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Contextual Discovery

Contextual discovery, a concept I first heard about through Google spokesperson Marissa Mayer at a developers’ conference in late 2010, is like social discovery but personalizes content based on where you are rather than who you are. So, let’s say you’re at the airport. A notification may pop up on your mobile phone telling you your flight’s status, as well as showing you a map of the airport. As with Facebook’s evolving social discovery product, there is a tension between providing value for the user and the temptation to capitalize on the user’s attention through advertising. And so, alongside the notifications that help you through your flight experience, you will probably be informed of a deal at the airport Starbucks or a discount on in-flight Wi-Fi.

More so than Facebook, I trust Google to keep the usefulness factor top-of-mind while downplaying the ads. Google has a history of making our lives easier, and the trade-off—having to look at little text ads alongside the experience—hasn’t been that bad. Compare text ads to the annoyingness of a pop-up ad or a pre-roll video commercial and you’ll see what I mean.

  • “Google has a history of making our lives easier, and the trade-off—having to look at little text ads alongside the experience—hasn’t been that bad.”

Contextual discovery is not a product that just any company can offer. In its mobile form, it either needs to be sewn into your phone by the software maker or be part of a location-based application. To deliver contextual information, a company must not only know where you are and what you’re doing, but also have information to share with you about every place and activity. To do so, it would need a large bank of local data and a preestablished group of advertisers. Google is a natural fit. It seems likely it had contextual discovery in mind when it decided to create Android, its mobile phone operating system. Other natural fits are Foursquare and Gowalla, who have always based their business models on being able to serve you relevant ads wherever you are.

As with mobile payments, the company that can get you to remain logged in all the time has the competitive advantage. Whoever is always present in the background can easily add to your experience by offering information based on where you are and what you’re doing. Google remains the strongest contender, based on this reasoning, with its nearly 200 million worldwide users (as of this printing); the majority of them are logged in 24/7. Although Facebook’s users also tend to stay logged in, and there are three times as many, its core product is so social that it is unlikely Facebook would deliver purely utilitarian content like maps, menus, and guides. Truly, contextual discovery is meant to be offered by Google, whose mission is to make the world’s information “universally accessible and useful.”

In fact, I would call Google the original inventor of contextual discovery. Its AdSense ads, which “read” web pages and serve you ads that relate to the content on the page, were the first of their kind. I believe Google will continue to innovate in this area with its Chrome web browser (see Figures 3.5 and 3.6). After all, contextual discovery doesn’t have to be mobile; it can also be in the browser. Soon we will be seeing notifications pop up while we’re surfing the Web. If you are searching for a used car, for instance, your Chrome web browser might offer you a copy of the current year’s Blue Book, which lists the values of used cars. Some of the content Chrome offers will simply be helpful and interesting, with no advertising basis. But ads will always be a part of the experience in some form.

Figure 3.5

Figure 3.5 A likely application of Google’s contextual discovery, which Google calls “Google search without the search.” Here, the user is being offered a peek at the menu while he is browsing the restaurant’s website.

Figure 3.6

Figure 3.6 Another likely application of contextual discovery. This web browser offers reviews of the book the person is viewing.

Google bills contextual discovery as “Google search without the search,” and it will undoubtedly be an important part of the company’s future. I can imagine it applying to travel guides, TV programming, cooking recipes, reviews, and much more. As a predominantly mobile service, I can picture it expanding to useful suggestions about other parts of your phone, as well. For instance, because I live on both coasts, it would be useful if my phone “knew” that upon landing in New York, I usually want to call a taxi; and that in the taxi, I often call one of three or four people to let them know I’ll be home in a little while. Then, at home, I like to “check in” through Facebook to announce to my New York friends that I’m back. With contextual discovery, all these actions could be offered to me instantly, and I could accomplish each one in a single click!

As you can see, there is a lot of potential in contextual discovery—but how can it be useful to marketers?

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