There are lots of new mobile search initiatives going on. Most recently, AOL introduced a mobile search offering with technology that automatically renders Web pages for tiny cellphone screens. Meanwhile, Google and Yahoo! have Web search and SMS tools that they've relatively recently introduced. Beyond these familiar brands, directory/Yellow Pages companies, content providers and the carriers are all trying to launch or figure out mobile or mobile content strategies.
Everybody knows this is a big potential market. There are probably in excess of 200 million or so wireless phones in the U.S. and more than 1.5 billion around the globe, according to data compiled in a new mobile search marketing report from SEO/SEM firm Oneupweb.
The report, which I'll discuss in more detail in an upcoming Local Media Journal, offers an excellent overview of the current search-engine offerings in the mobile space and discusses marketing strategy associated with those offerings.
However, it doesn't get into the problems with mobile usability and the challenges that all these providers will have in getting people to use these services. Unless you have a Treo, Blackberry or similar large-screen device — admittedly there are more on the way — the experience is pretty bad.
I have a new Sanyo phone with a normal-sized cellphone screen. Sprint gave me two months of wireless Web browsing free. The experience was so slow and so bad that I cancelled the service. And in our most recent consumer focus group in Denver (Feb, 2005), we found the following:
[Focus group members] also generally avoided directory assistance as a vehicle to find local businesses. And, as sophisticated as they were about Web sites and the Internet, only one person in the group (actually the boyfriend of a person in the group) used wireless devices to find local businesses.
While this is only one anecdotal piece of information, it's generally reflective of the lack of use of wireless Web services in the U.S. today.
Friday I had a very interesting meeting with Jay Sullivan of PocketThis. The software company provides an enhanced directory assistance offering in which more/related information is pushed to traditional DA users via SMS with associated links that go to maps, etc.
Among the things that Jay and I discussed at length were the usability challenges with mobile and the many moving parts (carriers, content providers, devices, interfaces, etc.). We discussed the phenomenon of wireless users calling friends and family that are in front of the Internet and can conduct local searches via directory sites or search engines. While I have no empirical data to support this statement, I believe this practice is fairly widespread — it's a paradoxical reflection of both demand and the frustration with the current, limited state of mobile offerings.
Wireless is much more complex than online; yet it does represent a large opportunity — with all the installed base and the demand, especially for local services. But even among the so-called "need-it-now" users that are identified in the Oneupweb report, there is resistance to using local search on wireless devices. (Even though most are pretty terrible, there's still widespread usage of DA services.)
The mobile search/mobile local search market is sure to be big, but it's much more complicated than most people realize and will also take awhile longer to figure out.