WAPped Again

by , Feb 7, 2008, 12:00 PM
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To read some of my correspondence lately, you would think that mobile Web sites are dying a slow death. In response to my call for panel questions at OMMA Mobile (which is happening today as we speak, by the way), a number of people asked about full Web browsing on mobile devices. More than a few of you think that made-for-mobile sites soon will be obsolete.

I am not on board that train. I have smart phones and flip phones with Opera installed and the iPhone's Safari browser, but I only use the full Web experience a fraction of the time myself. In most cases, even on the iPhone, I prefer to bookmark a site that is formatted and edited with a phone in mind. All that reverse-pinching and zooming looks good in the ads, but it is not very practical on a day-to-day basis.

To check on the progress of WAP browsing, I hit up Boris Fridman, CEO of Crisp Wireless. Crisp powers the mobile versions of USA Today, CNN, Fandango, the Washington Post, Cars.com, and a boatload of branded TV and magazine media. "We've seen significant increases month to month," says Fridman. But what is the standard for a successful mobile Web site? Most of the top ten mobile sites in his stable are well over 1 million page views a month, with many much higher. A year ago, a number of those top tens still would have been in the 500,000 page view range. Most of the major branded news sites are seeing over 1 million uniques at this point. Of course, category leaders like Weather.com and ESPN run far higher than that.

Not surprising, but still interesting, is the relative parity of unique user and page view figures at most news sites. While on the Web, page views usually are multiples higher than audience size; on mobile, the tendency is for users to come to a site for a specific story.

Not shabby. But even with solid growth, discovery remains the bottleneck. If media companies think that putting their content on the open mobile Web is enough, think again. As soon as a media brand's mobile site gets placed on the carrier deck, Fridman says he sees traffic accelerate significantly. "The carrier is such an important driver," he tells me. And even more troubling to the emerging off-deck content eco-system is the negligible role mobile search plays in finding these sites. According to Crisp's logs, carrier decks are the most significant source of traffic, followed by bookmarking and then directly putting in the URL. "Today, this is much, much greater than search. Search is still sort of a footnote in what I am seeing."

Getting Web users used to the idea that their favorite online brands also come in mobile versions is a work in progress. Sometimes just putting a send-to-mobile option within the menu of article functions helps get the user into the mobile habit.

Viral mechanisms are having some traction as well. Fridman is seeing more of his sites adopt a send-to-friend tool that either pushes a link to someone via SMS or directly into email. In fact, more than a year ago Fridman mentioned to me that emailing articles from mobile to oneself was a surprisingly popular activity. People seem to identify articles they like on their handsets but push them over to a platform that is more conducive to reading. At the risk of conflating reading the NYTimes on mobile to reviewing matches on a mobile dating site, it seems that mobile is a good mechanism for people to screen content for later consumption elsewhere. Sites like Crush or Flush and MocoSpace pile up the page views from members just rifling through profiles in search of just the right one.

There's an analogy that WAP designers might want to consider as a mantra: Mobile Web use is something like speed dating with headlines.

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