Context Is the Query: Rethinking Content and Search

By combining search and browsing history with geographic and other spatial information, mobile devices have greatly accelerated the ability of our favorite applications and websites to predict, suggest, and refine responses to a query–or respond even when no overt query has been made. In other words, context itself has become the new query.

This way of thinking about how we interact with computing devices was the topic of an article by Claire Miller a few months ago in the New York Times. A highlight:

Glance at your phone in the morning, for instance, and see an alert that you need to leave early for your next meeting because of traffic, even though you never told your phone you had a meeting, or where it was.

How does the phone know? Because an application has read your e-mail, scanned your calendar, tracked your location, parsed traffic patterns and figured out you need an extra half-hour to drive to the meeting.

The technology is the latest development in Web search, and one of the first that is tailored to mobile devices. It does not even require people to enter a search query. Your context — location, time of day and digital activity — is the query, say the engineers who build these services.

Along with other kinds of predictive search, including the new Google algorithm we discussed in an earlier post, applications, websites, and other digital experiences increasingly have the power to tailor content in advance of a user’s effort to search for or parse specific information. Again, particularly on mobile devices, it means knowing that when someone searches “subway”, they well might be thinking “location” and “next train” rather than an encyclopedic entry on subways or general subway information. The expediency factor, by itself, is defining for much of what we do on the go, and the kinds of information we are looking for: “How do I get to this?” “Do they have this?” An application that knows you are in a bookstore when you search on a book title has contextual information that you may well be looking to purchase.

Assembling a data profile of your behaviors, wants, and other patterns, combining that spatial data, plus the expediency context inherent to mobile, makes the ‘magic’, as Steve Jobs once described computing, ever more magical. While it may be off-putting to have our phones know so much about us, mobile devices are becoming trusted companions that can anticipate needs and close the gaps between the stages of desire, information and action. A trend to watch indeed.

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