Expectations of mobile search and local mobile search in particular are rising. As mobile ad networks form, mobile M&A activity heats up and the search engines pour greater attention and resources into their mobile offerings one could say we’re on the cusp of a new mobile era. Indeed, as much as I’m reluctant to use the term, one could dub the forthcoming mobile Internet “Web 3.0.”
Of course people have been saying and predicting the emergence of the mobile Internet for almost 10 years. Forecasts and predictions rarely come true in their original time frames, but they typically do come true eventually. And today, the resources, infrastructure and consumer demand make a mobile Internet more tangible and much closer to reality.
What took the desktop Internet roughly a decade to develop is happening in a much more condensed period of time in mobile. And for all its complexity and fragmentation, there are numerous companies working to make content access and delivery on mobile devices a much more intuitive and user-friendly experience. That’s the key in my view: the user experience. Because once users adopt the mobile Internet (or variations thereof) in meaningful numbers, which is starting to happen, the ad dollars will flow and real money will be made.
Right now what I’m calling the “mobile Internet” is really four separate silos that will eventually blend to varying degrees.
Nouveau Directory Assistance & Voice Search
This category grows out of tried and true “directory assistance,” the original form of local mobile search. In 2006 there were roughly 6.5 billion calls to 411 in the United States and many more billions around the world. Because of the Internet and other factors (e.g., corporations blocking 411), directory assistance continues to shift to mobile phones.
So-called “operator assisted yellow pages” (live agents helping users finding listings and other information) were repeatedly tried and failed. However, today, ad-supported directory assistance appears here to stay. Companies in this segment include (partial list):
Text-Based Local Search
After directory assistance and its more sophisticated cousin voice search, the volume of usage in text messaging. Depending on whose numbers you believe, anywhere from 35 percent to 70 percent of U.S. mobile consumers send and receive text messages (with varying degrees of frequency). This is clearly where the volume of mobile data usage is today, as opposed to WAP browsing. However, text is arguably the least sexy mode of accessing information on a mobile device (if the most practical). One of the leaders in this category is 4Info, which is doing some impressive things and getting some very impressive CPM rates. The company, partly owned by newspaper publisher Gannett, is not exclusively about local but local is an important piece of what it’s doing.
A partial list of other companies doing text-based local search include:
Citysearch (CS411) Google SMS Tellme SMS Yahoo SMS (also integrated with WAP browsing) YP411 (YellowPages.com). Other major yellow pages publishers also have SMS (e.g., Superpages Mobile) NearbyNow (for products)
There are many others. And many of the voice search options in the first segment allow content and contact details to be received via text message in addition to audio.
WAP Local Search
WAP usage in the U.S., while numbering in the millions (30-35 million), is still in an early stage of development and has much less adoption for many reasons, including hardware limitations, separation of text and mobile Internet pricing plans and so on. All the major search engines and portals, yellow pages sites and local search pure plays (e.g., Yelp, Local.com) now have WAP sites.
Yahoo’s oneSearch is something of a standout in this category.
Local Mobile Applications
All major search providers also have downloadable applications, many of which are being pre-loaded on phones. Here’s a partial list:
Applications offer by far the best and richest user experience. The problem for search engines (and users) is that they must be downloaded and so represent the smallest segment of the market with intrinsic barriers to adoption. Thus the challenge is to get applications preloaded on the next phone the user buys and/or to bring the application experience into a WAP environment.
Bringing It All Together
Google’s “diversified” approach is a metaphor for the challenges and fragmentation of the mobile market right now: the company has an offering in each of the above segments. There are numerous other companies, including Microsoft and Yahoo, that have comparable offerings in most or all of the segments.
The mobile market, just because of the proliferation of different handsets, will always be fragmented to some degree. But we can expect to see increasing integration of the types of functionality that are currently largely separated — the blending of voice interfaces, text and WAP and, potentially, applications that come preloaded on phones (e.g., Google Maps on the iPhone).
Speaking of the iPhone, it has done a great service to the market, refocusing the industry on the user experience and general usability in mobile. As I’ve argued for some time, consumers fundamentally want local information on the go and thus consumer demand is “pent up.” Mobile usability and the “mobile Internet” now just have to catch up to the consumer. Greg Sterling is the founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence and a senior analyst at Opus Research’s Local Mobile Search program. He publishes Screenwerk, a blog focusing on the relationship between the Internet and traditional media, with an emphasis on the local search marketplace. The Locals Only column appears on Mondays at Search Engine Land.