Mobile YouTube Finds an Editor, But No Model

YouTube slipped a Web site into the WAP universe this week in what looks like a low-profile beta. This comes many months after a then-exclusive deal with Verizon to put the brand onto the V Cast clipcasting service. Good thing, too. The WAP version (m.youtube.com) is a vast improvement on the V Cast disappointment. In the meantime, the uber-brand of user-submitted video had left a void others filled. Arguably, Revver on V Cast was superior, in that it paid closer attention to which video were framed and cut more appropriately for the handset experience. V Cast is a tough platform to make sexy, however, with its endless folders of text links and homogenized look and feel for every media brand. It makes WAP look good by comparison.

In recent months, a few wannabes have made good use of the free mobile Web platform. I mentioned MyCorner a few months ago, and its very impressive WAP portal wisely combines user-submitted with professional video productions. And StupidVideos, too, while not as elegantly designed as MyCorner, seemed to be getting some traction on mobile recently by focusing on core user-generated properties that feed that apparently bottomless hunger for funny home videos and captured antics. There seems to be an entire subgenre of American humor grounded in watching young fathers get banged in the balls by their youngsters wielding plastic bats. Theoretically (perhaps politically, too) I can applaud any grassroots art form that emerged from the personal video revolution. Personally, however, I think we should just start equipping all pairs of khaki shorts sold in America with protective cups and end the madness.

Both MyCorner and StupidVideos insert banner ads into the scroll of thumbnails, but this also helps underscore the lack of an evolved business model for mobile clips. Much like the early banners of the Web, dominated by direct marketing and site-builder ads, these banners seem out of place. StupidVideos has a mortgage lender ad and MyCorner has a garish yellow banner to "win $200" for taking a survey. Like MySpace and YouTube online, the mobile clip platform is fishing for an ad format (let alone targeting) that really make some sense in its context. This is a rudimentary way to monetize video content -- but for now, it seems to be about all we have.

YouTube on WAP is faring no better. This release has no apparent business model. By coming to WAP, YouTube does get to stretch some design and editorial sense. In fact, the good news about mobile YouTube is that Google seems to have discovered the value of actual editing. The site does not try too hard to replicate the Web experience. A simple scroll of thumbnails meets you at the front door. These featured clips apparently have been chosen by sentient beings who didn't seem present at V Cast. Here we get videos that are visible in the handset format: an infant laughing infectiously; a guy who catches sunglasses on his face; and a ton of pro-am comedy skits. Even better, you have the option of clicking on the thumbnail itself to play the clip immediately, or clicking into the headline for a description of the video. Of course, many of these descriptions are provided by the users, so we get a lot of "another random video" and "my cat." Somewhere in there, I am sure, is a description of "Dad gets line drive to the nuts -- laughter ensues."

YouTube for mobile is a bit of smoke and mirrors, because a lot of the online functionality that makes it fun is missing here in favor of a "best of YouTube" approach. While you can't vote from the phone, YouTube tries to leverage the semblance of the social network to identify the best clips and let them represent the major categories: entertainment, people, and "grab bag."

The company is trying to capture some of the spirit of YouTube - the serendipitous discovery and the recommendation engine -- without slavishly imitating the original. I still haven't figured out how to upload a video from a phone. The mobile site pushes you over to your account online to figure that one out. You can't forward anything to a friend, so there is no sharing feature here. And the search box is downright strange. I tried querying keywords I thought would tag some of the more popular YouTube videos and came up with unrelated hits.

While there are finally some signs of life and thought behind the mobile extension of the YouTube brand, the more pressing issue is how to monetize it. Keyword-driven text links don't make a lot of sense here, because matching ads to this kind of ephemeral content has got to be tough. And personally, I've never really understood how pre-rolls really work unobtrusively in UG video. The contrast in content and quality seems to me so jarring between the ad and the clip that I wonder how effective it can be. I would love to see a perfect advertising eco-system for UG video where the ads were entertaining enough to be sold by publishers as ads but viewed by users as more clever content. We talk about the death of the 30-second spot with clip-sized video online and limited attention spans elsewhere. But mobile and Web UGC platforms almost invite 30-second spots, as long as they are really entertaining.

I am more puzzled by the fact that YouTube hasn't even structured its buckets to optimize targetability. Its first four video categories are "Featured," "Recently Added," "Most Viewed," "Top Rated" and "Top Favorites." This replicates many of the browsing categories from the Web site home page, but I have trouble understanding the distinctions among these categories over there as well. Exactly what is the difference among a list of "Top Favorites," Top Rated" and "Most Viewed?" How do you sell advertising around those? The other buckets for "People" and "Entertainment" are also a bit obtuse, since these new content categories lose some of their meaning in a UGC context.

Am I being nitpicky here? From an advertiser's perspective, the organization of YouTube on WAP doesn't give a feeling of confidence that its makers see a clear path to monetizing the property. YouTube in all of its iterations still looks like a Tube half full -- or empty.