Don’t Move Too Fast on Mobile Search

I always have to be that guy. You know the type. The kind who always has to be first on the block with something new. I’m always intrigued by some new gadget or technology.

But not only am I usually among the first to flash the latest and greatest, invariably I’m also first to suffer when it barely works and no one knows how to fix it.

So what does my “gotta have it first” obsession have to do with mobile search? Well, despite my penchant for anything new, I am afraid that I have bad news on mobile search for marketers. Granted, it seems cool. But the reality is that we’re all going to have to be a bit more patient because mobile search just isn’t ripe yet.

The buzz. Many people would be quick to rebut my claim and cite statistics to support consumer adoption of mobile search.

For example, M:Metrics reported that in December 2005, 4.5 million unique users visited Google’s mobile search interface, and Yahoo had slightly fewer visitors that month with 4 million. Competing offerings from MSN and AOL trailed significantly, with 1.3 million and slightly over 1 million users, respectively.

Forrester Research also reported that 6 percent of wireless users accessed the Internet from their mobile devices in 2004. That figure climbed to 15 percent in 2005 and is expected to grow substantially in 2006.

Further still, 29 percent of respondents of the Associated Press-AOL-Pew Research Center mobile lifestyle survey said they could not live without their cell phone, with 40 percent of those ages 18-29 saying they are likely to get rid of their land line, and 49 percent in this age group saying they make more calls on their cell phone than on their land line.

So with all the increased use of cell phones and mobile search, marketers would be crazy not to jump on board and begin steering dollars and resources toward mobile search, right? Wrong.

The reality. Though it might seem like a good idea, and the data appear to support it, now is not the time for most marketers to focus on mobile search, for three reasons.

The first reason why mobile search is not ripe for marketers lies with user perception. Most people have some type of cellular device, yet most view it as just a phone, especially in the United States. Adoption of text messaging, sending e-mail and playing games on cellular devices are growing, but remain quite low.

This won’t change until people realize that their device can be used for much more than just making calls. Until then, most marketers will have to accept that the mobile search channel will yield extremely limited results.

The next factor is device technology. Even as more users upgrade their devices, most handsets still have a small screen and keypads that are really only good at dialing phone numbers.

It’s still easier for most users to dial 411 and get robbed of $1 than to try to use their device’s Web browser to locate a phone number or address. Online maps have huge potential benefits for people on the move, but trying to read a map on most mobile devices is similar to reading upside down, under water and in the dark – forget about it.

Consumers are used to searching Google, MSN and Yahoo and seeing a large screen with numerous results. Show these users a mobile search result and they quickly yearn to be back at their PC. Until device technology makes the experience of mobile search more rewarding, we should expect that only early adopters will use it with any regularity.

Finally, marketers should hold off on mobile search because of the general lack of marketing experience in this realm. Let’s face it, as marketers we are like the family pet: feeling we always have to learn new tricks for fear that people become bored with us.

But with the newness of mobile search, we have to realize that we are competing for a very small amount of space on the mobile device screen and that we have an extremely limited knowledge of what works in this channel, with little basis for comparison. It is difficult to say whether this channel is working or whether it is successful based on current tactics and technology limitations.

The outlook. Though I believe it is a bit early for marketers to invest in mobile search, I am excited about the future of it. I see a time when users not only make calls, send text messages and browse the Web, but also use mobile search, locating phone numbers and maps and buying products from their mobile devices.

And because search is at the core of everything that is done online, it’s not a stretch to imagine that mobile search will assume the same position on hundreds of millions of users’ mobile devices.

Once that happens, things get interesting. For bricks-and-mortar operations, huge potential exists for users to access your phone number and hours of operation and find a map to your location. For online retailers, the potential exists to gain more orders by dominating the mobile search space. Finally, for those focused on having a hip brand, investing in mobile marketing is a must.

The interim. Until the mobile search market matures, I encourage you to ensure that your Web site is optimized for search engines and that you properly track business outcomes and ROI, as this arena has proven successful for countless marketers.

If you are well optimized for the way search engines currently operate, you’ll be better positioned to reap the benefits of mobile search. For those of you who are ahead of the curve, I encourage you to test mobile search. Set clear goals and measure it. Like anything else, if it works, run with it, and if not, be patient, because mobile search is coming – it’s just a matter of time.

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