Search nears breakthrough

Mobile search has long been predicted to enter the mainstream, and now providers’ increased focus on offering local results means those forecasts are set to come true. Martin Croft reports

Google%20PhoneFor the past few years, mobile marketing experts have been loudly proclaiming that the current year was going to be the one when mobile search marketing took off. So it is refreshing to find that this year, the experts appear to have changed their tune: 2007 will not be remembered as the year search became a fully fledged member of the marketing mix. But it will be the year the groundwork was done, in preparation for 2008 – which will be the year mobile search takes off. Honest.

Daniel Mohacek is product strategy director at UK search specialists The Search Works. He says: “When I was at Overture in 2003, we were saying that 2003 was the year that mobile search would take off. Then in 2004, we were saying that 2004 was the year it would take off.”

But this time, things are moving. Google has just launched its AdSense product on mobile, while Yahoo! and MSN are also actively pushing the platform to advertisers.

Campaign trail
He admits that mobile and search marketing experts have predicted that mobile search was just about to explode for a number of years. But now, he says, it looks as if mobile search really has begun to take off in a big way. “We are running a number of campaigns for clients, and in the course of those campaigns we are discovering that there are actually a host of consumers out there using mobile search.”

It’s still a bit hit and miss as to which clients will use the medium, however. He cites the case of one marketing director who decided to put some of her budget into a mobile search campaign “because she walked past a bus stop and saw an ad for one of the latest mobile phones that showed an image of a Google page on the screen”.

He adds, though, that the sudden explosion of interest in mobile search has “caught all of us on the hop – we weren’t expecting it.” Nor are those people who have discovered mobile search using it in the way the experts predicted. He admits, ruefully, that consumers who are searching via their mobiles are happily inputting long, complex strings of keywords – not, as he had confidently predicted, restricting themselves to short, generic terms.

The truth is that mobile search has, until very recently, been a less than fulfiling experience – but while there are some problems to be ironed out, important steps have been taken to deal with these problems, with more to follow.

The biggest barriers to search marketing on the mobile phone have been, in no particular order: the difficulty of reading a webpage on a tiny display, the extremely high cost of accessing data services via mobile, the “walled garden” approach adopted by many mobile phone operators wanting to restrict users to content they could make money from, connection speed and download times, and the lack of any big brand name presences on the mobile internet.

Browsing standards
Duncan Jennings is managing director of eConversions, a specialist search marketing company paid by performance. He says: “Mobile is about to tip – I’m not the first to say it and I won’t be the last. The adoption of proper browsing standards, the impact of high technology phones such as Nokia’s NSeries and Apple’s much-hyped iPhone, and finally the fall in price of data plans have laid the ground well. Now is a very good time to get involved in paid mobile search, and an even better time to get involved in local mobile search. The clicks are cheap, the competition is minimal and the user base continues to grow. Think desktop search, circa 2001.”

Paul Doleman, chief technical officer of search marketing company Spannerworks, says: “This year is the year we set things up so next year it takes off.” In particular, he suggests, mobile data costs will soon be at a flat rate across all major operators, which will bring a whole new crowd of users into the market.

Peter Northing is director of products and services at mobile phone operator 3. He says: “Is mobile search going to significantly step forward this year? Yes, it will. There is growing expertise, better technology and a better understanding of how it can be monetised. The future is absolutely the mobile internet – but we are still on the lower slopes.”

The 3 network has already teamed up with Yahoo! to offer the latter’s search services on 3. Early indications, according to Northing, suggest “customers are searching in droves. We have already proved there is a demand for it. As we get better at it, use will continue to grow. But it needs to be really, really simple.”

Geraldine Wilson, general-manager and vice-president for Yahoo!’s Connected Life Europe business, says: “Mobile search is the key to the mobile internet. Users want fast answers – they want different sorts of answers to the ones they want when they are searching the internet on a PC.”

But she accepts that for the mobile internet to take off, there are other things that need to be in place. “Cost is an issue, so we need more flat-rate tariffs. Speeds need to be faster. Devices are getting better all the time.”

So it does now seem that we really are finally at a tipping point. Research released earlier this year showed that in January, 5.7 million Britons accessed the Web via a mobile device, compared to 30 million people aged 15 or above who went online via a PC.

But the really interesting statistic, from the point of view of search marketers, is the fact that Google is the fourth most popular site on the mobile internet, with 1.4 million unique users. The top-rated site for mobile users is the BBC, with 2.3 million unique users, followed by MSN/Windows Live, with 1.76 million users, and Yahoo! with 1.5 million unique users.

This means that while Google dominates the UK PC-based search market, taking around 77% of all searches, it does not enjoy such an advantage in mobile – and it may never, given the resources that the likes of Microsoft/MSN and Yahoo! are putting into the mobile arena.

But there is another reason why Google – and indeed Yahoo! or MSN – might find it difficult to dominate the mobile search market: network operators are reported to be less than happy about effectively giving control of the mobile internet to the big search engines.

Mobile operators
Jens Andersen is chief executive officer of mobile search company mobilePeople, which provides the mobile search facility used by companies such as He says: “Users can’t buy what they can’t find.” So mobile operators have been looking to add search to their offerings for some time. However, he argues: “The largest Web-based search engines such as Google are taking their internet business models and forcing them into the mobile arena.”

One reason Andersen says that mobile search is a very different animal to PC-based search is: “PC-based results are global and not local in content – and therefore much less relevant to mobile users’ needs.” As yet, he says, there is relatively little local information available on the mobile Web, although this problem should be overcome in time.

Jennings agrees that local and geographic-based search capabilities are key to the success of mobile search. He says: “The chances are that mobile searchers are looking for something immediate, particularly if they are completing a local query. They aren’t in the stages of planning a night out; they are on the streets looking for a service they require.

“For these reasons, these people are of particular value to brands and their businesses. What’s more, there are many more actions they can complete on a phone; they can have details sent via text message, they can call the business direct, and they are able to view directions and maps to locate the service physically.”

There are rumours that a number of the mobile phone network operators have banded together and are holding meetings with search companies to find one that can create a “white label” mobile search engine that each operator could then brand with its own identity.

As it stands, while allying with one of the big search engine companies gives access to a well-known brand and will drive the growth of mobile search, it also hands control to the search engine.

But the operators are finally beginning to realise that they have to knock down their walled gardens and allow users the same sort of freedom to search the mobile world as they have in the PC world.

Growing use
As Spannerworks’ Doleman says: “I was talking to one of the operators who said that when they put search at the top of the screen, use went up by 300%.”

And big brand marketers, who are themselves finally waking up to the power of search on the PC, will be driving demand for increased and cheaper mobile search functionality on mobile phones – they have recognised that the mobile is the media channel that consumers will always have with them and will always be checking.

Robert Thurner, commercial director of mobile marketing company Incentivated, says: “A number of clients have asked us to advise them on their mobile search strategy, and the demand for mobile internet sites is growing fast.”

As Doleman puts it: “Mobile is the brand in your customers’ hands.” 


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