Future of Mobile Search

Have you ever searched for tutorials on 3G from your mobile phone? Most likely, your answer would be no but if I had asked the same question for search on PC, chances are that many of the telecom professionals could have searched for it. Here lies the difference between search on PC and search on mobile. The search algorithms that worked for PC are unlikely to work for the mobile. On the mobile, most of the search queries are around navigation, direction and local search.

Search has been an integral part of internet. In fact, search is the very first functionality that any new user of internet uses. However, this is not true for mobile internet. The mobile search is yet not anywhere near the adoption levels of online PC based search.

How is Mobile Search different?

The fundamental difference between the mobile search and PC search is the access device. The screen size of the mobile phone is a constraint and hence the internet search results need to be modified. Even the input keyboard is different and the search string could be shorter which means the search result has to be intuitive.

The second difference is in the usage pattern of mobile. Unlike PC, the mobile phone is a ubiquitous device and people normally search for “at the moment” kind of thing. This means they search for nearest restaurant, retail points, service centers or mobile content. Their need is immediate and the patience or tolerance is low. They are looking for relevant results that are actionable like they need a taxi that can reach them fast and they should be able to book the taxi using their mobile phone. This means that the result needs to be location aware and should also give the phone number of the taxi company.

Thirdly, the consumer expectations changes with the time of day for the search results e.g. an afternoon search for restaurants means that the results should be about restaurants amenable to business meetings whereas, in the evening the same search should retrieve fun places like pubs or lively music restaurants.

Lastly, the difference is in the frequency of search and the number of attempts for each search. On PC, a surfer changes his search string multiple times before he gets the right results while on a mobile, nobody is likely to change the search string more than a couple of times. Also, people search at least 4-5 different things on PC everyday but a typical mobile internet user searches something only once in 4-5 days.

Why is mobile search languishing behind the PC search?

The number of search queries on mobile was not even 2% of that on PC in 2007 (m:metrics reported 27 million mobile searches per day in 2007) and the main reasons for this dismal performance were

  • High cost of internet impacting the usage
  • Low penetration of mobile internet, e.g. in Europe, the mobile internet penetration is barely into double digits
  • Experience of mobile internet due to small screen size
  • Unavailability of search engines relevant to the mobile phones

Future of Mobile Search

The mobile search should be able to utilize all the resources (location, camera, voice, etc.) that the device has to offer to retrieve socially relevant results that can give confidence to the user in almost every situation even if he is alone or in a completely unfamiliar environment. I am listing below five different types of mobile search which hold a lot of promise in future. I have also included a few videos for each search type to demonstrate how it works.

  • Local Search: The biggest benefit a mobile phone is that it is location or context aware. Both GPS as well as non-GPS devices can provide location co-ordinates based on different technologies. The search needs to take the location co-ordinates into consideration while churning out the results. Thus search for a television should give me the retail points in the vicinity. I would expect the search to take into account my past queries as mobile device is a personal device and is unlikely to be used by multiple people. Local search or Yellow pages seems to hold the maximum potential for mobile search as well as for mobile advertising.

InfoSpace Mobile Search Video

  • Voice Search: Imagine, you are driving car and need to find out about location of a particular movie hall. Will you be comfortable in inputting the search string on a web page? I would rather pull up my car on a side and quickly call somebody to find out about the hall. Voice search is very useful in such circumstances. Also, not all mobile phone owners are literate or comfortable with internet but everybody is comfortable talking. Google, Yahoo and Bing, all have voice assisted search but Chacha takes the voice search to another level as its search engine utilizes crowdsourced workforce to answer the queries. Another application, Vlingo lets you control your mobile phone with the power of voice. With Vlingo, you can simply speak to your phone to send a text message or search the mobile web.

Voice Search with Google

  • Visual Search: Apart from location, the other key feature of a mobile phone is a camera. Camera is like an eye and should be used to as a key input for search. Imagine you could search the Internet just by taking a picture of something, such snapping a picture of a music CD to look up reviews and listen to the tracks, instantly getting information on a product featured in a magazine, or looking up recommend places to visit by taking a picture of a famous landmark.

There are two types of visual search that particularly excite me are Point & Find and Augmented Reality.Nokia’s Point & Find requires you to simply aim the camera of your Nokia phone at any object in meat-space and the Point & Find application will access relevant data off the Internet. Point & Find uses real-time image processing to recognize real-world objects in a Nokia database of virtually tagged items using the phone’s camera, Internet connection, and GPS data. The software also recognizes bar codes and supports category-specific text-entry search.

Nokia’s Point & Find

Augmented reality takes Point and Find a step further and adds information and meaning to a real object or place. This means if you are a tourist in a completely unknown place, you can get all the information you want to search by just holding the camera phone in front of the building or place. Another example of finding the nearest tube (metro) is in the video

Nearest Tube

Another form of visual search is through the bar codes (2D). This kind of search has been explained in my earlier post on Mobile Ticketing

  • Social Search: Since the mobile phone is personal and has a phonebook, a social graph of the user can be produced using the information from phonebook and the online social behavior. A search engine may give results that are relevant in general but if it can access your social graph and boost the ranking of search results that your friends have deemed to be important. It would preferentially show results that were more fun and more relevant to you in your social context. This kind of search would excite the digital natives.
  • Vertical search: The most frequent vertical search on mobile is entertainment. abphone is a mobile search engine that focuses on multimedia content that you might want for your phone e.g. images, video and games.  They have created a really simple mobile search interface to a range of different content databases. Similar vertical search could emerge for shopping of consumer durables (television, music system, etc.) that would not only compare the features but also give a comparison on the best deals in the locality or city.

Google Product Search for mobile

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