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What do the iPad and Tablet Computers Mean for Search?

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The iPad. Surrounded by hype, adored by some, denigrated by others.

Like the iPhone before it, the iPad is a category igniter -- it won't end up being the dominant product in its category in terms of sales volumes, but as the poster boy of tablet computing it has drawn attention and media coverage, which has promoted the device category to the public.

However, it's first to market -- and as an iPad user myself, I'm beginning to glimpse how the device will have an impact on search and digital strategies going forward. Here are my thoughts so far.

Search Engines and Tablet Devices

Obviously search engine interfaces need to be tailored to the device. The iPad doesn't support Flash, so any video content embedded into search results will need to be available as HTML 5 video -- and for any other formats that different tablet don't support. This is important as Bing in particular looks to integrated media content directly into the page as part of it's entertainment channel.

Google has already launched an iPad app -- similar to their mobile one -- which incorporates search, e-mail, and other popular Google products, as well as a built-in browser. The iPad can only run one app at a time, so this makes it easier to switch between Google products and the web. However, most consumers won't want to install an app, so ensuring search websites work with the operating systems and browsers of different tablets is key.

There's an opportunity here to innovate. Google already offers voice-based searching on the iPad and Android phones; so far I've found the accuracy variable but no doubt that will improve over time. This innovation can go further: touch screens actively encourage the use of the fingers -- so there's an opportunity to enable uses to interact with search results in this way, for example, expanding plus boxes by swiping down or drawing circles on maps to find local businesses with that radius.

So experts are predicting the days of keyboards and mice are numbered -- but I think they will be around for a long time to come. Just as we've accepted touch screens on phones alongside keypads, so will touch screen computing be a mainstream experience alongside the keyboard and mouse. However, this could lead to an increase in typos and misspelled search queries; we've all got fat-finger syndrome at times!

Geo-targeting

Tablet computers are ideal for using search on the move via a phone or wireless connection. So detecting the user's location and personalizing search results accordingly is another important aspect of the tablet computing search experience, just like it's increasingly becoming on "normal" computers.

This doesn't just extend to search results, though -- brands need to embrace geo-targeting, too, driving consumers to landing pages that are tailored to their location -- whether that is with store information, products shipped to that area, or other customization. This is getting easier for brands to execute -- alongside IP lookups, there's a W3C initiative that HTML5 supports to develop a standard way for browsers to determine the user's location after they opt-in to providing that data -- so there soon won't be any excuses. Firefox users can try it here; Chrome and Safari support it already, too.

Landing Pages

As well as localizing page content, brands will need to look at how well their pages work on the browsers and operating systems on tablet computers -- some sites simply don't work well, or at all.

Take Google Reader for example -- it relies on a lot on scrolling up and down lists of feeds and within articles; but the scroll bars simply don't always work when using the touch screen of the iPad, resulting in the user grabbing the whole browser window by mistake. This is a Google issue not an Apple one; other sites with some (but less) scroll bars are fine. Google have assumed that everybody has a mouse; a contrast to using Gmail on iPad, which has a well-designed interface suited to touch screens.

I've also noticed a few brands customizing the iPad keyboard in their apps, for example moving the @ key onto the first keyboard layer if the app requires it a lot. Little touches like this make apps and websites a joy to use -- as opposed to a nuisance.

Time to Plan

Table computing is, of course, in its infancy and I'm not advocating widespread website redesigns for this device category over night. Brands that offer products particularly suited to the leisure-time orientated nature of the iPad should consider developing apps; most brands should concentrate on fixing any glaring bugs with their website on tablet computers while monitoring their analytics and market research reports for the growth of tablet computing. Now's the time to plan for the future and ensure you have the CMS infrastructure and analytics capabilities to set up device-specific paid search campaigns and landing page in future.

Brands will need to learn how to offer a rich experience on tablet devices -- or risk providing consumers with a poor experience they'll associate with the brand across all devices.

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