What Are We Looking For?

Now that I have passed my 50th birthday, I am told that the testosterone I once had (such as it was) is starting to wane. This may be why I am becoming hyper-aware and hyper-critical of petty male combativeness. One-upmanship is a sport engrained in even the geekiest guys from an early age. Just about any everyday activity can become a contest and escalate into a pitched battle of egos within seconds. I have seen buffet lines at professional conferences turn into strange drag races between two young stallions (why are they always from the sales department?) rushing toward some imaginary finish line.

And so, in some pathetic circles of men, mobile search has become a hunting/gathering ritual. When Nielsen Mobile released its Q1 2008 market share stats last week, the headlines focused on Google's dominance of the field with 61% search share. Yahoo (18%) and MSN (5%) trail behind. I was struck a bit more by the gender imbalance in searches, with Google skewing 65% male and Yahoo 63%. Sure, there is the usual early-adopter gender bias at work here. Boys will be gadgeteers. But we all have seen the cluster of guys doing a mobile search race. Asking "Where is the nearest Staples?" is like throwing red meat to wolves. Or closer, asking a "Star Trek: Next Generation" trivia question at a comic book collectors' fest. Just watch the phones flip open as five dudes dressed in blue oxford buttondowns and tan khakis (no ties, only satchels, no briefcases) try hard not to look as if they are competing to find the answer first on their phone. Mobile search is the niche blood sport for those of us who have no blood sport.

I should add the caveat that too many others missed in reporting these figures. Despite Google's large search lead, Yahoo still has an enormous mobile footprint. Nielsen numbers show that Yahoo Mail is a top WAP destination for 14 million monthly uniques.

When search boxes first appeared on mobile decks several years ago, the white label suppliers always insisted that most people were looking for content to purchase from the catalog (ringtones, wallpapers, and such) which sounded a bit dodgy to me. Most of the early searches only looked inwards to the deck anyway, since most operators remained wary of any customer touching the open Internet on their phones. The thinking (or the dreaming) was that users were more interested in finding things to personalize their phones than they were in finding things, places, resources that mattered in their lives. Three years later, that dream seems dashed. The largest share of searches on Google and Yahoo are for information (33%). Local searches and Web navigation are in the mid- to upper 20s in share.

And yet the habit of mobile search is still pretty niche. Nielsen tells me that in Q1 13.1 million U.S. subscribers said they had used SMS mobile search in the past 30 days, and 11.4 million had used WAP search. Only 8.2 million searched via their carrier's search box. If you figure in a good deal of overlap among those three search types, I guess less than 10% of us are searching via mobile on a regular basis.

Some warn that the level of satisfaction for mobile search is low, at 44% for Google and 40% for Yahoo, but I beg to differ. I wonder what we might have come up with a year ago. In my recent tries, mobile search is not that bad, and both Yahoo and Google are upping their game considerably. Google uses its familiar barren search box but lets you switch among verticals to narrow a query into local, news, and images. It also has a very good predictive search box that pops up suggested terms as you type. Once you log in and Google knows your location, a "Staples" search calls up an accurate result in seconds, with map, call links and even user reviews of the local stores. Yahoo's OneSearch solution takes a different angle by categorizing the results into the most likely types given the context of the search (local listing, images, mobile Web pages, etc.) The difference between the two techniques is more a matter of style than quality of results. Newsy information searches (such as a "George Carlin" query over this weekend) were more hit and miss. Some results seemed to understand that a searcher would be looking for news of the comedian's death, while other results were pushing me to general Web sites.

After using mobile search now for several years, a few things are obvious to me. First, this medium forces search brands to improve their engine and their results in ways the Web does not pressure them to do. I can't be alone in finding search results getting sloppier and less relevant on the general Web. By tuning its basic contextual intelligence and requiring more focused results, mobile search may help improve search across the board.

Second, local mobile search is a gold mine waiting to happen. It is now faster and easier for me to do quick look-ups and calls to local merchants on a phone than it is on the Web. If Office Depot can figure out a way to offer me a coupon for their store when I do a Staples search, then someone is going to make a lot of money off of this.

Third, I wouldn't be surprised if mobile search helped accustom consumers to trading personal information and tracking by search companies for better service. The advantage of having Google or Yahoo know my search history, search tendencies and location is obvious on this platform. Mobile helps make a better case for more personalized, behaviorally targeted search than does the Web right now.

Our tendency is to look first at how the major brands extend their reach onto mobile. Perhaps we should start asking how vendor and consumer learnings from mobile will reach back to improve the Web.

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