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Why I'm Bullish On Mobile Search

I am a strong believer in the future of mobile search or what I prefer to call mobile access to information. This takes into account not only what we think of search today but also audio, video, text messaging, location based info, and more.

This article is part of Local Search Week here at Search Engine Land, a special look at local search marketing issues in the run-up to our SMX Local & Mobile conference next month.

Why am I so bullish on mobile?

When mobile services become better known by searchers (that’s a large challenge) and used correctly (another challenge), they can offer something most people want more of. Time! It has been my experience when you can actually demonstrate to people how that can save time, you’re likely to make new friends quickly.

Increasingly, users can get the info they need with a mobile device without using a desktop or laptop computer. Just think how quickly we went from only business people and tech geeks having mobile or cell phones to what sometimes seems like everyone having one (especially noticable when you’re driving).

The next step fpr mobile search is for the masses (moms, dads, even grandmas) to gain access to useful information when and where they need it. Powerful stuff. I think search geeks often forget that many of the tools and resources that are second nature to us are still not known by many users. That’s important to remember.

Ask believes strongly in the future of mobile search. At Ask.com we began offering our Webby Award winning mobile service last fall at http://mobile.ask.com. This Spring Ask debuted a service offering GPS navigation and much more appropriately named, Ask Mobile GPS. Here’s an inside look at both services.

Ask Mobile

Ask Mobile loads very quickly and provides several services you don’t find elsewhere. More features and services are in the works. You can access Ask Mobile at http://mobile.ask.com (this works both on mobile devices and standard computers).

One of the most interesting things about Ask Mobile is that it’s carrier agnostic. While some mobile services are tied to specific wireless carriers, Ask Mobile will work on any mobile web browser from any web carrier.

Tip: You can always return to the home page by clicking the “O” key on your telephone keypad.

The main features of Ask Mobile are:

Web search. Results include some Smart answers, like weather, time zones and horoscopes.

You can also easily navigate to these and other features by selecting them from the home page of Ask Mobile. In other words, multiple ways to get to the same location.

Ask.com’s Zoom Related Search feature is also available to help users narrow and focus their search. Look for those suggestions at the bottom of the page.

Pages appearing in Ask Mobile search results that are not formatted for mobile browsers are made mobile friendly with page optimization technology.

One frequent question asked when someone sees the Ask.com Mobile home page for the first time is, “where’s the search box?” There isn’t one. Ask’s VP of Product Management, Doug Leeds, provided a review of some of the reasons why it’s not there on a post on Google Blogoscoped shortly after the product launched. It’s well worth a read.

Here are are key passages from Doug’s comments:

In general, we found, people search for the same type of information and use the same queries that they use on a PC. One very important implication of this is that, like on a PC, iteration is an key part of searching on a mobile device.

…unlike on a PC, there are constraints that make search iteration on a mobile device more difficult. For example, relatively limited bandwidth makes it much more time consuming to perform multiple searches. At the same time, a common way to solve for the bandwidth issue, reducing the number of results that appear on a single page, only exacerbates the problem because there are fewer results to determine how to refine the search.

Typing is another problem. On most phones (non smart phones), each letter can take multiple keystrokes. (An “R” is three strokes, an “S” is four.) This not only means tons of time typing but also many many more typos. Typos lead to poorer results and more iteration, meaning more time lost and more typing. It’s a vicious circle.

Removing the search box had the immediate effect of uncovering all of the other search tools we offer. (Tools we offer on our PC home page in a toolbox that gets much more viability on a PC monitor). These tools are designed to disambiguate queries. For example, instead of typing “weather in SF” users click and type only “SF.” On a normal phone keypad this saves 18 of the 25 clicks required to get a result (remember “r” takes 3 clicks).

On average, we saw a 25-40% decrease in the number of clicks to the “end point.”

Maps. In this map-crazy world you’ll notice that Ask.com mobile maps not only offers the actual street map but also aerial imagery. That’s right, aerial imagery on your mobile browser.

Maps can be manipulated by clicking arrow keys and you’ll find direct links to local listings “find nearby” and the option to send a link to the phone via SMS. Of course, entering a city without state info will offer up a list of options.

Aerial Examples for Mobile:

Directions. In my opinon, this is a key service for mobile users. Just like Ask.com on your laptop, we offer both driving and walking directions. It’s also a click to “swap” your beginning and ending address. Here are some cool things regarding directions:

Here’s a walking route from Michigan Ave to Wrigley Field in Chicago. Note both the ability to view the directions in list form or turn by turn with visual cues. Many pages also help the searcher resolve ambiguity by offering links labeled “All Matches.” For example, is it North Michigan or South Michigan Avenue?

In some cases, you will get visual cues (arrows and lines) that will even tell you which direction you need to go. You can always go to the first step (click 3) or last step (click 4).

Local business listings. You can send business listings to your phone via SMS, or just directions for getting there. Also, on many phones, clicking the phone number will actually dial the number located in the listing.

Image Search. Results offer three images per page. An option to send a link to the images to someone else via SMS is also available.

Blog Search. Ask Mobile offers a direct link to the Bloglines mobile search tool. It also uses Skweezer, a technology that takes ordinary web pages and renders them more mobile-friendly.

Other features available with just one or two keystrokes include: area codes, currency conversion, horoscopes, and time zones.

Like all search products, the best way to get to know it is by using it. Have some fun and become familiar with how mobile access to information will become just as important to cell/mobile phone users as being able to talk with someone on the phone.

Ask Mobile GPS

Ask Mobile GPS is a GPS-enabled application that features the best of Ask.com, Citysearch, and Evite.com. The service is available on a number of Sprint GPS-enabled phones and offers a number of location-based features including:

  • Zoomable and scrollable maps based on your location
  • Integration of contacts
  • Location sharing: Find out where your friends listed in your address book are located. Tell them where you’re at. You choose which friends
  • Access to CitySearch with reviews and info on nearby events
  • Send and manage evites, online invitations to events
  • Real-time walking and driving directions. This includes the both visual cues as well as voice navigation telling you to turn, go straight, etc.

You can read much more about Ask Mobile GPS (including screen caps) in this blog post.

Gary Price is Director of Online Information Resources at Ask.com. He is also the Founder and Editor of ResourceShelf.com and DocuTicker.com.

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