Special Report: Search

Mobile Still Up for Grabs

What's at Stake: 'Whoever Cracks the Code for Delivering and Monetizing Relevant Answers for People on the Go Will Secure a License to Print Money'

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In one of the marketing arena's biggest battles in decades, the stakes are high. And there is no shortage of competitors in the emerging world of mobile search. Telecom and internet giants are all entwined in alliances as they jockey for position. Only one thing is clear: Marketers will be the winners.
Yahoo's OneSearch
Yahoo's OneSearch

"There's a real upside for marketers," says Neal Polachek, senior VP-analyst, Kelsey Group. "There will be many more targeted platforms [for] advertising messages, and they will be very competitive on a cost basis," he says. "Brands are going to have a lot of the leverage here. As media fragments, they can only get more power."

An eMarketer report projects there will be 844.9 million worldwide mobile-search users in 2011, up from 219.2 million in 2006. Ad revenue worldwide is projected to grow to $2.4 billion in 2011, from $6.8 million in 2006.

"Mobile search is a battle to define perhaps the most important new interface with the consumer. Whoever cracks the consumer and commercial code for delivering and monetizing relevant answers for people on the go will secure a license to print money, at least for a time," eMarketer Senior Analyst John Gauntt wrote.

"Mobile search in revenue today is a rounding error" -- an estimated $50 million to $100 million in 2006, Mr. Polachek says.

Three routes
The landscape is complex, but mobile boils down to search supported by a carrier, accessible from downloaded applications or efforts outside the carrier's deck.

Telecoms such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint are offering forms of mobile search through connections with Microsoft, JumpTap and Medio Systems. The telecom giants want to keep control of the search process -- and ensure a cut of the revenue stream they have lost over the years to internet search companies.

Although those on-deck searches today are relatively easy to access, consumers with gumption can search by downloading applications from Infospace, Citysearch and Vindigo, among others. Consumers also can use text messaging to get answers to questions from 4Info, WhitePages and others. Apple's iPhone has taken mobile search to a new level of ease with icons that go directly to Google Maps.

Voice search
All of these access points don't include what is likely to be the most interesting of all the options: the emerging field of voice search. Microsoft's purchase of TellMe will allow mobile phone users to ask for information and get a verbal answer in return, something particularly handy for America's car culture. Google also has a voice-search offering.

In the meantime, some powerful names are duking it out for control of the mobile web: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, Ask.

Yahoo's OneSearch provides quick answers for mobile users on the go, according to Marco Boerries, exec VP, Yahoo's Connected Life division. "We are going to build the best mobile experience for the consumer because that's what has been lacking in the marketplace for a long, long time," he says.

While Google has been dominating search on the PC, Yahoo, by some measures, has a lead globally in mobile.

Google steps in
For its part, Google anticipates it will translate its No. 1 position in PC search to the mobile phone with a strategy of delivering "the most compelling user experience" by providing the most relevant results in a way mobile consumers want them, says Dilip Venkatachari, product-management director, Google Mobile. Google, he says, views mobile search not as a zero-sum game but as a medium with widespread potential beyond text messaging and such fare as Google Maps and YouTube clips.

Mr. Venkatachari expects Google to score by gaining in vertical areas such as financial services. Google also has unveiled plans for a mobile-content-search service, and is making waves in the space by telling the Federal Communications Commission it will bid at least $4.6 billion in a coming auction for a wireless spectrum, as long as the spectrum remains an open platform.

Search isn't the same on the third screen

AD FORMAT Paid ads at top or side links to websites As few as two ads depending on handset type; text messages have one or two search results. These are not paid search results but will be soon.
USER INTERFACE Qwerty keyboard Most are limited to a 12-button keypad. Up-and-coming technologies are voice-based or may allow users to submit a photo taken with the phone's camera as a search query.
USAGE Average user spends 19 hours online weekly Half of subscribers use text messaging, while 10% use the mobile web. Only one-third of those use it regularly.
MONETIZATION Online ad search spending in 2006 was $6.97 billion. Mobile landing pages are in early stages; click-to-call is emerging. Kelsey Group pegs 2007 mobile local search at $29.7 million for 2007 but $1.09 billion in 2011.
Source: eMarketer, JupiterResearch, Kelsey Group
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