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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Mobile search doesn't exist - a good proof point

For the last two years, I've been saying that "there's no such thing as mobile search". I've completely disagreed with the rhetoric that "people don't want to search on mobile, they want to find things".

Instead, I believe that broadly, people just want to use Google on their phones. If I want to find an address, or a restaurant, or cheat in a pub quiz, there's a perfectly easy way to do it, without some newfangled search tool that guesses my context wrong.

So Symbian CTO David Wood's write-up of a Google presentation last week made me feel validated:

"The surprising thing is that the spider graph for mobile-originated search enquiries had a very similar general shape to that for search enquiries from fixed devices. In other words, people seem to want to search for the same sorts of things - in the same proportion of times - regardless of whether they are using fixed devices or mobile ones."

Unlike David, I'm not surprised.


Mike Stead said...

This truly perplexes me. At home, last night, on google we jumped from researching cotages on Balmoral Estate to non-military use of the Swastika (We saw them on the WW1 memorial at Balmoral, if you must know) to military aircraft that use 'ground effect' to the the history of the Spruce Goose. There is just no_way that we would EVER have done that on mobile, when out and about. Never. Ever. Even with instant download and 3.5" touch screen. Nope.

But in the last week I have found myself wanting to find the nearest: watch repairer / carpark that takes cards, not coins / next train stopping at Basingstoke / Decent quiet pub within 500yds of Waterloo. All 'mobility-related' searches, where I wanted to FIND something. And having the engine know what I like (quiet Real Ale pubs, indoor secure carparks that take Visa, Southwest Trains always stopping at Basingstoke etc) would make my mobile-originated searches soooooo much easier.

I'm not suggesting it needs to be hobbled, so if I enter 'Spruce Goose' I never see the big plane, just a pub 9,000 miles away in California). I am saying that the mobile context is indeed relevant, and that the first search provider to get this right, to let me enter my preferences, let me profile myself, will get my traffic.



Dean Bubley said...

Hi Mike

Thanks for this, and some good points.

I guess that this just reflects what Google already knows - everyone's use varies.

I tend to Google anything & everything - maybe 100 searches a day, fixed or mobile.

But some are "fixed" queries on a mobile device - eg yesterday I was searching for tips on running WMV video files on my girlfriend's new MacBook. And others are "mobile" queries on a fixed device - eg what pubs are there around somewhere I'll be tonight.

I hate a lot of the context-based tools with a passion: they tend to guess wrongly at the worst possible moments.

A classic example is turning up to an event, to discover that it isn't where you thought it was. I did this recently, because I'd seen the address, stupidly thought "Oh, I know that place!", and then realised I'd misread it when it was too late. Luckily I could do a full Google search for corporate venues with the word "Brewery": a context-based search would have given me the same, frustrating, "local" answer I'd already known was wrong because I was standing outside and it was empty.

Unless the "context engine" is very polite and unobtrusive, ("Did you mean a quiet pub near your current location?") I'd likely throw the device at a wall. It's bad enough that Google dishes up its Mobile site by default rather than its full "classic" version.

Your mileage may vary of course. And I'm probably an "advanced" Google user with my own ingrained search strategies, so perhaps I shouldn't extrapolate to everyone else. But I think the big risk of context-based mobile searching is being "so nearly right.... but so, so wrong", rather than being just neutral.


Luni said...

Odd... as every formal study of mobile search usage does show quite a different set of use cases for mobile search vs. PC-based search.

My company, Medio systems publishes our query classification every so often. Last we did, about half of the query were for music artists, games, and other terms which people use to consume music tracks, ringtones, wallpaper, videos, and games... all mobile-optimized. Only about ten percent were names of web sites, bits of URLs, and other terms which help people navigate to specific sites, typically mobile-optimized sites. And nearly ten percent were specific keywords like chat, news, sports, ringtones, games, etc. which people use in lieu of navigating through the operator portal.

Yahoo's study on their mobile queries was similar, albeit they called the first category "Entertainment" as they typically don't include downloadable content within oneSearch results.

Perhaps the reason Google doesn't see any different in mobile usage is that their mobile results are not truly "mobile search", but simply their web results with just a layer of transcoding to help render the unoptimized results.

It would be quite interesting to see if Google's queries are similar to Medio's and Yahoo's, or if they truly are seeing a different behavior from their searchers.

Dean Bubley said...


Thanks for your comments.

I suspect a lot depends on how the search function is presented to the user.

If a phone has a Google search window on the home screen, I'd imagine that people tend to use it for quite general queries, the same way they would on a PC.

But if you need to click down menus - or, worse still, fire up an application - behaviour will change. For example, I could quite imagine that many search queries done inside Yahoo Go! are about battling with the hopelessness of the app itself. "delete useless entertainment news widget" , "how can I get Yahoo Messenger" and so on.

With regard to your own experiences, I'd be interested in when you analysed the data, and from which platforms. Most featurephones and early smartphones have had lousy browsers and 2G networks, so it's understandable if the most-used searches have related to non-web actions like downloading ringtones and games.

However, the curve on that type of personalisation "content" (hideous word, I know) is heading downwards now.

As networks and browsers and user-interfaces improve, I'd expect behaviour to change with them.