Google Looks to Patent Mobile Click-to-call Ads

Google appears to be setting its sights on the mobile advertising market, given its latest patent application. The company is seeking protection for a kind of ad that would trigger a phone call instead of rendering a new page when clicked.

This “call-on-select” functionality is described in U.S. patent application 20060004627, filed in June 2004 by Shumeet Baluja, a senior research scientist at Google, which was published last week. The application describes a process that takes into consideration a device’s screen size, connection speed, and input capabilities to determine if it would be better to serve an ad with a link to a Web page or one that causes the phone or other mobile device to place a phone call to the advertiser.

Google is keeping its plans quiet, providing a statement saying only, “Like many companies, we file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees may come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don’t. Prospective product announcements should not be inferred from our patent applications.”

The application sets forth a method of scoring ads based on the various limitations of a client device, relevance of ads to users — both contextual and behavioral — CPM and CPC price, user preferences, and other “performance parameters.” The score would determine which ad or ads to serve, as well as whether to link the user to a Web page or connect to an advertiser via phone call.

“Everybody talks about pay-per-call in wireless as a natural business model,” Greg Sterling, program director at the Kelsey Group, told ClickZ News.” There’s definitely a lot of interest among advertisers in receiving phone calls. Our data indicate that 71 percent of small and mid-sized businesses would rather receive a phone call than a click in a performance-based ad model.”

This preference for phone contact, combined with the presumed immediacy of the mobile environment, could allow Google and others to charge a premium for these kinds of ads, he said.

Google began testing click-to-call ads on its site in November, but has not yet rolled out that service to mobile phones.

The mobile search space has been heating up lately, with recent entries by AOL and others. Google has long offered a WAP version of its search engine, but it hasn’t yet distributed its AdWords ads on mobile search pages. In addition, Google and Yahoo each launched large-scale mobile content and search initiatives last week, none of which includes ads at this point.

The pay-per-call market has also seen its share of growth, with providers like eStara, Ingenio and Jambo leading the charge to link up with search engine, directory, and classifieds partners. In June, Kelsey Group pinned the size of the market at anywhere from $1.4 billion to $4 billion.

Several Internet Yellow Pages providers offer mobile ads, but in a paid inclusion model instead of a performance-based model, said Sterling, though he added that usage of many of these services is “meager, at best.”

In the patent application, Baluja sets forth several reasons why “call-on-select” would be useful, including avoiding download delays on devices with limited bandwidth and preventing advertisers from looking bad when their site doesn’t render properly on a small screen.

Baluja also argues that inputting data via a cell phone’s keypad is difficult to contend with: “Even if the advertiser’s landing Web page and Website function well on a device with a limited display and/or communications connection, such as a mobile telephone, the chances of a conversion (e.g., a transaction being consummated) may remain quite small due to input limitations of mobile telephones. For example, entering shipping information and credit card information with a mobile telephone keyboard may be slow and frustrating.”

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