In brief: An analysis on mobile search strengths and shortcomings based on some eye-opening usage stats presented at the recent Mobile Search Masterclass; a summary of key findings from MSG’s own mobile voice search white paper (examining how Google stacks up against ChaCha and Vlingo using Yahoo as the default search engine); and the business case for a new breed of mobile search tools (ranging from social search to SMS search to content verticals) PLUS news you may have missed from Alabot, an Indian company specialized in natural language and artificial intelligent applications which enable interactive, multi-lingual mobile search.
No matter how you look at it (or who you ask) mobile search, the model that has effectively retrofitted Internet search for mobile devices, is riddled with shortcomings This was the message that came across in the interviews I conducted for Mobile Advertising Research UK, the presentations I and other search authorities made during the recent Mobile Search Masterclass in London, and, more recently, in the mobile search assessment white paper (Pump Up The Volume: An Assessment of Voice-Enabled Web Search on the iPhone) I co-authored with Peggy Albright. (DOWNLOAD)
Is mobile search broken? More importantly, how can we fix it? These are the questions I put to a variety of executives representing companies from across the mobile search and advertising business ecosystem. Read between the lines, and their answers – along with my own conclusions – point to areas of improvement and opportunity in mobile search.
MOBILE ADVERTISING RESEARCH UK
Primary research and C-Level interviews with agencies, brands, operators and third parties reveal mobile search is missing the mark. Their gripe: the poor quality of mobile search (specifically universal search powered by keyword queries and PageRank algorithms) is to blame for a lack of interest and investment in paid search advertising.
As a leading executive at a global brand put it: “Just between the two of us, our spend for search is by far not in the [single] digits yet – and it won’t be….We do a lot in mobile, but the basics of search are not yet at the level of sophistication consumers would expect from us.”
At the other end of the spectrum, agencies are far from upbeat about the short-term outlook for mobile search. As one managing director at a mobile marketing agency put it: “Just the way the content is indexed prevents advertisers from creating a cohesive plan to integrate search in their [mobile] advertising strategies. There is just not the volume to get in and really do some targeted search [advertising], and that’s what brands want: to make advertising personal and relevant to every search the consumer makes.”
Against this backdrop, many sources questioned whether the U.K. adspend figures for 2008 released by the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) – the trade body for digital marketing – and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) didn’t overplay the importance of paid search advertising.
The study – a U.K. first – shows that mobile adspend bucked all market trends, increasing by 99.2 percent year on year to reach GBP28.6 million. Mobile display advertising – which includes banners, text links, tenancies pre/post roll and in-game – accounted for GBP14.2 million in 2008, 49.8 percent of all mobile advertising spend, while paid-for search advertising was estimated to account for GBP14.4 million, 50.2 percent of all mobile advertising spend.
As Harry Dewhirst, Co-Founder & Operations Director of RingRing Media Ltd., an independent media agency in the U.K., pointed out during the conference Mobile Advertising Research UK and again in a private briefing with MSG: the amount spent on paid search (from his vantage point) is considerably less than display. The reason: mobile search is “not up to scratch” and fails to deliver people “information in a digestible format as quickly and as conveniently as they need it.” (During the conference Harry raised eyebrows when he identified mobile search as a chief obstacle to mobile advertising – period.)
Harry further tells me the poor mobile search experience means fewer people use search, and that has resulted in a “lack of depth” in search terms. While the terms “plumber” and “London” might draw crowds of online searchers, they can’t pack them in on mobile – yet. “And until they do, search queries will continue to be focused on branded terms like ‘Facebook’ and ‘MySpace,’ and used as navigation.” Despite these issues, Harry reports conversion rates for search are higher than display. “This indicates a positive future for mobile search advertising, but the repeat usage and quality of results isn’t good enough yet.” (Ironically, this sentiment is echoed and documented in the summary analysis of the Masterclass below.)
But there are some bright spots. Harry, who knows mobile search inside out from his previous experience at Medio Systems, a mobile search provider, gives high marks to Taptu, a socially-assisted service that tackles issues such as poor quality results and even worse rendering by summarizing the content/search results in a page that allows people to pre-screen the results before clicking. He is also upbeat about other vertical solutions such as directory assistance search services that are designed from the ground up to give searchers what they need on the move.
MOBILE SEARCH MASTERCLASS
A summer highlight for me has been participating for the second successive year in the mobile search masterclass, a course delivered as part of The City University London’s Masterclass series. Once again I joined an impressive roster of industry authorities from companies, and once again Colin Bates, CTO of Mobile Commerce Ltd., presented some amazing insights into mobile search usage, trends and behavior.
It’s worth sitting up to take notice because Mobile Commerce, like an honest broker sitting between all the major U.K. mobile operators and all the mobile search engines, effectively powers customers’ search boxes. In a nutshell, Mobile Commerce takes the search terms people type into operator portal search boxes and federates them out to a variety of information retrieval sources to deliver a results set made up of regular Internet search results (Google, Yahoo Microsoft), specialist mobile search results (local search and a variety of verticals), and paid search advertising linked to keywords. Mobile Commerce also offers an increasing number of content owners/publishers a similar service through its Monetised Mobile Search solution, a plug-in service that allows client companies to put a search box on their mobile site and generate revenues from paid search advertising.
As a result, Mobile Commerce has an invaluable insider’s view into what people search for and the results they receive. The bottom line: Nearly 12 months on from Colin’s last presentation and mobile search is still (!) broken.
The surprise: mobile search volume has doubled and in some cases tripled. However, part of the reason for this meteoric rise could be Mobile Commerce’s own success in signing up customers (such as major U.K. newspapers and Virgin Media). Colin put it down to growth in mobile publishing and the number of publishers that placed a search box on their pages. [Hmm - will more publishers take charge of content (and advertising) by controlling the search box?] And let’s not forget the impact of the iPhone and other cool handsets that make the Internet fun to surf on our phones.
What are people searching for? The stellar growth Colin sees – partly because Mobile Commerce powers mobile search for The Sun – is in a category he calls “Glamor,” a term that comprises all the hot half-nude models (Page 3 girls) featured on the newspaper’s third page.
More people are using mobile search. Are they getting what the want?
In a word, no.
Colin’s road test of mobile search services offered by Google and Yahoo (similar to last year) makes it clear mobile search has a way to go. While the search engines excel in Internet search on a mobile phone, their mobile-specific results are – well – “rubbish.” A search for directory assistance delivers a link to the media relations department for World Aids Day, and a simple search for nearby post offices delivers a list of locations no longer in operation. As Colin put it: “The tools (such as Google Maps) are great, the data is out of date.”
Why are mobile search results served up by Internet search engines so poor?
1) Mobile robots can’t spider the “mobile Web.” There is no sure-fire way to identify a site by URL (for a while .mobi or m.sitename. was a help). The advance of the iPhone and multi-mode sites that adapt content and change markup to match the incoming device type also muddy the waters.
2) Indexing mobile pages – where information is dynamic, spread across multiple pages and impacted by user input and user-generated content – is a nightmare to index.
3) The existence of data silos (such as downloadable content) and the lack of cross-linking data make it difficult to rank results and power PageRank algorithms.
4) People have little say in their search results. On the Internet what we click on (or don’t) is important feedback (an indication of what we find relevant) that fine-tunes rankings and results. We do this on mobile too, but relevant results are often too many clicks away to be seen, used or appreciated.
Despite the many shortcoming of mobile search, people are using it more than ever before.
What are the drivers?
For one, supply. More players offer mobile search this year than last.
All the U.K. operators offer mobile search on their portals and an increasing number of publishers have also implemented Mobile Commerce solutions.
(In fact, this flurry of activity prompted Mobile Commerce to launch its Monetised Search service in the U.S., where U.K.-based search engine Taptu has signed up as the first client. Bob Last, SVP of Business Development at Taptu, said in a statement: “Working closely with Mobile Commerce since last year, Mobile Commerce significantly improves the availability of relevant ads for our users. The U.S. is our busiest market for mobile searches at Taptu and we are very pleased to be extending our involvement with Mobile Commerce to monetise more of this U.S. search traffic.”)
Demand is also a factor.
People are using mobile search – but it’s not the way they use it on the PC. It’s more about snacking, snippets and quick answers than research and information retrieval. This is what Mobile Commerce concludes (and proves) after a thorough analysis of search terms, search results and what people clicked. Because it powers the complete process it can make the connection between what people query and what they consider a valuable (accurate) result.
The company has developed a system of some 20 categories, ranging from Single User Search (which comprises all the Long Tail terms that literally only came up once in 12 months) to Social Networking (which accounted for a 16 percent of searches over the last year).
Connect the dots, as Colin did, and specific categories (such as Social Networking) are about navigation. In other words, people are typing them in order to find the mobile site. This is further supported by the dramatic dip in searches for Facebook plummet right around the time the social network launched a proper mobile property.
Mobile search may broken but paid search advertising – at least for a few categories – is paying dividends. Specifically, the categories Adult, Games and Personalization (downloadable mobile content) received the largest ratio of clicks against paid search adverts in the results set.
Read between the lines, and we have a confirmation of the pivotal role of paid search advertising in content discovery (a trend I have tracked and documented in articles such as this one for New Media Age – subscription required).
Why should mobile content companies harness paid search ads to promote their content? Because it works. As Colin put it: “The mobile search model is broken, and publishers have very little control over how their sites appear in the results set – if at all.” In practice, using advertising – specifically text and banner ads – enables content discovery and drives results. It’s also cheap discovery since (at least in the U.K.) CTRs for display ads have tumbled from GBP 15 per CPM to “around GBP 5.”
The avalanche of mobile content – and now mobile apps – turns up the pressure on publishers and developers to rise above the noise and make their stuff findable and buyable. Until companies fix the bugs in mobile search, display and banner ads remain the only sure-fire way to get the message out.
BETTER MOBILE SEARCH
But publishers and brands don’t have to limit their focus to the usual suspects (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft). The real excitement is in search tools and technologies that make the most of mobile and even harness other people to improve the overall experience.
An example Colin offered is Shazam, which he described as “mobile content search without the box.” The phenomenally popular mobile music discovery provider grew from 20 million users (in September 2008) to 35 million worldwide (in February 2009), with over a million tracks now being tagged every day across the world. (Release) It has deployed by 75 carriers across 60 countries, and is a popular application in the Apple App Store, the Android Market and the BlackBerry App World.
In Colin’s view, “mobile-specific search tools” that enable made-for-mobile search (as opposed to universal Internet search) are bound to improve mobile search and make money for the companies that develop them.
In my own Masterclass presentation (and ongoing mobile search research) I have taken it a step further, identifying 10+ categories of mobile search and assembling a list of super-cool companies harnessing context, location and the wisdom of crowds to improve the precision of search results and the quality of our mobile search experiences.
A welcome addition to the list is Alabot, a mobile search provider based out of Pune, India, with offices in Kuala Lumpur and London. I first met Akshat Shrivastava, Alabot founder, at a mobile search conference, where I had the pleasure of presenting him with the Bronze in the category Best Technology Innovation – Software. Earlier this week Akshat sent me a DM via Twitter (@peggyanne) with the great news: Alabot has secured funding from a global innovation fund and sealed a deal with a Malaysian mobile operator to develop a multi-lingual (English, Bahasa, Chinese, Tamil) mobile content vertical search service.
The text search service will start off serving up ringtones and wallpapers from the operator’s online content stock, or “low hanging fruit” Akshat tells me is just the beginning. As he put it: “Content services that require a syntax or Internet access aren’t getting traction [in that region] because they are not intuitive or interactive.” Moving forward, Akshat tells me plans are to extend the service to other content verticals and expand reach via deals with several OEMs. Rock On!
SEARCH AS CONVERSATION
Strong demand for more interactive (translated: natural language search services) isn’t limited to emerging markets.
In North America, ChaCha, a people-powered search service that uses specially trained individuals ChaCha calls “guides,” has answered more than 150 million questions via mobile phones and the Internet, making it one of the leaders in SMS search.
Intrigued by the power and potential of voice search on the iconic iPhone, Peggy Albright and I recently completed Pump Up The Volume: An Assessment of Voice-Enabled Web Search on the iPhone, a performance analysis of voice-enabled mobile search services offered by Google, ChaCha and Vlingo (a spoken interface to the Yahoo search engine). Download the free white paper here.
A chief finding: ChaCha “proved superior” to the two other voice-enabled search options for the iPhone. Specifically, ChaCha proved to offer exceptional results, with its human guides interpreting the search query accurately in the majority of cases.
To be clear, the study was not a road test of speech recognition technologies. To evaluate the overall performance of voice-enabled mobile services offered by ChaCha, Google and Vlingo for iPhone with Yahoo!, the researchers asked a series of 18 queries representative of six typical mobile search categories (Navigational, Directions, Information Local, Information General, Social, and Long-Tail). For each query the researchers evaluated nine performance characteristics including response time, results accuracy, voice recognition accuracy, number of results received, keytaps required, relevancy of the result, location awareness, use of advertising, and presence of other value-added features.
According to the study, ChaCha interpreted natural language search queries, that is, queries asked as questions, accurately in 94.4 percent of the tests and delivered an accurate search result in 88.9 percent of cases. The Google voice recognition technology interpreted queries accurately in 16.7 percent of tests and delivered accurate search results in 22.2 percent of tests. The Vlingo for iPhone voice recognition technology correctly interpreted queries in 72.2 percent of cases and delivered accurate results (via Yahoo!) in 27.8 percent of tests.
A clear finding that emerged is the importance of people-power. As Peggy Albright pointed out: “The use of human agents [by ChaCha] to help interpret spoken queries and conduct searches makes a positive difference in the quality of results delivered when compared to traditional search engines that use algorithmic software to find requested documents or information on the basis of keyword matches.”
In the report I also identified a key advantage ChaCha has over its competitors: Its keen focus on social search, an approach that effectively infuses human preferences and human judgments into computer algorithms to pinpoint truly relevant information and potentially better answers.
Beyond tipping the scales back in favor of results that are relevant rather than search- engine optimized, social search also lays the groundwork for a conversation with people on their terms, paving the way for the delivery of mobile advertising that is relevant and more likely to be appreciated.
Universal mobile search has significant shortcomings, weaknesses that brands and agencies tell me has convinced them to put paid search on the back burner. (There are exceptions: Colin from Mobile Commerce reminds us that for some segments – specifically mobile content – paid search is a potent means to encourage content discovery.) We have a choice: we can wait for providers to improve universal mobile search, or we can harness tools and technologies to deliver a better experience NOW. An obvious and excellent alternative is social search, often called “people-powered search” because it harnesses people to deliver results tailored to searchers on the basis of who they are and what they like. The interviews and insights collected in this analysis outline where mobile search misses the mark and reveal a huge opportunity for companies (such as ChaCha) that give a personal touch to search results (a perfect fit with the mobile phone, which we’ve already established is an intensely personal device).
It’s still in the early days, but the place and the power of people in mobile search is clear. As the worlds of mobile search and mobile social networking collide, they produce opportunities for companies to tap the community – both implicitly and explicitly – for much better quality results and the delivery of much more relevant advertising.
Disclaimer: The complete report is available for free download from MSearchGroove. This white paper is published by MSearchGroove. It contains the findings of independent research and analysis carried out by Peggy Albright, Albright Communications, and Peggy Anne Salz, MSearchGroove in January 2009. The research methodology was developed by Peggy Albright. The research was sponsored by ChaCha. The opinions expressed in this white paper are those of Peggy Albright and Peggy Anne Salz, and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations referenced in this paper.
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