The Parallel Universe of Mobile Search
One day in the future, mobile search might appear indistinguishable from Web queries. But for now, people come to mobile search with very different expectations than Web search.
"The mobile Web is a parallel universe created for people on-the-go," says Omar Tawakol, chief advertising officer of Medio. "The state of mind is different."
In the short term, people still look first to customize their phones with downloadable ringtones and wallpapers. For now, mobile content vendors are to the mobile search market what Web services and ISPs were to Web advertising in the 1990s, a new category of advertisers uniquely aligned to this early adopter demo. Because inventory and audience are still relatively limited, the first wave of buyers purchase mobile search in categories and bundles of keywords rather than specific terms.
Medio, which serves about 40 percent of U.S. mobile searches, also found that after adult content (11 percent of mobile searches), 7 percent of queries involved a Web or WAP portal like Google or Yahoo and specific URLs. Users are indeed starting to look for that wider Web. Generally, however, mobile searches want direct answers: What's the weather? What's the score? Where's the store? Where are you?
When search firm iCrossing surveyed mobile-phone users who currently use a search box, the most sought-after information was maps and direction (searched for by 69 percent) and weather (65 percent). But Go2's CEO, Lee Hancock, suspects that mobile habits are bound to evolve beyond the immediate and the practical. Rather than the proverbial "third screen," he says, "I think there is a chance this could become a first screen of access. People will use it more and more - beyond immediate need - for things like TV schedules. There will be a lot of entertainment to it too."
It is still unclear what categories of advertising, with what kinds of appeals, will work in this parallel universe of needs. With a popular search box already on people's desks serving most of their immediate needs, what usage cases will dominate searching out-of-home? Will people really need to look for their electrician or the nearest Best Buy from the phone?
"The feeling is that mobile search is often going to relate more to business travelers and people out of their usual locale," says Khrysti Nazzarro, manager of client strategy at MoreVisibility. "Anything hospitality-related or tourist-driven will do well in mobile, and they have more of a budget to support that than the mom and pops.
And that local economy is one of the key challenges for mobile search. If the platform does become more about nearby services than global information, then publishers face the same sales hurdle that has bedeviled local search for a decade on the Web. How do you activate the small and medium businesses that make up the neighborhood economy and get them to buy digital? If AAAA Plumbing and Sal's Pizza aren't included in Yahoo, Google or Microsoft's local listings yet, then what will it take to spur them to purchase mobile search listings? And what sales force on the ground gets to that market first? Yahoo? The Yellow Pages? Newspapers? "I don't think anyone has cracked the code on how to make that happen," says Hancock.