Commentary

Reviving The Portal

I haven't a clue whether Microsoft's new partnership with Verizon as primary search provider really will amount to much. Consider this: even though Google has default search box placement on the smallest of the top three carriers, Sprint, it still dominates mobile search share. That has to tell you something about the power of brand familiarity over the deck.

My guess is that once people get onto the mobile Web they default to their favorite brand regardless of their carrier's default brand. I still find the search box on most carrier decks confusing because they are trying to serve too many masters, notably deck-initiated content sales vs. Web content vs. mobile Web content vs. local listings. I just don't know what I am going to get.

Microsoft is promising a downloadable app for Verizon customers that will plant a search box on their deck home page. I hope it let users verticalize their search in the same way that Google and Yahoo's apps and WAP-based engines do. Back in the day, when this mobile search game started, white label providers JumpTap and Medio were helping carriers mainly keep people in the garden and leverage their own catalogs. The Web brands were the enemy to be kept at bay. Now that Yahoo, Google and Microsoft live on deck, it still is unclear to me how committed some of these carriers are to encouraging the mobile Web.

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Part of the Verizon deal seems to give Microsoft management over the portal inventory. I wish it gave them control over the portal layout, which maddens me on Verizon decks. Obtuse labeling, an interface that requires too much screen reloads, and a hidden pathway to the Web all serve to discourage mobile Web use. Interestingly, the MSN Mobile portal at mobile.msn.com is actually quite good. It lets me choose a color scheme, major content categories and even the layout order in just a few screens. Three to four major headlines in each category (News, Money, Celebrities, etc.) give me the at-a-glance depth I need. The engine seems intelligent enough to kick me to local results (plumber, pizza) when appropriate, but also gives me fairly easy access to the other verticals with a top line set of toggles.

At this point, with 20% of less of mobile users accessing search from their handsets it still is unclear what input mode they most want to use let alone what kind of results they want. I have always been surprised by the relative strength of SMS search (short code + keyword + Zip, etc.) because I myself rarely ever used it. Likewise, the human-based answer engine from Cha Cha is ultra-cool but is not becoming a reflex. The voice search engine in the newest Google iPhone app works very well for me, except when my sinuses act up and the engine misinterprets my consonants. The one mobile search interface I do use habitually is the map-based search on iPhone and G1/Android. All of which goes to show that a truly successful search engine for mobile likely needs to accommodate a number of approaches that the user can easily access or customize. That clean, cool and simple search box surrounded by clarifying white space helped Google undercut Yahoo's customary clutter and portal-based approach on the Web, but I am not so sure that is the answer on mobile. I wonder if something closer to the model will work, where search sits within the context of other content.

While the portal model on the Web has disintegrated in recent years, I suspect that a well-crafted aggregation to personal, informational and search content on a single page could be a very powerful deck-based solution for users. This only works if all parties allow for real personalization and at the same time allow for the cross-merchandising of partners. MSN has experience here. While their scale may not be as great as Yahoo, I think it aggregates its content partners well. At the MSN Mobile portal, for instance, Fox Sports and MSNBC are well branded without being intrusive or overbearing. Much like USAToday's mobile iteration, the design keeps the eye focused on the content and uses subtle color blocks to order information. If only more carrier decks looked this way, they might invite both more content use and create better environments for ads.

Another interesting mobile player that does not get the respect it deserves is AOL. Like Microsoft, these guys have been thinking harder than most about what a mobile portal might look like. I am using the iPhone Web app version, which has a news carousel and tabs for four major content categories. On a single screen, I get one tap access to about twenty headlines. While I don't like the click-through experience, usually to standard Web pages rather than mobile formatted pages, the amount of information squeezed into an uncluttered design is wonderful. As with MSN's mobile site, I can toggle a range of content services on or off, from Twitter to Facebook and AIM.

But AOL's mobile search layout is actually one of the most under-appreciated solutions I have seen. The results are neatly segmented into types as Yahoo oneSearch also does, but the interface lets you collapse and expand them. Personally I wish all the mobile search engines would index and emphasize mobile Web pages in their results more effectively than they do, but in the meantime AOL and Yahoo's approach is usable.

Two other portals worth noting come from parts of the mobile value chain we don't ordinarily associate with content, Palm and Nokia. Palm (mobile.palm.com) simply, cleanly aggregates the paths to mobile-friendly destinations, ordered by type. It ain't pretty -- but it pulls together news, finance, social media, travel, etc., and assures me that I am landing on pages made for mobile. Someone at the carriers should just copy this page and paste it into their mobile Web interface. Call it "Mobile Web Services" and you have a more inviting gateway to the mobile Web.

To its credit, Nokia's Nokia.mobi site links into a stylish Here & Now portal that is more promising in its structure than in its actual content. There's a top line set of links into "Listen" (music), "Know" (news and information), "Buzz" (celebrity and entertainment), and "Grab" (downloads), which gives the portal some youth-oriented style. The headlines make good use of images to describe areas and news items, and it feels like a comfortable environment. Oddly, a search box is not apparent. I guess Nokia wants to keep you in the here and now, where it can promote its own music, games and hardware. More content partnerships, frequent content refreshes, and less self-promotion would make this a credible portal. But the basic stylistic idea here is sound and suggests an alternative to bland MicroYahoogle executions.

In short, if the carriers are going to go off-deck for their search partners, they may want to pick a few brains while they are out there about crafting better gateways that make the prospect of mobile search itself more attractive and predictable.

2 comments about "Reviving The Portal".
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  1. Scott Kline from AdHeadz, January 9, 2009 at 8 a.m.

    It is very clear that consumers are driven by promotions in the physical world to use the mobile device as a RESPONSE MECHANISM TO INTERACT WITH BRANDS!

    At Adheadz.com, we continue to see Mobile Response rates higher than 15% when Brands run radio, TV and traditional advertising with their Mobile Tag like "Text BMW to 51684 for More Information".

    The increase of Mobile Tagging, where marketers add their brands’ Keyword and Short Code (like 'BMW to 51684 for More Information") onto their brochures, collateral and marketing outreach, is similar to the use of URL tagging which happened at the onset of the Internet.

    All the best - Scott

  2. Tamara Gruber from Crisp Wireless, January 9, 2009 at 4:03 p.m.

    Another great post that cuts through the press release hype to the real issues at hand. Mobile search still has a way to go for consumers to get comfortable with the quality of the results and the experience.

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