earl Grey and meandering past the ice cream delivery bicycle, Zeitgeist was talked at by Ian Carrington, Amanda Rosenberg, Reto Meier, Scott Seaborn from that indefatigable ad agency Ogilvy and from IconMobile; Steve Griffiths.

Given the high volume of iPhones-to-people ratio in the room, it was not best to start off the morning with a non-so-subtle jibe at the aforementioned device. However this was indeed how the morning started; these jibes became the sine qua non of the whole event. Given the current regulatory scrutiny Google’s search empire faces regarding Net Neutrality, any hubris around ‘open source’ might have also have been best kept checked, yet there it was. Those who persevered in their listening heard that 2010 was indeed the year of the mobile. For some it may have seemed like they had been stuck in an echo chamber; every year since at least 2005 has been deemed ‘the year of the mobile’, occasionally with the suffix “but this time it really is!”. Zeitgeist would not care to argue with the statement though, as finally consumer desire and the corporate technology to suit that desire seem to be approaching an optimum. Last Christmas, there was a sale on eBay through a mobile device every two seconds. We were told that “Everything Google do, we have a mobile version of”. Despite this poor syntax, this was an impressive statement; something simple and logical, but surely something that only a very small number of companies could lay claim to.

Google’s director of mobile advertising said that the company’s mantra when developing new products was now “mobile first”, again, an impressive affirmation when you really think about it. Currently there are fifty times as many searches performed on smartphones vs merely WAP-enabled handsets. So the iPhone, Android platform and its myrmidons are clearly providing a better user experience for consumers, that they in turn are utilising – though it will be interesting to see whether the soon-to-be-introduced data tariffs will have any impact on this. This may not be the year of the mobile, but it certainly is the year when futureproofing becomes a sound investment: In 2013, smartphone sales are predicted to overtake PC sales, which will coincide with mobile internet use overtaking desktop computer use. It’s quite plausible by then that such distinctions between types of computers will be even fuzzier than now, (iPhone, iPad, netbook, laptop, desktop) if not moot.

Google is currently in the throes of redesigning its Android application store, currently with 60,000 apps and growing (compared to Apple’s 250,000+). Apps are an interesting phenomenon. With Apple’s initial inception, they are now quite the hot item, the thing your client’s clamour after without knowing exactly why. Yet what service do they provide? According to the meeting yesterday, 95% of Apple’s apps are not used after twenty days. For Windows’ part, half of the ‘Marketplace for Mobile’ apps are made by Microsoft, suggesting they have some way to go before accruing a wide, collaborative audience. The utility of an app, it was suggested to the audience yesterday, could be one of two things; engagement or purchase. Your app is there to either enhance the brand (like Chanel or Dior) or to encourage purchase (Argos). Time, lack thereof and frequency are also a large contributing factor to an app’s use. Simply put, it would not be worth someone’s while to download the Expedia app to their phone in order to book a single flight. It would, however, be of use to a regular traveller.

The audience was later shown a graph showing mobile and desktop search queries throughout an average day, with troughs and peaks mirrored between the two systems. Google stated they were not sure whether mobile search had a cannabilisation effect on desktop search, and that they “don’t care”.

We were then treated to a presentation by Amanda who delved into the world of Android-capable handsets. This included voice search – asking the phone directly “What are the best restaurants for breakfast near Union Square in San Francisco?” led to a satisfying list of responses – and voice text; unfortunately punctuation is something that remains almost impossible to do by voice, currently. There was also an example of Google Goggles, which, as well as being able to identify a building from a picture taken by a user, can also scan hard copy text, translate it and then pronounce it for you. All of which, except for the semantics of context, was most impressive.

Scott Seaborn then stepped up to the plate, going through some interesting case studies of mobile advertising. Two in particular caught Zeitgeist’s eye. The first was the Seer app that IBM updated for this year’s Championships at Wimbledon. This interesting video from the somnambulistic “Click” show on the BBC details the amazing thing that OgilvyOne’s app can achieve. Also quite fun was the new Coke Zero iPhone app called The Cleaner, soon to be released.

Steve from WPP’s Iconmobile brought up some similarly interesting case studies. The first of which was for T-Mobile as it attempted to encourage paperless billing with a great mobile initiative that involved “green” perks. The other highlight was that of a North Face campaign in China, which won a Silver Lion at Cannes. An interesting co-incidence of brand and region, as most Chinese people are currently gravitating to an urban life, and do not traditionally treat hiking or mountain-climbing as a past-time.

We then heard more about the Android platform. 160k devices that support Android are activated daily now. One of the nicer features that Zeitgeist saw was the enablement of cross-app usage. A user could be browsing through nearby restaurants on one app. Upon finding the one they want and clicking on a button in the app to book a table, the user would then be taken straight to the OpenTable app, which would immediately display the available times and tables for the restaurant you were just looking at on a separate application. While convenient and a nice move, this does present a potential hindrance for advertisers if users begin to navigate through the web merely by going from proprietary app to app rather than using a browser where they would be exposed to more advertising.

Conversely, the expandable ads that will begin to appear on Android platforms while surfing looked great, especially for things like films (the example we saw was for Adam Sandler’s Funny People). Lastly, we saw the new ‘Navigation’ app, which is currently only available in the US. Its map system allowed for alerts to the user for nearby amenities on their chosen route, e.g. cinemas, restaurants, etc. Interestingly, it also allowed for sponsored layers, meaning advertisers could put specific flags down on the map for particular promotions, to encourage people to take advantage of en route to their final destination.

As for Google’s final destination? Well, we’ll save that for a future article.

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