Five Paths to Mobile Search

Here’s today’s Search Insider column. What started out as a possible column on Thumbplay evolved into a story on the four paths to mobile search, which then became five when I remembered applications. Let me know if there should really be six or more, though I discuss some other models at the end.

Five Paths to Mobile Search

What does mobile search mean, anyway?

I was thinking of this when Thumbplay, a site for mobile
entertainment downloads, sent over news of its SMS vertical search
service. How does this fit in with all the ways consumers can search
mobile devices? And where can advertisers reach these consumers?

There are five predominant ways consumers can search through mobile
devices: on-deck, off-deck, applications, voice, and SMS. Most present
media buying opportunities, while search engine optimization only
factors into off-deck search. Beyond the five search vehicles, there
are other emerging models we’ll discuss briefly at the end.

  On-Deck: Currently, most mobile search and
Internet usage occurs on-deck – on the carriers’ branded portals. The
deck is exactly like AOL in the 1990s, where AOL focused on bringing
brand-name content to the user in its walled garden. The Web pioneers
weren’t using AOL, and AOL’s users gradually used its browser
WebCrawler to start exploring the Web; before long the garden’s walls
disintegrated. The same evolution will happen from on-deck to off-deck.
The default search engines on the carriers’ decks are powered by mobile
advertising companies like Medio Systems and JumpTap, which also run
search and display for other publishers.

  Off-Deck: When you go to Google or Yahoo on your
mobile phone, that’s searching off-deck. The main search engines have
the biggest advantage here over the long-term, even if new and emerging
rivals manage to effectively compete in specialized and vertical search
fields. Today’s leading engines have an extra edge with marketers, as
it’s getting easier to run integrated campaigns across the engines and
their mobile versions.

  Applications: Google and Yahoo both offer
downloadable applications for mobile search, local search / maps, and
other functions. That makes the engines easily accessible from
smartphone handsets, and the applications offer additional
functionality that wouldn’t be readily available on scaled-down mobile
sites.

   Voice: Voice search isn’t necessarily mobile
search, as one can call from a landline, but it’s most useful for
consumers who aren’t near a computer. Before I had mobile Web access, I
used to love calling voice service Tellme (owned by Microsoft; dial
800-555-TELL) for sports scores and weather, and I still regularly call
Jingle Networks’ 800-FREE-411 or Google’s 800-GOOG-411 for local
business listings, especially when I need specific information such as
a business’s cross-streets or hours. While GOOG-411 is ad-free and
Tellme focuses on its enterprise hosted voice platform, FREE-411
callers will hear targeted ads when they call. Mobile Web search could
later compete with voice search, but right now both have room to grow
as they steal market share from the Yellow Pages and paid directory
assistance.

  SMS: The consumer writes a text message to a
service like GOOGL (46645), YAHOO (92466), or WLIVE (95483 for Windows
Live), enters a request such as "pizza 60611," and the service responds
moments later with relevant listings (in this case, hopefully the
original Pizzeria Uno in Chicago). Although some of the commands take a
bit of adjustment to get the most out of the system, it’s fairly easy,
it works on any handset, and the results are stored as text messages
for future reference.

This brings us back to Thumbplay’s news that it just launched an
SMS search service for entertainment content like ringtones, games,
videos, and wallpaper. Here, the user sends a text to 48000 with a
command like "get elvis," Thumbplay returns a link via SMS which the
user can click to see all the related content, which in this case
includes mostly Elvis Costello ringtones. It’s a hybrid SMS-mobile Web
model rather than true SMS search, as one needs mobile Web access to
fulfill it. Thumbplay presents an easier way to access deep content
within a mobile site, and it’s easy to complete a purchase in a few
clicks.

Hybrid models are just one source of innovation. There are
technologies like Veveo’s vTap, which makes it easier to search for
content like videos from any device, and ican be especially useful for
mobile. Then there are directories like Pricegrabber’s mobile site atpgw.com
(you can try it from a standard Web browser), which lets you drill down
by category until you find the product you want, and then there’s a
link to the phone number to call in an order. Aggregate Knowledge’s
discovery engine is a further leap from search, and it now extends to
mobile via a partnership just announced with CBS Mobile.

It all seems rather dizzying compared to Web search, where the
overall process for how consumers search has been standardized. When
consumers are at their PCs, they don’t email searches or speak into
their computers; even searching through instant messaging, which has
been around for years, has barely emerged as more than a novelty.
Carriers, search engines, technologists, ad networks and others
appreciate that mobile search is different, even as everyone’s trying
to figure out just how different it is. That means standardization for
mobile is a long way off.

One thought on “Five Paths to Mobile Search

  1. David, excellent article. It’s a nice update to the mobile search use cases the MMA released last year (http://mmaglobal.com/mobilesearchusecases.pdf). One question: how would you classify mobile visual search and mobile barcode search according to these guidelines? SMS? Or would you classify it not as search, but as discovery? It seems to me that there’s an element of search to both, but that neither fits neatly into any of these categories.
    Best,
    Bryson

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