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Not Into Mobile Search? Just Wait a Couple Years

Accessing Web By Phone Could Become a lot Easier Thanks to Innovations

By Published on .

SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Ron Rogowski, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, can cite all the reasons and studies that say search on mobile phones is a long way off from its potential as mobile marketing's killer app. But when he needed to get a prescription for his wife after his regular pharmacy had closed, Mr. Rogowski found himself driving using Google and its handy map to find a drugstore that was open.
Some of mobile search's growing pains stem from the mistaken idea that mobile search should somehow replicate the internet-search experience.
Some of mobile search's growing pains stem from the mistaken idea that mobile search should somehow replicate the internet-search experience. Credit: Hoag Levins

"I don't think mobile search's time has come, but I think it will come," he said.

A Forrester study this spring found 80% of marketers use or plan to use internet-search marketing, yet less than a third of retail marketers and one-half of consumer-product-goods marketers expect to use mobile search in their marketing mixes. Media companies were the most receptive: About 70% anticipated using mobile search in their mixes.

Few consumers use it
No doubt, as Mr. Rogowski found driving along and looking at his phone, mobile search is cumbersome. Of the 190 million cellphone subscribers today, only about 5% have ever used their phones for search, less than half the number of consumers who buy a ringtone each month, according to M:Metrics.

Still, major players -- from traditional search engines such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft to wireless-service providers and upstarts -- are smelling dollars and expect mobile search to tap the potential of the mobile phone as a potent sales and marketing channel.

"Mobile search is not here yet," said search analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence, mostly because searching on a two-inch mobile screen isn't yet a good user experience. But the pace of improvement has accelerated. "I thought it would take five to seven years, but now I think in two to three years there will be meaningful mobile-search usage."

Growing pains
Some of mobile search's growing pains stem from the mistaken idea that mobile search should somehow replicate the internet-search experience. "You have to think about mobile as a separate [medium]," said Tony Philipp, CEO of UpSNAP, which offers search for weather or sports scores and subscription content. "It's not the internet on a phone. Users don't want a million answers." And they're not expecting to do academic research. They want only a quick, relevant hit.

Yet key elements of internet search are spilling over to the mobile web. Yahoo's paid search, for example, is showing up on results for mobile search on Go2, a mobile-search firm that serves results through mobile web, text and e-mail messaging and downloadable applications. In 2005, Go2 had 24 million unique visits, up 50% from 2004. "It's the first step in replicating" the computer-based web on mobile phones, said Michael Bayle, Yahoo's senior director of business development.

Voice-activated search
And there are innovations that could make searching easier. V-Enable offers voice-activated search, in which a user holds down the send key and speaks a request, such as "restaurant." Voice search is more accurate than other searches, which require too many clicks to get to the web or fail over spelling issues, said Craig Hagopian, president-chief operating officer of V-Enable. He said V-Enable's ad plans include a click-to-call service and Yahoo-style paid listings. And when a caller asks for a pizza parlor, a banner ad for a local restaurant may appear on the screen. V-Enable already has 100 million impressions a month, a 5% click-through rate and CPMs that run from $35 to $50, he said.

Global-positioning technology also holds promise. Lee Rohrlich, director of marketing for Athlete's Foot of Greater New York, is working with one such technology enabler, GPShopper, to use mobile search to bring more 15- to 30-year-old shoppers to a Westchester, N.Y., store. The promotion, which offers exclusive gifts with purchase or discounts, is "a way to reach out of the store to bring people in," he said.
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