The Many Faces of Mobile Search

Six Tips for Improving Your Ad Buys as New Technologies Fragment the Ways Consumers Find You on Their Phones

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SAN FRANCISCO ( -- Remember the the good old days, when search used to be so easy? Go to the computer, find your favorite search engine and tap a query into the search box.

The mobile phone has changed all that. Virtually every capability on the phone, from cameras to GPS, can be considered a search tool. A dieting app can tell someone how many calories are in a burger, while using the phone's camera to scan a product's barcode can help find the best deals for that product. Looking up information has never been so fragmented.

There is no Google for mobile search yet. So here's what marketers need to know about the half-dozen ways people are hunting down information using their wireless devices.

Mobile Web: Your Desktop Writ Small
Searching on the mobile web may not be the right paradigm for mobile, some say. For non-smartphone users it can mean a lot of cumbersome clicking on a small screen -- and if users don't see relevant results on the first page, they're unlikely to go to the second page.

On the other hand, if the search experience replicates the desktop experience, as it does for users of smartphones equipped with larger screens and HTML browsers, consumers are more likely to stick to what they know and go straight to already-familiar search engines. Make sure you check the box for mobile in your search-engine-buying interface, whether it be AdWords or AdCenter.

When it comes to mobile, the web still commands more traffic than apps: Nielsen said there were 55 million unique visitors to the mobile web in June, compared to 35 million active mobile application users in the first quarter of 2009, the majority of which were using navigation apps. And the mobile web could still gain more traction thanks to new features, such as integrating the user's location into search queries to improve results.

Apps: They're Sources of Information, too
That's right, within the app world there are scores of utilities that can serve up information -- and they're limited only by your imagination. The advantage of apps is that they serve a specific interest, and if you have an app that's top-of-mind for a particular subject matter, you're golden. Think of Kraft's much-vaunted iFood app and its advantage in helping people find recipes.

The challenge is how to rise above the thousands of apps out there already; the iPhone App Store alone has 65,000 apps at last count. User metrics for apps are also pretty dismal: Only about 20% of consumers return to use a free app after the initial download, according to Pinch Media. Thirty days later, less than 5% are using it.

What if you don't have an app? One alternative to publishing apps is to make yourself found in relevant apps through advertising. Opportunities for in-app advertising should grow as publishers continue to evolve the platform, and re-fashion their offerings beyond banners.

Carrier Decks: An Exclusive Search Option
Most users of conventional WAP-based phones -- these would be the 75% of U.S. mobile users that have non-smartphones -- launch their mobile experience from their carrier's home page or deck, a curated "mobile portal," essentially. As a result, they tend to head straight for the on-deck search box. Because all major U.S. carriers have some exclusive arrangement with the top search engines to power user queries on their decks, the organic results are generally on par with what users would see had they performed the query on the search provider's web page.

However, for the same query, ads appearing on the deck's results page may not be the same as those on the search engine's web page. This is because vendors sucha s Yahoo and Google treat the deck inventory differently than the inventory on their own mobile properties and, in some cases, these ads need to be purchased through the carrier.

It's also worth noting that the carrier deck traffic is declining, as people jump directly to their own favorite sites and apps through bookmarked links or direct navigation (as cumbersome as typing in web addresses on a phone's keyboard might be). Mobile marketing agency WDA estimates that 60% of current active mobile web browsing originates off-deck.

Cameras: Visual Search on Steroids
The camera phone is becoming the search wand for the real world as consumers can point their camera at objects to get answers about the landscape and products around them.

This kind of search takes a few different forms. Shopping-comparison apps let consumers scan a product's barcode with their cameras to access product information such as where to find the cheapest price, store locations and get directions to the retailer.

Mobile tagging technology, such as 2D barcodes or radio frequency identification devices (RFID), let marketers load tags with marketing and product information. When consumers use their phones to scan these tags -- which can be slapped on everything from product packaging to in-store posters -- they can receive product information, trial coupons or video demos.

Augmented reality has perhaps the biggest hype right now. This technology overlays digital information or graphics over real objects in a live camera feed. The first augmented reality iPhone app, by British developer Acrossair, uses the phone's camera to point people to the nearest London Underground station.

SMS Search: Texting Can Be Easy, Efficient
Users can find answers to questions by texting keywords such as "microbrewery Denver" to SMS answering services such as ChaCha, 4INFO and Yahoo, which embed advertising in their SMS responses.

Where SMS lacks a rich user experience, however, it makes up for in reach and response rates: The overwhelming majority of U.S. cell phones are SMS-capable while SMS ads average a 16% response rate, according to comScore, outperforming the typical 1% to 3% click-through for mobile web display ads.

Voice Search: Back to the Basics
Beyond the 411 voice directory that has become part of popular lexicon, ChaCha, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Tellme Networks all offer voice-recognition services or applications that can accept voice queries and shoot back a text message response (Tellme responds with a web page with results powered by Bing).

An MSearchGroove study this summer found that ChaCha responses delivered the best results, thanks to real humans interpreting queries and results, producing a 94% accuracy rate in interpreting the test queries and delivered accurate responses 90% of the time. Meanwhile, Google tested accurately in 17% of tests and delivered accurate search results in 22% of the tests.

What voice service does have going for it is convenience. A study conducted by Sanderson Studios for Tellme suggests consumers prefer using voice to get the information rather than having to touch, dial or type.

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