Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Search Insider: Search Untethered

Search Untethered

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO GOOGLE RELEASED an astonishing, but underappreciated, tidbit about iPhone users and their search behavior. Specifically, Google disclosed it received 50 times more search requests from the iPhone than from any other mobile device.

I could not find market data to back this up (both search and our research department failed me here), but I am fairly certain the iPhone is not the dominant U.S. handheld, meaning that even without the dominant market position, iPhone-driven search volume is still outpacing every other device by 50X or more. Now, Google did not actually say how many times a month iPhone users were searching, but given the 50X multiple, it's fair to say these users are searching a heck of a lot. And unlike other mobile searches, iPhone users are searching for more than weather and barroom trivia. In our own poll of iPhone users, we found their search behavior is surprisingly similar to that of online searchers. They search for travel information, restaurant reviews, new shoes, credit cards -- all the topic areas that make up desktop-based search volume, but on a mobile device, free from cables, cords and constraints.

If you believe, as I do, that the iPhone represents the future of mobile handhelds, then we are moving toward a world where mobile search becomes as routine as desktop-based search; that's about 30 searches per month per user. So what happens now that search is untethered; what opportunities does this create? Perhaps most obviously, it means you need to remember a lot less. Phone numbers, addresses and directions can all be accessed nearly instantly through your engine of choice. In fact, the future is now for anyone who has a smart phone running Google Maps or Live Search's mobile application. If you have either of these on your phone, ask yourself: when was the last time you wrote down directions to anywhere?

Other practical information, too, like product pricing, will become easily accessible on the go. Consider for a moment that you've dropped your SLR camera on the floor and need a new lens (and if you have, you're in good company). You find yourself in Best Buy and see a suitable lens but aren't sure if the price is right. With search at your fingertips, you can price the lens at neighboring stores and Internet retailers, even access product reviews and customer feedback to make an informed decision. This applies to myriad products and services and has the potential to transform retail shopping from a display-based to an information-based experience.

Beyond making it easier to buy things, ubiquitous mobile search will find applications wherever location-specific information is useful. For example, have you been to a museum lately? If you're like me, you found the experience totally underwhelming, and screaming for digital intervention. Mobile search will surely play a part in this. Consider the conventional experience of viewing a piece on display and reading the 150-word wall text. Now consider viewing the same piece and having access to Wikipedia (yes, it's a search engine), or Google, or some yet-to-be-designed art-specific search engine designed specifically to enrich the museum experience. Wouldn't that be better? The utility here is broader than museums, too. Ubiquitous mobile search provides immediate access to information on nearly any place or object of interest. For the intellectually curious, this makes life a lot more interesting.

Untethered search is in its infancy, and it's likely that the first generation of mobile search utilities offer only a tiny glimpse of the potential this new capability has to offer. And while my imagination taps out at a mobile art-search engine, I don't doubt that people more inventive than I are crafting businesses and applications to take advantage of the intersection between mobility and search. As this market explodes -- and it will over the next 24 months -- look for incredible value to be unlocked by both the major engines, and any number of niche mobile search application providers.

Thoughts on how this space will shape up? Let us know on the Search Insider Blog.

Matt Greitzer is vice president and global discipline lead of search marketing at Avenue A | Razorfish.

Search Insider for Tuesday, July 15, 2008:

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