Mobile Search Concepts

by Luke Wroblewski October 10, 2005

Yesterday’s Mobile Monday panel at Google included Zaw Thet (4INFO), Mark Grandcolas (Caboodle Networks), Jack Denenberg (Cingular Wireless), Scott Jenson (Google), and Mihir Shah (Yahoo! Search). They discussed a number of concepts related to Mobile Search.

Choice

All the panelists emphasized the need to maintain choice in the mobile search space. The variations between carriers, international markets, and platforms, they argued, required support for voice search (via services like 411), SMS search, WAP search, and more. They noted that different users prefer different technologies for finding the information they need when mobile.

This might simply be a sign that there isn’t a good mobile search solution available yet. Contrast the number of choices provided on mobile devices with the assertion “that around 99% of all Web searchers have never clicked on the ‘Advanced Search’ link”. Once a good mobile search solution emerges, perhaps multiple options will no longer be as crucial.

Context

Web-based search engines have a hard time with context. They often don’t know anything about the person running a search query. Mobile carriers, on the other hand know where the user is (geographically), who the user is, and a lot about their behavior (they have to store information about what you do on your device so they can charge you for it). As a result, mobile search engines can leverage this context to provide significantly more relevant results. Direct relevance is especially important for mobile devices as many people develop an almost “personal” relationship with their phone.

Currently mobile service providers (carriers) own this information. Whether or not they’ll open this data up to application providers such as Yahoo and Google remains to be seen. From what I gathered, the carriers want to own the complete customer experience and as a result, are unwilling to open too many things up to application providers.

Interface

The predominant mobile search interface is voice operated. Calls to 411 for information are up to 3 times more prevalent than WAP or SMS searches and amount to 3 million calls per day (across all carriers). Voice is likely to continue being popular when you consider that almost half of mobile phone usage occurs in cars.

There are significant interface design challenges for mobile devices. The numbers quoted were 50% drop-off rates per required click (screen reload) and 90% drop-offs in data service usage after two months. Many of the panelists believed that remedying user experience problems was a top priority and that mobile search was in a “phase where we should be doing what is best for the user.” Because there is direct revenue (transactions) tied to successful mobile searches, this creates a great opportunity for interface designers in the mobile space.

It is also interesting to consider that as the number of phones with Internet access in the United States surpasses the number of PCS (estimated to happen in late 2005), mobile search conventions and expectations may begin to migrate to the desktop and the Web. Users accustomed to mobile search interaction models might begin to expect elements of that experience online (voice search, high degrees of personal relevance, etc.).

Integration

A few examples of Web-to-Mobile and Print-to-Mobile integration were brought up including: SMS short codes displayed within sports pages of newspapers and on movie posters and send to phone features on Web pages.