The Mobile Browser: Emergency Browser or Killer App?

Perhaps for the fourth or fifth consecutive year, 2008 is being touted as “the year of mobile.” Analysts, gurus, and pundits point to massive device adoption overseas. Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft continue to invest heavily in mobile technology, including ad serving, testing different monetization schemes and ad formats. But mobile needs to become material and more of consumer behavior influencer for more people before marketers claim successes. I’m still concerned about the mobile browser’s applicability as an ad platform for a large portion of search marketers. Today, I’ll discuss why I think mobile search still faces some serious hurdles for many advertisers.

Mobile Device Profiles

My BlackBerry has full high-speed data access for e-mail, but I use the browser only in emergencies because it isn’t conducive to most of my online activities. Some iPhone owners say they’ve ramped up use of their phones as a browser. Owners of the Nokia N series Internet tablet phone and those with other large-screen mobile devices report similar shifts.

After Google and Nokia gave away the N800 at Zeitgeist, I tried out the device for browsing. Given its small size, its performance was impressive. Though the N800 lacks a keyboard, the N810 has one. I haven’t activate its Skype-based Wi-Fi phone service yet because of time constraints. While the ability to tap a local Wi-Fi network seems to be a catalyst for increased browser use on the new breed of devices, I’m not sure I consider sitting in a living room using a Wi-Fi network to browse the Internet while watching TV to be mobile use. I’d define it more as “use of mobile hardware while at home.”

Mobile search is gaining momentum. But when I asked about mobile use on LinkedIn, even gadget freaks said they generally use their mobile browsers only in emergencies. (I’ll keep the above question live for another week after publication to allow readers to add their opinions.)

Where Mobile Search Advertising Works

Clearly, people use mobile search when they need information on the go. If it’s a commerce-related search, there’s an opportunity to simultaneously meet the searcher’s needs and the marketer’s objectives. Local businesses, particularly restaurants, bars, movie theaters, and retailers, can present their location or business information to consumers when they’re actively searching and proximal to their location. However, not all searches with regional or geographic intent are suitable for mobile ad platforms.

For example, my wife, a psychologist, would probably prefer not to get calls from people who decided they need therapy or wish to improve their mental health while walking down a nearby street. The same holds true for my accountant. (Some might argue mobile could be a great platform for medical malpractice or criminal lawyers.)

As retail Web sites’ interfaces and content become more mobile-friendly, including product-availability searches at specific store locations, mobile use may increase. Still, significant issues remain that the mobile ad industry must solve, including:

  • Ad-format challenges. What’s the right ad format for mobile devices? Banners don’t render the same across all devices. This is partially due to different screen aspect ratios, as well as browser compatibility challenges that make Firefox/IE incompatibilities seem quaint.
  • Ad-payment/monetization issues. User behavior on mobile devices is different. Often users want to engage in a call, so PPC (define) doesn’t make sense as an ad vehicle. Pay per call has much of the trackability PPC does, a feature that will appeal to many marketers as well as consumers.

    Click to call, a close cousin to the pay-per-call platform, requires users to enter their number to have the switch initiate the call. This presents a poor user experience in the current mobile environment. SMS-based calls to action have some significant opportunities, particularly when combined with offer codes and coupons.

  • Mobile coupon incompatibility. Mobile coupons that can be scanned from the phone display may be a killer app. However, it seems barcode laser scanners don’t work reliably on mobile device screens, but the pulsed LED scanners do. If this problem is addressed, coupons could be embedded with media tracking codes.
  • GPS and location-based service (LBS). Based on my research, the location of your LBS-enabled cell phone is currently transmitted only to 911 or within a special network, such as Wherify Wireless. But if the benefits of better targeted advertising become great enough, users may opt to have their phones broadcast their location regardless of the big-brother factor.
  • Clearly, we’ve reached critical mass among early mobile search adopters. If the price for larger-screen phones falls within consumers’ reach in their next phone-upgrade cycle, we may see a dramatic uptick in mobile search. But before pursuing mobile search advertising for your business, think about its value to you and mobile consumers. Are they worth more or less than stationary consumers? Let your answer guide your strategy.

    Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

    Related reading

    Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.