Monday, May 11, 2009

Search Insider: The Mobile Search Roadblock

The Mobile Search Roadblock

I recently returned from a few weeks in Europe.  I ended the trip visiting my wife's family northwest of Manchester, England.  Along the coast there, Wi-Fi is so sparse I spent most of my time trying to get information online using my BlackBerry because the signal for my phone worked everywhere.

This is what led me to realize what is holding mobile search back: mobile browsers.

Mobile browsing is terrible -- unless you have an iPhone, of course.  But even with an iPhone, it's best with Wi-Fi, and even then most don't use the browser for search, but rather use apps to do what they normally do online plus a variety of other nifty things.   There's an entirely parallel situation on why Apple hasn't created its own PPC market for apps  -- because finding apps, I'm told, is also an un-fun experience, with the top 25 apps being a popularity contest.  This is especially important to many of our clients, who are buying iPhone-targeted media for app discovery.  But I digress, back to today's point ...

Accessing the Web beyond some basic mobile sites is a brutal experience.  I try to access online content on my phone the same way I do when accessing from my computer, which usually starts at a search engine.  This is where the mobile Web experience breaks down -- because the engines pick up my device and optimize my experience, but most publishers do not.  Why can't the browser on the device do the heavy lifting?  A better browser would limit the need for publishers to do this.

Here's what I recently went through while in England.

It started with me getting Celtics scores.  This was easy because has a decent mobile site that I have bookmarked, but when I searched to see if the team had announced its playoff schedule, I ran into issues.  The mobile browser simply can't handle the Flash and code used on most Web pages today.  Sorry, Google, but your efforts to "mobilize" sites I click to from the SERP isn't good enough.

I run into similar issues using mobile to find a local restaurant.  The browser struggles to render sites on my phone, making it problematic to get local results with a map.   Even  Opera Mini isn't good enough, IM (not-so) HO.  So I find myself using SMS search and then copy-pasting that address into the phone's map product(s).  It's currently a clunky, albeit effective, experience.  This is creating an iPhone-like app experience, as is evident with the launch of the BlackBerry App Store.   But I'd rather use an advanced SERP with listing information, a map, and other localized information provided in a single browser, similar to what I now get onlin.

There are plenty of other mobile search options like ChaCha (though they limit volume of use -- so don't try to do too much).  There's also my client's service KGB.  Though it requires a fee, it generally delivers results faster than ChaCha.  There's even Free411 services tied to the YP and local directories.  Call me crazy, though, but I am a creature of habit and I don't think I'm alone.

If we want mobile search to get serious traction, we need a better browser.  This is especially true for those of us using the workhorse of the smartphone industry, the BlackBerry.  A better browser wouldn't only benefit the users, but also the SMS services like KGB, because my SMS response would now be able to link to additional information online.

As mentioned earlier, engine algorithms are pretty good. I got the results I needed for a few recent keyword searches.  One was "Barrow-in-Furness to Manchester international airport train schedule" and the other was "better blackberry browser."  From here the experience was broken.  On my BlackBerry, after clicking on a link in the SERP, I usually get half a page loaded and then get the dreaded tumbling hourglass, which usually results in me yanking the battery out.

We all talk mobile search.  Our clients all ask about it.  But a bad mobile browser limits the potential.

One of the big issues as an agency/advertiser with the non-browser-based forms of mobile search is volume and tracking.  If we could just get browser-based mobile search working better, I think it would make a huge difference for all forms of mobile search because of the link back to Web.   For volume, just the BlackBerry user base alone would exceed many of the other "mobile search" options combined.  And with a better browser that does the heavy lifting cross-device for the publishers, we would have aggregated volume of mobile searches and standardized it across devices. This would be good for the user and the advertiser.

My hope now, as a user, lies with Phuc Truong, the head of our mobile division, Mobext, because he is trying to get me on  Skyfire's test browser for BlackBerry that claims full Flash and video support.  For all you Microsoft Mobile users,  Winmo is promising a better browser, too.

Give me better mobile search through a better mobile browser, damn it all!

Rob Griffin is Director of Search & Analytics at Media Contacts, the digital (that's the frosted) side of Havas Media. Rob can always be reached on his Crackberry at

Search Insider for Monday, May 11, 2009:

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