Searching for the next big thing

The adoption of mobile phones to access information and digital content on the web is growing fast, but the mobile search user experience still leaves much to be desired. If mobile search doesn’t see dramatic improvement, it will hinder device sales and delay the advent of what could become a huge market for mobile advertising.

James Middleton

October 12, 2009

7 Min Read
Searching for the next big thing
Searching for the next big thing

The adoption of mobile phones to access information and digital content on the web is growing fast, but the mobile search user experience still leaves much to be desired. If mobile search doesn’t see dramatic improvement, it will hinder device sales and delay the advent of what could become a huge market for mobile advertising. Mobile search should be easy and give results focused on answers, not links.

The use of mobile phones to access the internet for content and to search for information is increasing. Global internet information provider ComScore reported that the number of people using mobile devices to access news and information on the internet more than doubled in 2008. Furthermore, among the 63.2 million people who accessed news and information on their mobile devices in January 2009, 22.4 million (35%) did so daily – more than double the size of the audience last year.

With a growing appetite for mobile content, consumers and business users will be looking to mobile search for information or content access and retrieval. Given the rapid evolution of mobile devices and networks in recent years, they would be justified in thinking that mobile search would provide slick interfaces and accurate results. But in most cases they would be disappointed. While search on the internet has revolutionised how we access information, the same is not true of mobile search. This is still in its infancy, and the typical user experience leaves much to be desired. With falling prices for connections and data plans, a better mobile search user experience could vastly increase adoption of the technology and further boost demand for web-enabled mobile phones. It would also stimulate growth of a potentially vast market for mobile advertising, parallel to the one that has developed around PC-based internet search.

People interact differently with their mobiles than with their PCs

Search on mobile phones started and remains as functionality that was designed for PCs reconfigured for the small mobile screen. Typically the search query returns a long list of results with links that the mobile phone user then has to sift through using nothing other than the phone’s tiny screen and keypad. The user experience does not necessarily get any better when the user clicks on one of those links; indeed the majority of websites are designed purely for PC-based browsing and are nearly indecipherable on a mobile screen. Vendors and content providers have to recognise that people interact with their mobile phones in very different ways than they do their PCs. The interaction is dictated by the tiny screen, typically awkward keypad and limited on-screen navigation. Given these constraints, navigating a long list of search results is hardly user-friendly. It is important to note the success of Apple iPhone and its Safari web browser in particular, as they have gone a long way to address these issues. According to Google, iPhone users will perform on average 50 times more searches than users of other web-enabled mobile phones. There are clearly lessons to be learnt from Apple on usability.

Microsoft is set to up the competitive ante in this market with its next Windows Mobile release. Windows Mobile 6.5 is expected to provide a better mobile browsing experience based on Internet Explorer 6, but with improved security, a JavaScript engine from Internet Explorer 8, better graphics rendering and the capability to play Flash content.

There is more to mobile search than just browsing. In mobile devices there is an increased need for accuracy, relevancy and contextual results. This is not to say that PC users do not require the same, but on a PC it is much easier to create an advanced search query that improves the probability of getting the right answer. The need for a simple and easy user interface and user-friendly results is amplified in a mobile device. Search engines for mobile devices should return only a handful of results with a high accuracy, focused on answers and not lists of links. This change of focus requires semantic search engines that ‘understand’ the meaning of words and content, rather than merely matching keywords. These have been in development for a while and are emerging for internet search but have failed to achieve widespread adoption so far.

Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo partnership could have a large impact

Microsoft’s new Internet search engine, Bing, includes technologies gained from the Fast and Powerset acquisitions. While Fast was a leader in enterprise searches, Powerset gave Microsoft a semantic search engine that tries to understand the meaning of web pages using technology licensed from Xerox’s PARC subsidiary. In time, this could lead to the answers-oriented processing that in our view best fits mobile search requirements.
Another recent development is the ten-year Yahoo and Microsoft agreement that from 2010 will see Microsoft’s Bing powering Yahoo Search and Yahoo becoming the exclusive global sales force for both organisations’ premium search advertising. Disappointingly, at the time of the announcement not much was said about mobile search except that Yahoo has the option to exploit Microsoft technology for its mobile search capability. Ovum believes that mobile search represents a significant opportunity for both companies. With a market of potentially billions of users, it is important that Microsoft and Yahoo combine their respective strengths to provide a mobile search capability focused on the requirements of the user on the move.

In addition to better search capabilities on the device, it’s also important that individual websites provide better mobile search support. Failure to do so will have several consequences, including incomplete results for the searcher, inaccurate ranking of search results and fewer hits for the website sponsor. Already, mobile search tools such as Taptu only list sites that are optimised for mobile viewing. As more people switch to mobiles for web access, site sponsors will see their hits decline unless they provide better mobile support.

The future of mobile search: voice, location and personalization

Voice-activated mobile search is emerging – not as a replacement for the keypad or touchscreen, but as an alternative to them. Its success in car GPS systems suggests that voice would be a valuable enhancement to search capabilities generally. Unlike PCs and laptops, mobile phones are location-enabled and therefore can support the expansion of mobile search functionality into this area. As more consumers buy mobile devices that are intended to be more than phones, and as advanced networks are built out to support them, growth in location-based services and search is expected to take off.

Personalisation in mobile search would add much value to the user experience. Mobile search users tend to have distinct consumer and business requirements such as hobbies and business interests. While as a consumer a user might search for a particular piece or style of music, as a business user they might perform regular searches on specific companies or financial indices. Smart or personalised search capabilities, offered alone or together, would do much to enhance the user’s experience.

Google and Yahoo already offer location-tailored results. Given their internet search presence, it is not surprising that they are two of the leading players in the mobile search market – helped by alliances with mobile service providers that place them as preferred search solutions on web-enabled handsets. Their solutions are optimised for mobile and, to facilitate speed of delivery, URL and search suggestions appear as you type. Another vendor, Apple, provides a good example of how successful location-based search applications can be – there are many offerings within Apple’s App Store that use the handset’s location to provide details of local facilities (as restaurants) and other tailored information.

The giants of PC-based search will be difficult to topple. Small technology companies will continue to create niche mobile search applications, brand recognition and deep research & development pockets make existing market leaders obvious favourites the race for mobile search queries and, ultimately, the associated advertising revenues.

Sarah Burnett and Mark Blowers are senior analysts with Ovum

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James Middleton

James Middleton is managing editor of | Follow him @telecomsjames

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