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who will own mobile search?
The likes of Google and Yahoo are pushing hard for a presence in the mobile market. But will competition or collaboration drive the market for mobile search? Andy Walker of m-spatial thinks the mobile operators will have to get themselves organised, and suggests that ‘local search’ will play a key role …

Mobile search has rarely been out of the news in early 2006, thanks principally to the plethora of partnerships between Google and major mobile players, and Microsoft’s entry into the arena with the acquisition of MotionBridge. In reality, though, internet search and operator communities are in a remarkably competitive position. Both are pushing to own the consumer; and as far as the man on the street is concerned, the internet giants’ brand loyalty may very well eclipse that of the operator.
The operators are being kept awake at night by the spectre of the major internet circumventing the mobile portals in which they have invested so much. Should they prove the benefits of their portals and encourage on-portal co-operation, or suitup for off-portal competition?

Portal wars
As household names, the search giants have the potential to persuade large numbers of consumers to abandon operator portals altogether and instead access their data services directly via branded off-portal search engines. Add to the mix a ‘free-to-consumer’ internet business model, and the premium rate content services underpinning many operator portals begin to look decidedly unappealing.
However, whilst there are obvious attractions to collaborating with the search players, mobile networks need to leverage their existing assets to consider cooperation from a position of strength. This means exploiting their expertise, heritage and the innovative players in their existing value chain to ensure the most compelling overall mobile search experience.
It is increasingly accepted that the area showing most consumer value is mobile local search. Analysts Kelsey Group estimate local search accounted for 20% of all online search queries in 2005, suggesting a $5.1bn revenue projection for North American local search by 2009. The immediacy of need from ‘on-the-move’ consumers and the ability to deliver these users to local merchants as qualified leads, (through a highly targeted, non-intrusive contextual advertising model), is likely to see this figure eclipsed in the mobile environment.

The mobile difference

Of course, consumer adoption is predetermined by how intuitive and easy the interface is, and fortunately for MNOs this is where cracks appear when taking an online service into the mobile world. The conventional ‘type, browse and choose’ internet search delivers access to multiple results gathered from largely unstructured ‘web-crawled’ content – not a viable user experience on the handset.
Furthermore, the small screen and keypad, and the limited patience of the mobile user wanting immediate in-depth information, offers significant challenges. What is required is a radical new approach that takes advantage of structured mobile content sources and eliminates the trial and error element of so many internet searches.

Good news
This is good news for MNOs. Firstly, they have access to a value chain of innovative and fast moving suppliers who can deliver ‘made for mobile’ technology within a white label business model. Secondly, they have the advantage of an established and growing content ecosystem for providing the multiple sources of structured content that is required.
So rather than presenting the user with a text-based search box, a structured underlying content base enables users to ‘discover’ the information via a dynamic ‘assisted browsing’ menu-driven experience. This approach minimises typing and the need to browse irrelevant results.
It can also take advantage of contextual information such as ‘time of day’ and ‘user profile’ to present options to the user in order of likely relevance – a critical feature for a successful mobile service.
Deploy this as a single on-portal ‘front end’, aggregating information from multiple local content sources from across the mobile internet, and you create a specific ‘made for mobile’ application to impress even the most cynical of searchers.
This also offers the dual benefit of giving consumers quick access to many existing on-portal services, currently deeply hidden from all but the most determined portal users.
By offering a compelling mobile local search user experience sourced from innovative suppliers, and taking advantage of their existing content eco-systems, MNOs can generate new revenues and radically improve the usability of their mobile portals. In doing so they not only leave their options open to collaborate closely with the major search engine players, but do so from a position of greatly increased strength.

Andy Walker is CEO of m-spatial, based in Cambridge and regarded as the market leader in mobile local search.

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