Mobile Search: Monster or Mirage?

  |  February 8, 2006   |  Comments

Are marketers on the verge of embracing mobile search? You’d almost think so, judging from the actions of search companies and ad agencies over the past six months.

Are marketers on the verge of embracing mobile search? You’d almost think so, judging from the actions of search companies and ad agencies over the past six months.

In late December, iCrossing became the first search marketing agency to join the Mobile Marketing Association, which went on to add SEM firm Oneupweb to its ranks. Both companies joined the MMA’s fledgling mobile search working group and separately launched mobile search units.

Google and Yahoo meanwhile have actively developed their mobile interfaces. Google secured a patent on mobile click-to-call ads, and then received a boost last month when Motorola agreed to add a dedicated "Google" button to some of its handsets.

And while the search powers-that-be declare their mobile plans, a host of start-ups are also crouching in the starting blocks. These include white-label search services like Medio and Jumptap, which cater to the carriers; SMS-based search players; and voice-based services like 1-800-Free411.

Should marketers care? What, if any, ad formats are available in mobile search interfaces? And is optimizing for mobile search a realistic proposition?

Usage

In December, four million unique users visited Yahoo’s mobile search interface, while Google had slightly more than that, at 4.5 million, according to M:Metrics. Search services from MSN and AOL trailed, at just over a million users each. The carriers meanwhile supply their subscribers with a patchwork quilt of search platforms, most baked into the handset OS.

There’s no question mobile search is a waxing proposition from the standpoint of addressable audience, but there likely won’t be a rush to search on phones this year.

"2006 is going to be a year when you see more companies emerge and more deals signed, but it’s not a pivotal year in terms of consumer adoption," said JupiterResearch Analyst Julie Ask. "We only have 10 percent of mobile subscribers who we survey who have even launched a WAP session, let alone use search."

The body of searchers on handhelds then is minuscule compared with regular Internet search -- and for a channel with far more capable devices than are extant in the PC universe. That’s not to say mobile search should be ignored, but it’s clear the few agencies that have jumped onboard are more concerned with future preparedness than with today’s campaigns.

"Mobile search is an area that, depending on who you read, is ramping up for imminent takeoff in the next… year-and-a-half," said Noah Elkin, iCrossing’s director of industry relations. "We want to make sure we’re there in advance of that. When our clients start asking us, ’What can you do for us on mobile?’ we want to make sure we’re there with the carriers, partners and aggregators."

Even those ad agencies that are sitting out the current wave of interest in mobile search say their clients’ interest is a matter of when, not if.

"What’s the benefit of someone like iProspect jumping on the bandwagon now?" asked John Tawadros, VP of client services and technology at the search agency. "Are we aware of mobile search? Yeah. Is there a need to dedicate research to mobile search today? Nah."

A Muddle of Interfaces

The question of mobile search’s significance is made more difficult to answer because of the complexity of defining exactly what it is. Online, we’re all accustomed to a search box and a results page filled with an assortment of links with short descriptions. That interface is well suited to the large screens enjoyed by Blackberry and Treo users. But given the smaller screens of the majority of handsets, a panoply of interfaces are vying for dominance.

In the batch o’ links category, Google, Yahoo and the other established search providers are pushing hard for a share of the pie. But they have formidable adversaries in the carriers, who can push their own search apps ahead of the dominant Web search players.

Another long-standing contestant in the local search arena is Vindigo, with its city guides. It’s one of the few mobile search offerings with ready-to-serve ad inventory, albeit sold on a sponsorship basis. Vindigo is well-entrenched in the PDA market.

SMS-based search has stepped in to satisfy searchers who lack the patience to grapple with a WAP browser and slow connection speeds. Google has an SMS-based search offering, and so do about a half dozen newcomers. One of these is 4INFO, which recently struck a deal with Gannett to have its service highlighted on the front page of USAToday for three years to come. The company is planning to roll out a limited number of contextual ads within its text message results, an experiment marketers should watch with interest.

"We’re just in the process of putting together our messaging and objectives around [contextual ads” in SMS," said Zaw Thet, 4INFO’s VP of marketing and product strategy. "The only way an ad would appear is if there’s room to put it in the message.

Then there are the players who use the other part of the phone’s capabilities -- voice-oriented services. Take Jingle, which operates an ad-supported telephone directory assistance line called 1-800-FREE411, and is now trying to build a user base for it. For relevant number look-ups, Jingle will deliver sponsored messages, which include Ingenio’s pay-per-call ads. It’s probably the closest thing to paid interactive advertising anywhere in the mobile search arena -- though it’s not exclusively mobile, of course.

Problems of Advertising

Most of these interfaces have one thing in common: a small screen. It’s difficult to squeeze in the service itself, much less advertising.

"The fact that you’re limited in real estate and you’re only going to get two results...especially if I’m Google and want to show you relevant results, am I going to show you two most relevant results or am I going to show ads?" asked iProspect’s Tawadros.

And, he continued, how might large advertisers react to the tiny space allocations on mobile screens? It was hard enough for many of them to embrace the creative restraints of search advertising. How might they stomach shrinking their copy from 30 words to 30 characters, for instance?

"When you talk to large brands... and say, I have to truncate your brand, that’s going to be very different to deal with," he said.

But many believe the ad real estate problem on mobile phones is not intractable. iCrossing’s Elkin proposes the appropriate formats simply haven’t been invented yet.

"[Any format” must address the particular advantages and drawbacks of the given medium, and in mobile the device size is always going to be both an advantage and a disadvantage," he said. "Formats will need to take that into account."

SEO for Mobile

With so few available ad formats for the foreseeable future, some are betting on optimization.

"We have a major background in search, and search optimization," said iCrossing’s Elkin. "Our interest is to help clients optimize for mobile. It’s more than just making sure your site shows up on mobile devices. It’s making sure the user experience you provide on mobile devices is one that will be compelling and keep them coming back."

Optimizing content for mobile search discovery makes more sense for some verticals than others. Travel and hospitality? Yes. CPG? Not so much. Content providers? Absolutely. In addition to the onslaught of wallpapers and ringtones and other phone specific content geared largely toward a youth audience, more established media companies are stepping up. The New York Times Company is actively recruiting a mobile distribution guru, for instance, but has declined to comment on its wireless plans.

Mobile Search Equals Local Search

Those media companies, and the search engines themselves, are interested largely because of the opportunity to attract local advertisers.

"Especially because mobile devices are used on the go, the chances are good you’re searching for something specific near where you are at that given moment," said iCrossing’s Elkin. "It’s the last mile in advertising."

Once local businesses, and national chains with local presence, turn on to interactive, the market for paid and optimized mobile search may well skyrocket; but as marketers know from the years-long local marketing saga, that day’s still a long way off.

Or as Jupiter’s Ask bluntly put it, "Gino’s pizza at the corner of 3rd and Clement is not advertising here."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zachary Rodgers

Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects. 

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