Get ready for a surge in mobile search
The United States has nearly 200 million cell phone users, and 31 percent of cell phone users in a 2006 AP-AOL-Pew Research Center mobile lifestyle survey indicated that they used mobile search or wished to do so with their next mobile device. It's easy to see why marketers and online search services are preparing for an explosion in the mobile search market.
As more people grow accustomed to accessing the Internet via cell phones and other handheld computing devices such as the BlackBerry, demand for online content will grow. Directories can't serve users efficiently with the sites they're looking for, so mobile search provides a path to the online content. (Go to mobile.yahoo.com/search for an interactive demo.)
Developments in mobile search. The most widely available tools are local search, Web search and image search, but many mobile search providers offer mapping and other tools. Google offers a service for Java-enabled phones that lets you search for specific addresses, businesses or business categories nationwide, according to Chris Sherman of SearchEngineWatch.com.
Along with providing search engine interfaces for mobile browsers, Google and Yahoo offer short message service, letting users employ text messaging to retrieve targeted results. Users can send results from local search (such as a business's name, address and contact information) to their mobile devices as a text message or can request answers via specialized queries.
Search providers also want to bring personalized search to the mobile platform. Letting users store personalized settings for weather forecasts, frequently used addresses and favorite sites adds to the convenience of mobile use.
Mobile search setbacks. Mobile search engines are increasingly sophisticated, but the mobile information superhighway remains littered with roadblocks.
• Many mobile devices are not Web-friendly in terms of interface usability due to their smaller viewing screens and keypads.
• Mobile search engines are still developing, and though the major search providers have jumped on the mobile bandwagon, issues with results presentation and ad placement need to be resolved. Small screens make it difficult to display the search results and leave little or no room for advertising. Search services need to find a balance between showing too many results (takes too long to scroll) or too few (users don't find what they seek).
• Mobile search presents Web designers with challenges in making Web sites mobile-compatible. Few mobile sites are currently available. Users frequently receive "incomplete content" messages or a text-only experience.
To improve the appearance and usability of Web sites, AOL offers intelligent reformatting, which scales images, turns your site navigation into an easy navigation link and identifies and displays the most important content first.
Mobile search and optimization. Mobile search may seem like a brave new world, but the goals haven't changed for marketers and Web site administrators. You still want to attract site traffic that converts into sales (though many of these conversions might occur offline instead).
Tips to make your Web site mobile search-friendly:
• Create a mobile version of your site using WML or XHTML (transcode tools exist to help convert existing sites).
• Stick to traditional search engine optimization practices, but be more concise and to the point. The reduced space for search results produces a greater push to be in the top three positions instead of the top 10.
• Develop your tags, ads and content with a mobile search mindset: Keep keywords short and target your messaging for "Gotta get it now" and "Just killing time" users. These are people who are unlikely to stick around if your site doesn't grab their attention and give them what they're after immediately.
• Pay attention to bandwidth considerations. Don't use Flash or large images. Add alt-text to images because many users block downloading images in their browsers in order to save time and bandwidth.
• Know your mobile search demographics. The current audience skews young, but as the technology goes more mainstream this audience will expand. How relevant is this audience to your business?
• Test your site on various phones and search services. Iron out any bugs in usability. It's hard enough typing on a miniature keypad without having to deal with a bad Web site.
• Submit your site to major mobile search engines and follow their design recommendations. Examples are Google Mobile: http://www.google.com/mobile/; Google Local Mobile: http://mobile.google.com/local; MSN Mobile: http://mobile.msn.com/; Yahoo Mobile: http://wap.oa.yahoo.com/; AOL Mobile Portal: http://wap.aol.com/portal/ and Technorati Mobile: http://m.technorati.com/.
Mobile ad services are very new. Google introduced its mobile ad service in September, and Yahoo in October launched a beta version of sponsored search results on mobile phones in the United States and Britain.
Though the bidding process has not changed, advertisers need to adapt to new restrictions on ad size. According to Google, "Mobile ads contain two lines of text, with a limit of 12 or 18 characters per line, depending on the language in which you write your ad."
Advertisers choose whether their ad directs users to a URL or a telephone number. On Google, "Your Destination URL appears on a third line if you choose to enter one. If you select the option that allows customers to directly connect to your business phone, a Call link will appear next to your Destination URL." The Call link lets users call your business directly so you can connect with mobile users even if you lack a mobile Web site.
As mobile devices grow more sophisticated and users get accustomed to their phone being more than just a phone, marketers that don't want to get left in the dust (particularly those with "hip" brands) will have to optimize and advertise for mobile.