Re-Searching Search On The Mobile Web
In my life, search is fast becoming a better experience on a handset than it is on the web. In some ways the imperatives of the small screen, bandwidth constraints, and relevance appear to be driving the search providers to real innovation here.
At the same time, mobility is driving me, the user, towards behaviors I wouldn't have expected to adopt when some search features were first rolled out. For instance, voice search is now my default input for the Google smartphone apps on iPhone and Android. The accuracy of the voice recognition combined with mobile search's tendency to look for local results is more likely to get me what I want sooner than typing into my desktop. Saying "movie times" or "sushi takeout" into the app will almost always get me details of nearby resources plus a phone link and directions in about five seconds.
The recent usage stats from Performics showing that a high percentage of people who have used mobile search tend to use it frequently doesn't surprise me. I suspect that as more people explore the evolving feature sets on mobile search, they will adopt it very quickly as the shortest distance between two points.
In the last week or so, both Google and Microsoft refreshed their mobile search product line. Google's iOS app adds sidebar menus that pop-in with a swipe and let you drill into vertical results more easily. A swipe down brings the search bar no matter where you are in the app. And the phone cam visual search is integrated next to the voice search. I don't know when the Apps search function slipped into Google's mobile search (also at m.google.com), but it is a welcome addition. You can do a search for an iPhone app from the browser, and the result will kick you over to its download page in the App Store.
The more interesting renovations are going on at Bing's mobile site this week. Showing off HTML5 chops, the aim at Microsoft appears to be making the mobile Web experience feel like an app. Like the current smartphone versions of Bing, the mobile site superimposes a scroll of vertical search categories atop a pleasant image. With special effects like fade-ins for some screens and carousel menus, the Bing site offers an enticing glimpse of how engaging an HTML5-powered mobile Web can be.
Bing clearly is trying to press its "decision engine" branding here and depart from some of the standard search categories. Many of its categories like Movies, Weather, and Direction are dropping you either into functionality that is well tuned to mobile -- or directly into actionable, location-sensitive information. For instance, "deals" is a prominent heading in the scroll, and it brings up a local map with highlighted discounts on everything from Burger King meals to bread-making supplies and paint. A lateral scroll atop the results lets me refine by category and even save results for later reference.
While all of the classic search and portal providers like Google and Yahoo are also doing this, Bing seems to be most determined to pull content into the search experience rather than link out to it in standard Web fashion. The mobile Web experience aggregates more content than the others. For instance, Google's mobile Web site is more about pulling together all of the Google services like the Docs, Buzz, Reader, Calendars, etc. Bing on the other hand has a Weather link on its front page that pulls up the local forecast with much the same detail as one of the dedicated weather providers. You can even slide over to a range of maps and hourly breakdowns.
Bing's Shopping function also pulls in user reviews into a bar chart of ratings. Google tends to emphasize online resources. I ran a "Hoover SteamVac" search on both engines. Bing gave me detailed user reviews and specs divided pretty well by model type. It was less strong on getting me to a purchase. Google was pushing retailers and promised that one of the models was in stock nearby. Clicking through to those links proved fruitless, however.
Microsoft is not only making the mobile Web search engine feel more like its app counterpart, but arguably it is gathering for itself some of the functions standalone apps now serve. The weather, movies and deals buttons are executed well enough to pull some users away from dedicated apps if they wanted to make Bing an on-ramp to the mobile Web. In some sense this is the strategy that Yahoo had been trying for years on mobile, to revive the classic portal experience for mobile that became less relevant to Web surfers. The assumption is that people will want their content aggregated in one place for more efficient access on a handset. I think the jury will remain out on that one for a while as users still go through the process of discovering what their handset can do, and how these features fit within the rituals of everyday use. Bing's snazzy new HTML5 feature set is impressive to play with. And yet, can it break my newly formed reflex of barking search orders into my Google app?