Universal Mobile Interface

Why search will not be as powerful when accessing Internet through the mobile

Posted in UMI by Martin Vendel on April 27, 2009

The new digital era has made the vast range of content available and just a few clicks away. This has resulted in that the end user has so much to chose from that it becomes hard to find what you really look for and that it’s very difficult for a publisher to become visible. This issue is addressed by search engines, such as Google, but as we all experience it is still a challenge to find what you look for and for those publishing it’s not really obvious why competing sites are ranked high by the search algorithms. There’s today a growing business in advising companies in how to optimise the sites to get a better score.

new-picture-9For many of us we start a session at the PC with search, and most of us use search every day and for sites that we visit regularly we don’t even save bookmarks as it is so easy to just type in a few search words or many times the URL directly. Many have predicted a similar behaviour on the mobile but this has not been the case and will most probably not be the case. The mobile is different; it is used in another context and has obvious limitations when it comes to screen size and keyboard.

When using the computer you usually click through for instance a news site from the start main page, then to for instance sports and from there to the specific results you’re interested in. Many take this path to what they are interested in even though they could have saved a bookmark for the specific pages of interest to gain direct access. On the mobile it is much more probable that you save bookmarks to the relevant information, as clicking through less relevant pages is painful.
new-picture-8The mobile is neither well suited to run an ordinary search as it is not easy to type in words and as the long lists of results are hard to digest and select from. In addition, the mobile is used in situations where you need specific information fast and you are not expected to have long sessions surfing around. There’s a need to get more or less direct access to the specific content of your choice based on your needs on the move. There will still be a need for search when using the mobile, but it will most probably be less important compared to other means to explore new content.

So now when companies eventually have learned about the importance of search engine optimisation etc. there is unfortunately some bad news, this will not be sufficient for gaining visibility and presence in the mobile. Should then those publishing on the web bother about this? They should, as been discussed in a previous contribution to this blog, all trends show that the mobile will become an increasingly important media over time. In addition, there are also extreme differences between developed and developing countries when it comes to the ratio between PC and mobile penetration. So how to combine the very personal need for specific individual “long tail” choice of information and that search is not the primary tool to explore new content?

Key to visibility in the mobile is to get a link on pages visited by the user. As the user can’t be expected to use search to a large extent, other means such as recommendations etc. will be used to find new links to save into the individual collection of bookmarks. The following ways to get new links can be expected to grow in importance:

  • Recommendation of sites by trusted parties such as friends
  • Links promoted on specific and trusted niche sites and portals
  • Preinstalled links on new browsers/portals/UMIs
  • Links down loaded directly from web pages used on the PC
  • To some extent non intrusive opt-in high quality recommendations and sponsored links

Ads may also be important and can target quite well defined segments utilising the user profiling available by different mobile platforms. The number of ads will be limited due to the small mobile screen and as general surfing will be less frequent compared to the PC. The possibility to target specific segments and as the number of ads are limited, will make the advertising space quite valuable and expensive, but most probably a good investment when used correctly.

I recommend publishers the following to gain visibility in the mobile:

  • Use existing digital channels to promote and download links to the mobile
  • Don’t waste money on search engine optimisation etc. for mobile search
  • If possible, be visible on link start packages when new browsers/portals/UMIs are downloaded
  • Use advertising and sponsored link investments wisely and very well targeted
  • Make it easy for the mobile users to share your links
  • Incentivise users to share links and support viral distribution of your services
  • Be directly visible in services, such as maps, travel information etc.
  • Be visible on trusted niche sites/portals to reach the correct segment directly

On average a user can be expected to have about 20 bookmarks where maybe half are very personal (micro communities etc.) and all are saved to get direct fast access when on the move. The individual link collection thereby represents a significant value to the user, giving her direct access to really valuable content. And not to lose her own collection of bookmarks when changing phone or operator becomes very important. All these features are key strengths of the UMI concept. The significance of the link collection to the individual results in a collective quality control of all links saved. This will further strengthen the peer to peer exploration of new content but may also create a barrier for new content to find an initial audience.

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3 Responses

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  1. Jason Grigsby said, on May 4, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who feels that the mobile context is overstated. Or at least misunderstood.

    By mobile context, I mean the idea that mobile users are on the go, don’t have time to search extensively, don’t have time to type, etc.

    I don’t deny that this is one of the contexts in which mobile behavior happens. It may even be the context that is most lucrative to businesses. But it isn’t the only one.

    For example, Tomi Ahonen in his latest book writes:

    “A study by NTT DoCoMo, the largest wireless carrier (mobile operator) of Japan, discovered that 60% of all wireless data access by cellphone is done indoors, often in parallel with watching TV or surfing the internet on a PC.”

    ESPN also has noted that access to its mobile sites goes up during sporting events and they indicated that people watching games on television were also accessing their site.

    This mirrors my own usage. I may access information on the go and when I do, all of the things we think about when we talk about the mobile context are true, but the majority of my usage (as measured by time spent using data services) is indoors seated often on Wi-Fi connections.

    I think Google is really onto something in their segmentation of mobile users into these categories:

    * Repetitive Now
    * Bored Now
    * Urgent Now

    Source: http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2007/04/google_lays_out.html

    When we think about the mobile context, we tend to only think about the Urgent Now category, but the rest are also valid.

    There are a couple of takeaways from this. First, the bookmarking of content is really important for the Repetitive Now use case. And when you combine Repetitive Now with Urgent Now, you have a compelling case as you’ve outlined above.

    However, despite the difficulty typing, people will search. You have to look no further than Google’s reports that its mobile traffic has quintupled since 2007 (http://www.techcrunchit.com/2009/03/29/follow-the-mobile-user/) to see the evidence that people will search for the information that they need.

    The trick for all content developers and particularly for search engines, is to figure out what context the mobile user is in when they search for something. Are they in the Urgent Now mode where the search should be extremely contextual to where they are in the world (I’m in Amsterdam, give me local results). Or are they in the home looking up information while a commercial interrupts their favorite television show.

    Both contexts are valid mobile contexts. The big challenge is figuring out how to support people in the various contexts because features that support the Bored Now person will likely irritate those Urgent Now people.

  2. Martin Vendel said, on May 5, 2009 at 7:17 am

    Don’t feel lonely Jason. I fully agree with you that we many times misjudge how and when the mobile is used. The comments you have very much also reflect my experience after having worked with mobile Internet services for many years.

    I would like to distinguish between what will make someone a regular user for the first time and how to categorise frequent users, please read the piece about the Reversed Long Tail. The masses are still quite inexperienced using the mobile for Internet services and the present search experience will not be something I would recommend to get them started.

    For the latter I very much agree with the three categories you mention. These do from my point of view mainly apply to markets where you have flat rates, good bandwidth and even WLAN available, high end phones but probably to less extent to developed countries. More about this in The importance of the mobile phone to developing countries.

    Anyhow, search will as you state still be important for the mobile but you need to figure out how to make it much more efficient both in terms of relevance and usability. So far search in the mobile has been a disappointment for me, but I do use it when I have to. Those working on this issue have to recognise that the mobile is used differently even if it’s when multitasking watching the television or using the PC, or just to kill time and that the mobile do have a small screen and a if any a very small keyboard.

  3. […] of the existing web services can become very valuable when utilised in a correct way. As predicted below relevant links and ads will become very valuable. The end user is expected to rely much more on […]


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