In order for mobile search to reach its full potential, it has to be fast and convenient to use, regardless of the kind of device the user has. The ideal mobile search should provide users with immediate, relevant answers, with no distractions.

For example, mobile search should not force users to scroll though menu after menu or type in lengthy queries. Instead, the ideal solution should be to find the content or information they seek with the fewest taps and page views possible.

The more efficient that a mobile search service is in terms of bandwidth, screen space and the user’s time, the better the user experience. In the process, this efficiency builds a relationship between the user and a particular mobile search service that then may be leveraged for marketing opportunities, such as sponsored links.

Companies involved with mobile search should pay close attention to fundamental issues such as consumer perceptions of mobile search, their expectations and how they currently use - or don’t use - mobile phones to find information, content and services. These insights are key for creating mobile search offerings that best match those needs and wants. Th following are some examples of key issues for you to consider:

Discoverability – Education is critical for building awareness and use of mobile search. Today, there are two main ways that consumers access their phone’s mobile search application: as part of a Mobile Web experience or as a separate application that resides on the mobile phone. With Mobile Web, users can either find the application through the operator portal (on-deck) or separately through a user-entered Web address (off-deck).

Input Methods – There are three primary ways that mobile search queries can be entered:

  • As text, using a keypad that’s supported with predictive-input software to minimize keystrokes. Text currently is the most common method for entering information or queries.
  • Via speech, using voice-recognition software that converts speech into text that the search engine can use.
  • As an image - using an image is another way to launch a search for information. For example, users can take a picture of a bar code with a camera phone.

Output Methods – Search results should be presented in a way that respects limitations such as the phone’s display size and the network’s speed. The results also should include options that make it easy for users to perform an action, such as purchasing the song that they were searching for, sharing directions to a restaurant via SMS with friends that they’ll meet for dinner or clicking a link to call for more information. Put simply, the search results should be concise and actionable.

The Opportunity for Mobile Operators

Rohit DadwalMobile search gives operators an opportunity to increase revenue. At a minimum, additional revenue comes from the data plans that customers must sign up for in order to use mobile search. It’s important to note that this helps increase average revenue per user (ARPU), a key metric that analysts and investors focus on when assessing a mobile operator’s competitive position.

Mobile operators may receive an additional revenue share paid for by search providers and their business partners. For example, if a user clicks on a sponsored link or buys a ringtone, the mobile operator may receive a revenue share. This isn’t always the case, but it’s an opportunity that does exist.

Mobile operators also can use search as a market-differentiator. For example, if the operator selects mobile search services that are easier to use than those provided by rival operators, that helps create a favourable market perception among existing and potential customers. Operators also can work with search providers and other parties to create storefronts for downloadable content. Because they control the network and, in most cases, the applications and services that are on their customers’ handsets, mobile operators play a key role in enabling mobile search. For example, they can configure their billing systems to support premium SMS content delivery and real-time location data that can be used to provide turn-by-turn directions to accompany search results for nearby restaurants. Mobile operators also play a key role in protecting the identities and privacy of their customers.

Mobile operators currently have two main options for how they provide mobile search services to their customers:

  1. Operator Branded Search Service – This approach puts the operator’s brand up front on the search engine and provides access to content such as ringtones, songs, games, wallpaper and videos available directly from the operator. An on-portal approach also gives content providers an effective way to highlight their content through advertising. For example, some content providers currently buy keywords and contribute to the search results with sponsored links.
  2. Off Portal – There are many mobile search providers that allow users to search for content across the Mobile Web rather than the operator’s content. Many mobile users navigate off portal – also known as off deck – by using a browser bookmark or by entering a URL. (Users with smartphones that have physical or virtual QWERTY keyboards are more likely to go off portal than users with feature phones that have only a numeric keypad for text input.)

Operators sometimes combine both on deck and off deck results within their operator-branded search services. For example, they can serve up an ad or marketing message as the user reviews the initial results and decides what to do. This ad can lead the user back on portal, to the open Internet, to a map or directly to a voice call with a merchant, depending on what makes the most sense for that type of search. The easier that the search service is to use and the better it is at combining on deck and off deck results, the more likely that it will become the customers’ first choice when conducting searches.

Operators also face a few challenges. The context of the search, the location of the user and any operator-provided behavioural or demographic data gives companies advertising through operator search services the best opportunity to deliver the highest relevancy, the highest click-through rates and the first impression. The key is relevance because no operator wants to risk annoying a $50 or $100 monthly customer with a bombardment of ads every time they perform a search. Instead, operators and their business partners must ensure that ads are relevant to the information, services or content that the user is searching for.

The Opportunity for Marketers

Of the many emergent marketing channels – including social, video and word-of-mouth – mobile offers the most to marketers in terms of flexibility and reach. For example, mobile search lets marketers reach consumers when they’re away from their PC, TV or magazines. That translates into additional revenue opportunities because, for example, sales opportunities aren’t lost because a consumer exposed to an ad has forgotten about it by the time she’s at a PC and thus in a position to take action. Instead, mobile search makes it possible for consumers to take action on the spot, such as by searching for the ringtone for a song they just heard.

Savvy marketers have already identified many of these opportunities. According to Forrester Research, 83% of marketers believe that the mobile channel will become an increasingly effective platform over the next three years. Yet few are moving to incorporate it into their current media mix. That lack of action creates opportunities for marketers willing to develop and execute a mobile strategy now in order to make their brands and messages stand out from the clutter. Just as some marketers recognized and capitalized on the potential that digital media offered in the 1990s, there’s an early-adopter advantage for marketers that embrace mobile search sooner rather than later. For example, the more mainstream that mobile search becomes, the more that brands will seek marketers with hands-on experience with that channel.

Following are some current mobile search options for marketers:

Paid Search Strategies

Mobile Paid Search – Some search portals offer mobile paid search text advertising, as do select wireless operators and independent mobile advertising networks. This traditional pay-per-click (PPC) model often proves to be the easiest transition for marketers experimenting with mobile because of the similarities to the process and metrics of Internet paid search campaigns.

The travel, hospitality and entertainment industries have been among the first to add mobile paid search to their marketing mix, but it has significant potential across nearly all verticals. As more mobile networks and devices support location technologies, it gives marketers the ability to target consumers based on their location, when they are ready to act, creating a powerful advantage for mobile search advertising.

Natural Search Strategies

Mobile    Web    Development – Perhaps the most obvious yet overlooked opportunity for marketers is creating natural search visibility with mobile-friendly content. Although search engines do their best to present mobile users with content that is adapted to match their devices’ capabilities – such as in terms of screen size and resolution – the majority of Websites still render poorly, if at all, within a mobile browser. Offering mobile versions of contextually relevant content from Internet sites designed for viewing on PCs – such as store locators, product catalogues and mission statements – enables a brand to maintain comparable natural search visibility on a mobile device while ensuring a good user experience.

Challenges for Mobile Search

  • Market Development – In order for mobile search to live up to its potential – that is, becoming at least as mainstream, effective and profitable as Internet search – the mobile advertising market must continue to mature. To foster this maturation, the MMA will continue educating advertisers, marketers and brands about the value of this highly focused, highly targetable channel.
  • Maturity also includes developing a level of research, reporting and analysis capabilities on par with what’s available today with Internet search. The MMA is currently working with industry leaders to increase the level of available data to share with its members.
  • User Adoption – Consumers need to be educated to better understand the value of accessing content on their mobile phone versus devices such as the PC. The mobile industry can help address this need with support from mobile operators and other industry leaders in the form of an education campaign to let users know the availability and power of mobile search, which will spur usage. Additional awareness can come from online and print promotions to drive traffic to mobile content.
  • Availability of Mobile Content – Mobile Web adoption remains a chicken-and-egg problem. As users try the Mobile Web, they expect the same depth and breadth of content available on PCs. However, many businesses were initially slow to develop mobile sites, which are key for meeting that expectation. However, mobile site development increased considerably and is expected to continue to grow.
  • Different Capabilities Across Handset Types – As with all mobile applications, mobile search must contend with a variety of handset displays, input capabilities, sound capabilities, memory levels and operating systems. The ideal mobile search solution should provide a consistently good user experience across all networks and devices – a major but not insurmountable challenge. For example, there’s a growing selection of network-based products that identify a handset model and then tweak the content to match its capabilities, all in real time.

The MMA believes that mobile search is a significant opportunity for many players in the mobile industry. By cataloging and researching ways that consumers use search today, and discovering what they want from mobile search applications in the future, the MMA will continue to help to educate the mobile industry, the marketing community and consumers. In addition, the MMA will endeavor to help the industry overcome many of the hurdles and challenges that have hindered the mass adoption of previous wireless applications.

By Rohit Dadwal, Managing Director, Mobile Marketing Association Asia Pacific Limited