There is no shortage of outfits ready to claim their share of the burgeoning platform; plenty of new names, such as JumpTap, Medio Systems and ChaCha, along with Google, Yahoo and MSN, are developing mobile-dedicated search options.
Consumers still finding their way
Yet there hasn't been a breakaway winner. According to findings released this week by local search agency TMP Directional Marketing, consumers still use a combination of online and offline search resources to find local business information -- but increasingly they're accessing that info on the go.
"Marketers need to pay close attention to mobile search and sites that offer consumers user reviews, as they are growing in popularity," said Gregg Stewart, senior VP-interactive, TMP. The study found one in five shoppers with a standard cellphone has conducted a local search via the mobile web; two-thirds of respondents with Wi-Fi-enabled devices have conducted a search.
For some search stalwarts, such as YellowPages.com, the jump to making search services mobile was a natural one. Yellow Pages, an AT&T-owned subsidiary, already had an SMS text-based service, YP411, when it launched a native iPhone application in July. (AT&T is the exclusive wireless carrier for the iPhone.) Yellow Pages' mobile application is starting to be pre-installed on cellphones with AT&T service.
"We've grown dramatically in recent years," says YellowPages.com Chief Marketing Officer Matt Crowley. He said mobile search behavior is somewhat predictable, at least among YPMobile users. "It seems to increase significantly on weekends, and tends to skew toward entertainment," he said. "It's got an out-and-about flavor."
JumpTap and Medio Systems are white-label outfits that make their technology services available to third parties and lets those third parties brand them. Cambridge, Mass.-based JumpTap is carving a name for itself among more-established search engines with a mobile-first approach, and Medio Systems, out of Seattle, has partnerships with Sprint, Telus, Verizon and T-Mobile.
The road to the mobile search era is not without hurdles, said JupiterResearch analyst Neil Strother, who specializes in mobile marketing and media. He said there are enough factors to keep the medium from outright exploding overnight: First, of the approximately 15% of cellphone users in the U.S. who own phones with web browsers, a less-than-overwhelming 8% have taken advantage of mobile search.
And he argued that because the majority of American cellphone users are not of the iPhone or Blackberry-wielding set, the reality of a mobile-dominated search space might be further off than developers expect.
That's why TMP's Mr. Stewart is most bullish on voice search, often known as 411. Twenty-two percent of respondents in the TMP survey reported that they had called directory assistance from a mobile phone, with "411" acquiring the highest reach (64%) followed by free directory assistance provider "1-800-FREE-411" (29%).
Mr. Strother said voice-based directory assistance remains popular and poses a natural challenge to mobile search.
"In the old days, you had to know name of the company you were looking for," he said. "Now [voice search is] category based, and one of the fastest-growing areas we're seeing out there."
And there's a similar glut of providers. The fastest to market has been Jingle Networks, which runs Free 411. Google has Goog411. Verizon, Dex and AT&T (through 800-Yellow Pages) are also testing in certain markets.
"Free 411 has over 20 million voice lookups a month," Mr. Stewart said. "The mobile search challenge to date has seen so many different devices trying to stitch together pieces of platforms. But everyone can use the telephone aspect as a search device."
All told, nearly 1.3 billion mobile users -- 30% of the subscriber base -- are expected to use local mobile search services by 2013, according to an April report from industry analyst Juniper Research. Up to that time, Juniper says, 43% of the forecasted $4.8 billion cumulative mobile-search advertising revenue will be drawn from local search utilities.
"We're bullish that it will grow," Mr. Strother said. "There's just no rocket ride we can see to do it right now."