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Is This the Year for Mobile Search?

newcomb-kevin
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Will 2007 be the Year of Mobile Search? I know, I know, the question has been asked of mobile search and mobile marketing over and over again, and it's not happened yet. But there are some clear signs that mobile search is maturing, that users are ready for it, and there are ways to monetize it. So maybe, just maybe, this is the year.

Although Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have offered mobile search for awhile now, they've really begun to step up their efforts this year. In addition, pure-play mobile ad players like Medio, which launched a PPC text ad platform for mobile search earlier this month, are coming to market with viable monetization options for mobile.

Can Web Search Dominance Transfer to Mobile?

Of the big three search engines, Yahoo has a clear lead in mobile. Earlier this month, Yahoo expanded the reach of its OneSearch mobile search application, making it available to more mobile Web users. OneSearch launched in January with the Yahoo Go for Mobile application.

Yahoo began showing PPC text ads in mobile search results in October. In February, Yahoo introduced display advertising on its mobile-specific Web sites in 19 countries.

Yahoo also added some publisher services to the OneSearch platform this week, including tools for publishers to submit their content to the OneSearch index or Yahoo Mobile Media Directory, and to sign up to show ads on their mobile sites from the new Yahoo Mobile Ad Network.

The OneSearch platform is mobile search from the ground up, instead of Web search crammed into a mobile device. It's been designed to provide quick bits of information with minimal click-throughs. It uses much of Yahoo's underlying Web search technology, but also applies mobile-specific algorithms to create an experience tailored to mobile devices. The company has high hopes for its mobile efforts. Lee Ott, director of mobile Web at Yahoo, told SEW: "We intend to be number one in mobile search, and in mobile search monetization."

Google, playing catch-up for a change, this week announced some new features for Google Mobile, which include mostly the same fare found in Yahoo's OneSearch.

Google has said that mobile search is a priority, at least in Europe. It launched mobile Web search two years ago, and has been testing mobile ads for at least the last six months in the U.S., U.K. and Germany, and for about a year in Japan.

Microsoft launched Live Search for Mobile in February at the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, releasing v 1.0 of its client application for Windows Mobile devices. Features include category-based local searching, maps and directions, traffic, contacts list integration and "SMS a friend."

It's acquisition of TellMe earlier this month will boost its mobile search properties with voice-enabled mobile search technology.

Earlier this week, Microsoft spin-off ZenZui debuted a newly developed graphical browsing user interface (UI) for mobile phones which maps the nine number keys on a phone to navigational bookmarks.

Microsoft also debuted a new mobile Web browser, code-named Deepfish, as part of its Microsoft Live Labs research. Deepfish is an attempt to improve the mobile browsing experience, according to Microsoft Technical Fellow Gary William Flake. "With the Deepfish technology, we capture the full layout of the page and deliver it to the mobile device, resulting in an experience similar to that on the desktop," Flake said.

Up-and-Coming Mobile Search Providers

There are a host of smaller search companies and mobile search startups vying to get a foothold in the space. Among them are Web search stalwarts like Ask.com, and pure-play mobile search providers like Jumptap, Infospace, and Medio.

Ask.com launched a mobile search product in October, depending heavily on the local content it has built up from Ask.com, Citysearch and other IAC properties. Mobile search provider Jumptap expanded its ad offerings in December through a deal with Ingenio, whose pay-per-call network has a strong emphasis on mobile search.

Infospace is also a challenger in the mobile space, working mostly with carriers to private-label their search platforms. Infospace recently unveiled an ad-supported search app for RIM BlackBerry devices. Another mobile upstart is mobile yellow pages provider go2, which partnered with Yahoo last year.

Medio, a mobile search provider that recently unveiled a mobile text ad network, is planning on getting past the "walled garden" issues associated with proprietary technology on mobile carriers' decks by creating a unified ad marketplace. Medio currently handles white-label search for several mobile providers, including T-Mobile, TELUS Mobility and Amp'd Mobile. Some of those carriers will also join the new MobileNow ad network

According to Omar Tawakol, Medio's chief advertising officer, Medio plans to follow the model that Google used to dominate Web search. Tawakol hopes to prove the concept of Medio's mobile search ads through direct response advertisers, who are more likely to try new things, and have the budget available to test out new ad products without going through a lengthy approval process.

Mobile Search by the Numbers

Mobile search, and mobile Web use in general, has been over-hyped by many people for years. The promise of widespread mobile Internet use has never come to fruition, especially in the U.S., but it has steadily grown.

In 2005, research from Telephia found that search was done by less than 3 percent of the mobile audience. In December 2006, Forrester Research reported that 11 percent of U.S. mobile consumers search on the mobile Internet.

According to an August 2006 report from the Mobile Marketing Association, Mobile search is in its early stages of adoption, but shows significant upside potential. In a study of mobile device users, 31-percent had used search in the past month, and more than half of the phone users that were not aware of the ability to search via their phones said they planned to use mobile search after they were made aware.

A report released this month by Jupiter Research found that mobile search is finally gaining enough traction among consumers to present real opportunities for carriers and media entities to monetize it. While the silos created by carriers' proprietary platforms limit the size of the market for on-deck advertising, they still present opportunities, as most users will use the software provided by their carriers to access the Internet, at least at first. But the recent launches of mobile Web portals from Ask.com, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo should change that in the long-term.

Jupiter expects short-term mobile search ad opportunities for marketers to exist mainly for mobile content providers, national advertisers, and local and entertainment retailers. Longer-term, opportunities are expected for local businesses, "bricks and mortar" retailers, and multi-channel retailers, according to the report.

While 2005 and 2006 have each been hailed as the "Year of Mobile," there are increasing signs that those predictions may finally come true in 2007. And if not, there's always next year.

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