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Meet the Mobile Search Engines

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Yahoo, Google, Nokia, and JumpTap offered a fascinating glimpse of developments at the major mobile search engines recently, revealing an inside view of how mobile search operates, how it is evolving, and where it's going.

A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, December 4-7, 2006, Chicago, IL.

Mobile search vs. web search

"Mobile search is different from standard, PC-based Web search in three ways," said Matt Tengler, Product Manager at JumpTap, a Massachusetts-based firm that helps wireless operators deliver a mobile search experience for subscribers and advertising partners:
  • Content: "Currently, mobile content is dominated by mobile consumables, such as ring tones," he said.

  • Form factor: "The first page becomes the first few search results," he said.

  • Opportunities: "A personal device is always on," he said, "presenting more customized advertising opportunities."
Mikio Matsuo, Product Manager of Multimedia Experiences at Nokia Mobile Search, added, "Mobile search is the ultimate advertising platform. "A mobile phone is personal, always on, or always with a person," he said. "There is a great opportunity for search and mobile maps - adding relevant icons to mobile maps." Yahoo launched its search engine advertising for mobile phones in September 2006.

However, mobile search has a number of barriers to content delivery. Usability is a concern because user interfaces need to mature. And there is a limited amount of content outside of a few key verticals.

"Given a mobile phone's limited screen real estate," said Paul Yiu, Product Manager of Mobile Search at Yahoo, "what Yahoo has done is have one box - no room for tabs. Then, we determine the most likely type of search. For example, a search for 'Starbucks' is most likely a local search."

Limited screen real estate also does not encourage longer query strings. Currently, the average number of keywords per query is 2.3 on standard Web searches. Tengler presented some data from his organization:

Percentage of searchesNumber of query words
50.0% 1
33.9%2
10.5% 3
3.7%4

"Fifty percent of mobile searches represent the top seven categories," said Tengler.

CategoriesPercentage of mobile searches
NavigationCategorie 16%
Music/ring tones 10%
Entertainment8%
Sports6%
Reference5%
Local4%
Shopping2%

Despite mobile search limitations, the mobile search engine reps have seen a steady growth in unique users, searches per user, and average transaction amount. For example, at the Japanese Web site Rakuten.com, the average transaction on both the personal computer (PC) and on a mobile phone is $80. "We are seeing the same trends in Europe and the USA," said Agarwal.

How to optimize for mobile search engine

Yiu presented the following tips and guidelines on optimizing content for mobile search engines:
  • Write short, concise titles.

  • Adhere to mobile standards (validator.w3c.org)

  • Connect, or link to, legitimate and popular Web sites.

  • Make sure you are not disallowing mobile crawlers from spidering your site.

  • Submit your mobile site for inclusion here
Agarwal recommended presenting content in a format more usable, more engaging, and tailored for mobile. "Convert your Web site to see what it looks like, tweak it, and publish to the mobile platform," he recommended. One tool that will show what a Web site looks like on a mobile platform is mobilizer.volantis.net. Web site owners can also author Web sites in mobile formats with winksite.com. Google also has a page creator (pages.google.com) to author in XHTML.

Agarwal presented his tips on optimizing content for mobile search:

  • Design for low-end phones

  • Keep the URL structure as simple as possible

  • Specify the doc type in the XML preamble

  • Specify the character encoding

  • Keep links descriptive
"If you have a mobile page or pages," he added, "tell us about it on your PC-based site. Link to it. Likewise, allow Googlebot-mobile to crawl your mobile site."

Shari Thurow is the Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc. and the author of the book Search Engine Visibility.

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