During the .com boom, there was a lot of debate and discussion around 'push' versus 'pull'. In the eyes of some, services that were able to successfully anticipate what data users would want or need and push it to them were set to would dominate the nascent information economy.
Yet arguably the most successful company to emerge from the rubble of the bubble is a company built on pull: Google.
Looking to buy a new car and need to do research, or want to know more about a medication your doctor mentioned? Chances are you'll go to Google and ask Google to deliver exactly what you need. This pull dynamic has been crucial to Google's success: because you tell Google what you're looking for, Google's advertisers can quickly connect your interest and intent around a particular query to their products and services.
But will pull always be the future of Google's search offerings? According to Marissa Mayer, the answer is 'no'. At the LeWeb conference in Paris, she told attendees that "contextual discovery" is the next big thing for the world's most powerful search engine:
The idea is to push information to people...Inside the browser and a toolbar, can we look at where people have been going on the web — then we deliver it...On the mobile phone, it’s where you are in the physical world. We can figure out where the next most useful information is. In a restaurant maybe it’s a menu. Or maybe it’s a social menu. It’s about explicit and implicit location. [emphasis mine]
While Google search in its current form isn't going anywhere soon, Mayer's comments may represent a dramatic shift in how some of Google's most important people are looking at the world. Clearly influenced by services like Foursquare, Mayer specifically referenced location as "a piece of context for finding what [users] want without them actually searching for anything."
In theory, all of this makes sense. Google has mastered the art and science of allowing you to find the information you're looking for (okay, perhaps mastered is a bit too strong of a word). But what if Google could find ways to find the information you want and need before you knew you wanted or needed it? The allure of push marketing is understandable, and when one looks at what's happening in the mobile and local markets, it's no surprise that Google is interested in making big bets on push-oriented services.
But at the end of the day, some pragmatism is in order. Sure, being able to predict what a person needs to know before he or she needs to know it sounds sexy and seems the source of huge opportunities, but it's quite unclear how much of that most of us really want. At some point, push, "contextual discovery" or whatever you want to call it is liable to become noise, clutter and spam. Which is why Google should consider a middle road: focusing on taking advantage of contextual signals to help consumers find what they tell you they're looking for even more efficiently. After all, Google's empire has been built on helping consumers find what they're looking for. It shouldn't forget that and become too pushy.