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Friday, October 06, 2006

Mobile search.... my context is better than yours

When I see emergent consensus about something, my instinctive reaction is to look for why it's wrong.

Well, there seems to be a growing consensus that "mobile search" is a wonderful new phenomenon, and that people using their handsets will absolutely need a different experience to plain old PC-based Google or similar.

"People don't just browse the web on their handset! Obviously they need clever, context-based platforms that try & give them a short cut to what they really want!"

Hmm. I see lots of non-sequiturs, unsupported assumptions and apparent misunderstanding of cause and effect, plus maybe a tiny kernel of truth that's in danger of being swamped in nonsense & poor user experience.

Let's see:

1) Until recently, most people didn't use "the real Internet" on their phones simply because it was slow (especially roundtrip latency when you clicked on a link), and costly (real or just perceived - basically people usually don't know how much it costs). Of course you didn't browse randomly - it was a pain in the butt to get online at all, let alone just wander through the web on a whim.
2) With faster networks like HSDPA (and especially lower latency in UMTS / EV-DO) it's getting easier, with better user experience. Even re-engineered GPRS isn't too bad these days. Also more sensible flatrate data tariffs like T-Mobile Web'n'Walk are emerging.
3) Screen sizes are increasing (QVGA is common, with VGA on the way), phones are getting faster processors, and browser software is getting better (Opera, Pocket IE, Nokia's etc, plus support for Flash, AJAX and all that cool Web2.0 stuff) . While there's still some way to go, the device-based browsing user experience is rapidly improving.
4) Operators are desperate to start generating advertising revenue for mobile users
5) A million startups are trying to beat Google at its own game, albeit on a different device
6) Lots of people are trying to rebrand "walled gardens" as somehow beneficial to the end user, despite the end user becoming more open Internet-ised with every passing day

Net result: despite the improving capabilities of phones & networks to support access to the real Internet, various whining voices are trying to convince us that we don't want it.


There's nothing worse than technology that second-guesses what you really want, because it's deeply frustrating when it decides it knows better than you & gets it wrong. It's bad enough that even on a PC & fixed Internet, Google itself tries to force me to the local Google page when I'm travelling (no!! if I type in Google.com as a URL, I DON'T want Google.be or Google.co.uk or Google.Tajikistan, I want .com). It's worse still when companies like Yahoo! assume that just because you're using a mobile device that you either "obviously" want the lousy WAP site rather than the real web version (Yahoo.com) or you need an automated banner telling you to upgrade your browser (Yahoo.co.uk). These are both examples of how to use mobile/wireless "context" information stupidly.

But the absolute worst would be a handset-optimised search engine that assumes that if I'm in Brussels and type in "restaurant", that I'm obviously looking for one nearby & presents me with a list of 15 which are so unpopular that they've needed to pay to be included. What audacity to assume that because it knows a small amount of "context" (location) it knows the real context of my search? Maybe I'm about to get a on a flight to Lisbon (not with TAP Airlines, obviously) & want to know where to go when I arrive? Maybe I'm talking about somewhere I went in Prague the week before, and forgot the address? Maybe I'm thinking of opening my own restaurant business (Disruptive Darwins - only cloned meat & GM vegetables) and want some advice?

By all means, do a polite Google-style line with "did you mean Restaurants nearby in Brussels?" but don't you dare try & second-guess what my real context is & force me to wade through your inane & irrelevant suggestions.

In fact, just give me proper mobile access to Google (and default to .com not .fr or .mobi) & get out of my way.


Anonymous said...

Hi Dean: Google search on mobile is a poor experience. I'd be stunned if this can't be improved, perhaps by someone else.

Shawn McCollum said...

Give wampad a try, http://wampad.com. No context is forced on you. You do need to provide a context via a simple interface. If you don't want to provide a context just select search, enter your query and you'll be given links to google, yahoo, msn or ask.

Anonymous said...

London, 2am. 'If I search on 'London Pizza' I want pizza, in central London, now.

Not the wikipedia pizza entry, and not Pizza Hut in London, Alabama.

Rome, on holiday. 'Sandals Rome' means I want some new shoes 'cos it's hot. and I don't want to walk far either to buy them.

Not a dissertation on ancient footware.

etc etc.

If I want a fat browsing experience, I find a laptop. If I search whilst out, chances are I want something close, now.

Google already does contextualise your search - the reason it's become a near-indispensable tool is because of that. Mobile search is evolving, but it needs to be smarter at guessing what folks want, at what time, where.

A search done in a CBD at 2am for 'stripper' should return different results to one done in the local business park at 9am on a Saturday morning.



Dean Bubley said...


You've just given me a perfect gift illustrating my point.

Going to Google now & typing in "London Pizza" gives me, at the top of the page, Google Local (ie context-based) responses. This gives me a map (OK, nice) but with the first 10 responses from Pizza chains - 5*Pizza Express, 3*Pizza Hut and 2*Deep Pan Pizza. And a "sponsored link" to Dominos. All arrange at a radial distance from Charing Cross station (the conventional landmark denoting the precise centre of "London" in terms of signposts).

Conversely, the first proper link is to www.london-eating.co.uk/cuisines/pizza.asp which is organised by London district, and includes both nasty chain restaurants and independent restaurants which I presume haven't had to pay a listing tax.

Typing in "Shoe shops Rome" gives pretty decent & trustworthy results as well.

Shawn - Wampad? Too many clicks. Can't see the point. Sorry.

Paul Jardine said...

The point is that the mobile search engine cannot dictate anything and must give you the choice. While you probably (>50%) want a local context, it should only be 1 click to switch to a normal context. It should also be easy to switch from 'chain' to 'independant', though this potentially requires a commitment to customer satisfaction rather than advertiser click-through...likely?
Personally, I think it might be better to have a different approach to mobile search (at least for these gratification issues). If I add 'hungry', and 'likes pizza' & 'not chain' to my profile, then I should be able to sit back and have local businesses tout for my custom. Doc Searl's intention economy.

Anonymous said...

Only useful enhancement of "mobile search" that I can come up with is something to reduce typing.
E.g. typing just "pizza" and clicking on "local search London" instead of need to type "London". Assuming that phone or search know my location, of course.
The new mobile search application on Nokia N series phones, for example, switches automatically the default telephone directory service depending on the country I am in. So I don't have to type or select anything if I want to search for UK phone numbers while in London. It could work similarly for Internet search (but doesn't currently).
Also this Nokia search application offers my previous searches in a pop-up while I am typing the search query. That goes in right direction.

Anonymous said...

For several years your phone has been able to tell you where the nearest pizza is, without too much hassle. Yet not many people use this feature.

Now we have Google local, which tells you about the same pizza places, yet you have to manually enter your location. Do many people use this?

Anonymous said...

The problem is that "context" is such an overloaded term. Much of what you say is, as usual, spot on. However you both overestimate the the efficacy of current internet search and play down the difficulty of dealing with it through a restricted interface. I suspect most users would be hacked off with the presumptions in your example. That doesn't mean though, that there aren't good uses for context awareness in search.

Anonymous said...

The problem is that "context" is such an overloaded term. Much of what you say is, as usual, spot on. However you both overestimate the the efficacy of current internet search and play down the difficulty of dealing with it through a restricted interface. I suspect most users would be hacked off with the presumptions in your example. That doesn't mean though, that there aren't good uses for context awareness in search.