An Open Question...

What the hell is mobile search anyway?

I ask this after spending time exploring a partnership between Yahoo oneSearch and HFMUS's ELLE magazine. During New York Fashion Week, searching "fashion" at m.yahoo.com will return a prominent helping from its promotional partner ELLE's coverage of the event. There are blog entries, an image of the magazine cover, a direct link to subscribe, and sign-ups for ELLE text alerts. This is not to say that there aren't "natural" search results down there somewhere, but on my Samsung phone they were a good ten screens down.

So, my question is -- is this essentially selling a search result to a partner? It clearly is a cross-promotional deal, because when I go directly to ELLE's Fashion Week coverage at its mobile site, there are ads for Yahoo. Isn't this taking sponsored search to a whole new level? Elsewhere in oneSearch results the ads are dutifully labeled and in blue boxes. But the ELLE placements appear to be, well, a search result.

Let me start by being fair to Yahoo and to mobile search as a platform that is by tradition distinct from online search. The oneSearch model always followed the idea that mobile searchers don't want standard search results so much as content and answers. The idea of the oneSearch product, which I myself praised when it launched, is to pull together different content types into a result. In most oneSearch queries I will get back things like FlickR images, links to Web sites, links to related business categories, directory listings, etc. As the Yahoo spokesperson I contacted explained to me in an email exchange, "As you know, Yahoo oneSearch delivers content from Yahoo properties, partners and content from both Mobile Web and Web -- all of which come together to deliver an optimal mobile search experience."

I recognize that mobile search is a different animal from Web search. After all, you do a search on Verizon and you get ringtones and wallpapers from their store. Clearly a search box on a phone deck is different from a Web search box.

But should it be so different that a content partner for a respected, major portal essentially gets the first ten screens of real estate when you enter a generic search term like "fashion"? After all, whatever may be discrete about the mobile search experience, the Yahoo brand and the white search box carries with it some expectations of impartial results somewhere near the top. Perhaps I am making too much of this, but it appears to me that a search result this horrendously skewed towards a specific partner undermines the trustworthiness of mobile search, or at least raises questions in a user's mind about what mobile search is anyway. Just because we in the industry are playing with models for mobile search doesn't mean that consumers are shifting their expectations accordingly.

But I mean this to be an open question, because I think it does raise issues about the identity of mobile search for developers and for consumers. I have asked this question of a few people in the field and gotten a variety of responses, some thinking Yahoo goes way over the edge here and others less exercised by it.

And I don't mean to beat up on Yahoo here, although the company has served up a great example of a bad idea. What do we expect from that box on a handset, especially after a decade of experience with a similar-looking box on our Web browser? Aside from all these other questions, the "fashion" search on oneSearch is a truly terrible experience for the user. Is screen after screen of links and content on Fashion Week all from a single partner what a "fashion" searcher really wanted, or what Yahoo and ELLE wanted them to want?

But I ask you. What the hell is mobile search anyway?