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Coping with Convergence: Local Search Meets Mobile and WiFi, Part 1

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While many industry and internet specialists agree that a genuine convergence between technology and content for mobile has been achieved, many questions still remain on what exactly are the opportunities for local merchants and search marketers. Is now the time for search marketers to enter mobile and bring their clients with them? If so, what are the special challenges search marketers must deal with in what is still a continually emerging technology?

For many years, the mobile industry had brought with it a very long hype (or over-hype) factor, leaving many awaiting for the technology to be actually capable of handling the expressed ideas. During this time, the general public's understanding and accessibility of mobile services was reserved for ring tones, games and graphics than its emerging search capabilities.

For those uninitiated to Mobile/WiFi, here's a primer on how the technology works.

Key definitions for mobile search

  • WiFi—this technology allows computers, cell phones or PDAs to connect to the internet or to other enabled devices when in proximity of an access point. (Note: WiFi is not to be confused with cellular networks for portable phones, or "cell phones," which have their own set of base stations with the actual phone carrier.)

  • Access point—a device that connects wireless communication together to form a wireless network, which can relay information between both wireless and wired devices. Access points can be privately or publicly owned, allowing users to roam over a large area and staying mostly continuously connected.

  • Hotspot—the region covered by one or several access points. (This can range from a single room to many square miles of overlapping hotspots.)

Mobile search's many interfaces

Mobile search has many different user interfaces (UIs), which makes things appear considerably more complex than web search alone. Components include:
  • Multiple hardware systems—cell phones, PDAs, smart phones, WiFi phones, and satellite phones.

  • Multiple client applications (Windows Mobile, GPS based software, voice enabled, maps and navigation, traffic, etc.)

  • Multiple screen displays (Web based WiFi and SMS interfaces.)

  • Multiple carrier services (for the mobile device)

  • Operator services (The most common being voice assistance such as "411" directory listings.)

Mobile search: Better targeting of the local user

"Find information anywhere, anytime" is the overall theme of mobile search. By contrast, a limitation of local search on the web is that is requires you to know and enter your own location. Mobile carriers, however, can automatically pinpoint your geographic position, with mobile search applications delivering specialty information they think is most relevant to your location. Popular mobile content search services include maps and directions, news and sports, flight updates, weather, white pages, stock quotes, chat services, and any mobile website as well.

At the SES Local Edition conference in Denver earlier this year, a number of panelists discussed some of the challenges and implications of the convergence between local and mobile search, particularly when you introduced other elements such as WiFi technology.

"You can do a number of things from a single mobile application," said Joe Herzog, Director of Emerging Products for InfoSpace. "For example, you can make all of your travel plans in advance or as they happen."

"How mobile is different than the Internet is you know exactly who that person is that's searching," said Eric McCabe, VP of Marketing for JumpTap. "You know you can look at the customer database and at least put them into some type of group and do better searches around that. And then you can do behavioral type of targeting or behavioral segmenting based on the searches."

Jed Rice, VP of Market Development for Skyhook Wireless, gave a demo on how the company's software application, named 'Loki,' can be implemented on any WiFi enabled device to scan a person's location using WiFi access points, which Rice says provides more accurate and content-rich location services than GPS technology alone. "The fact that your device knows exactly where you are makes all that content more relevant to you," said Rice.

"Mobile search is about marrying user location with content and advertising, and not just information from general web searching either," said McCabe. "We're looking more at very specific mobile type content and a lot of these are in private databases, so looking at specific directory type information and combining that with the advertising is an important point."

Marketers should care about mobile search

Many industry reports showed by the panelists concurred that as technology goes more mobile, so do more of the search population.

"The technology lends itself to much usage," assures Herzog. "Entertainment and navigation traffic, real time predictive, and an emerging younger audience—all that leads to more and more daily usage."

Local search especially lends itself well to mobile phones, explains McCabe. "When you ask people what are they searching for, it's always something local. "Out of the top five, maps and directions, directory listings, nearby restaurants, stores, local movies, they're all related to the local category. So we definitely see this as an important thing that people expect when they're on a mobile phone."

The same is true across all mobile devices—laptops, phones, and other devices that use WiFi services from a hotspot. "The advent of WiFi is going to change the roles a lot," said Greg Gruse, senior VP of Content Services for Local Matters. "As municipalities (and places of business) start rolling out free WiFi services, things are going to change again. The power of that search box on that portal will be very important because that page, not your home page, will be the starting point for people when they connect to their municipal WiFi portal."

"WiFi and these local portals are going to drive a need for much more detailed content information. This will be targeted content that will be based on a smaller area than what you've seen before."

Gruse added that mobile devices will also be a great opportunity for social networking to add to the local content quality. "Features such as 'send-to-a-friend will be important to your new mobile web services, and this will also lead to more consumer generated content such as ratings, reviews, preferences, sharing of info between friends, and guides and trip planning type features for consumers on the go," he said.

This article continues in tomorrow's SearchDay, Coping with Convergence: Local Search Meets Mobile and WiFi, Part 2.

Grant Crowell is the CEO and Creative Director of Grantastic Designs, Inc., a full-service search engine marketing, web site design, and usability firm.

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