Commentary

WAP Overnights

It is good to see the mobile industry fall into a steady schedule of metrics reports. In advance of CTIA, Bango issued some comparative worldwide numbers last week showing that the U.S. share of mobile Web browsing (18.88%) is about to eclipse the U.K.'s 19.35%. "It's not only an increase in unique visitors but also the amount of browsing individuals are doing," Bango's Vice President of North America, Adam Kerr, told me last week. "Once someone discovers the mobile Web, they are keen on finding more and better sites." U.S. mobilistas may be creeping up on the Brits in overall usage, but when it comes to confidence in the eco-system, the m-commerce conversion rate here is 18%, compared to 33% in the U.K., 26% in Finland and 25% in Belgium. Again, keep in mind that Bango's metrics universe encompasses only the sites they serve.

We may be keen on finding mobile sites, but our current use of mobile search seems to rely on "discovering" the familiar, plugging site and media property names into the query. According to Crisp's "Wireless Index" for Q2 2008, 28.9% of all search queries that land on a Crisp Publisher Network site involve a site name. Even taking into account that Crisp is itself servicing many of the major media brands, it is significant that so many mobile searchers are fishing around for mobilized versions of companies they already know. Kerr mentions that the amount of mobile searching actually going on out there suggests that the eco-system needs better SEO. Crisp's numbers support that. Only 9.45% of traffic to its partner sites come from search, although that is up from 7.51% last quarter. Mobile users are starting to use the query box, but sites need to find ways to grab that traffic.

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Google is the top search provider by far, but in my experience it does a poor job of focusing results on mobile-optimized destinations. Speaking only for myself, I find mobile search untrustworthy, inconsistent and just plain broken. Unless my query is highly specific (topic + zip) I prefer to think about which of my mobile content destinations is best able to deliver what I seek. I still don't get why mobile sites don't float to the top of results and the algorithms aren't tuned finely enough to surface the most likely types of data. I know Yahoo and Google say they already do this for me but I don't see it often enough in the results. The most common searches like "movies" return decent results, but once you go off the reservation of standard mobile searches, there is no telling what you will get. I have to say I much prefer Yahoo's oneSearch engine to Google's. The search suggestion mechanism in the query box is phenomenally good, and the results on basics like celebs and current news topics is pretty good. You get the feeling there is a brain back there and it knows you are on-the-go. When I run "movies" on Google Mobile, the Google iPhone app and Web-based Google, I get exactly the same results. I thought those guys were supposed to be smarter than the rest of us.

Perhaps the most significant trend in Crisp's report involves the carrier's declining share of mobile Web referrals. For Crisp sites with on-deck and off-deck presence, the carriers now drive less than half the traffic to the mobile Web site, 45.74%, down from 53.4% in a single quarter. Despite the limited sample of branded media, that number suggests a tremor in the eco-system. Clearly users are discovering a vibrant mobile Web that lives apart from the tried and true deck. One quarter of numbers from a slice of mobile content does not a trend make. But I think I hear some cracks in the glacier and the first signs of real fragmentation. Watching those eyeballs shift to the open Web, and seeing how the carriers find ways to capture rather than lose money and influence in that move, is going to be one of the most fascinating stories in 2009.

Maybe their best defense is to partner with Google. That might ensure that none of us gets anywhere on the mobile Web.

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