Mobile Search

By February 6, 2007 4 Comments

Mobile search 

I was at a great MobileMonday event last night where the topic was mobile search.

There was some really forward thinking discussion about what mobile search is and the challenges of delivering a solution that will be compelling for consumers.  To much of the dialogue on this subject focuses on the big upside story (billions of mobile phones that are very personal devices) and ignores the reasons why mobile search hasn’t really gotten off the ground so far.  In fact Nic Newman of the BBC was honest enough to say that usage of the BBC mobile internet properties is “disappointingly low”.  Other estimates through the evening were that approx 1% of searches are on mobile.

The most important reasons for that, from Nic’s point of view are:

  • Low awareness – most people still don’t realise they can get BBC content on their mobile
  • Findability – even if they know it is there, they can’t find it easily enough
  • Small screen
  • Limited input

Two of those we can do something about in the short term, but two we can’t.

In his opinion the reasons to be optimistic are the success of the mobile internet in Japan and Korea, and research that shows there is a huge untapped need for access to information on the move.  I buy that.  After porn the most common searches on mobile are for taxis, restaurants and take aways – which seems to back up this point.

There were no forbidden topics last night when Martin Wilson from Yell took the floor – I liked his style – particularly  his focus on delivering a good service on mobile without getting distracted by a lot of the noise that can drown out many good initiatives in this space.  For example Yell mobile is a local search play and Martin was quick to draw out what people want – results delivered to maps, simple services, flat rate tariffs – and what they don’t care about – location based services.  It was refreshing to see someone in his position prepared to move the debate forward publicly by pointing out that 98% of the time we know where we are and 75% of the time we want information for somewhere other than where we are.

One piece of advice Martin had, which I echo, is not to try and bring in different business models just because something is mobile.

There was also a lot of interesting talk about what needs to be done to improve the mobile search experience.  This comes down to

  • query disambiguation using context – lots of good ideas discussed here, none of them new, and all of them quite hard to implement IMHO
  • better delivery of results – the mobile interface makes clicking through multiple links prohibitively painful (some research was presented showing that people give up after 10-12 clicks or scrolls) so improving the speed and putting more info in the search result itself sounds like an intelligent answer – this is where the impressive Steve Ives or Trigenix fame is headed with his new start-up Taptu

Mobile search is a big prize – potentially bigger than desktop search, which would make the winner bigger than Google – always assuming that Google doesn’t win of course.  The challenge for Taptu and the more advanced mobilePeople will be seeing off the competitive threat of the wireline search giants (Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft) whilst finding a way to navigate around operator inertia.  Getting the right balance of white label and own brand strategy will be critical for these companies as they balance the benefits of short term distribution and revenues against long term value creation.