Googling on the Go: Is the Future of Search in Your Pocket?

It shouldn’t be that hard to find a pizza place, especially in New York City. A stroll down any West Side street should reveal at least five Original Ray’s Pizzerias, among many other chains and small establishments. Mobile and SMS search providers, however, namely Google and Yahoo, make it seem like a chore. And they have a simple solution.

Mobile search is the natural outgrowth of the search culture built by Google and Yahoo. We use search engines to get directions, find local businesses, look up telephone numbers, shop and search for answers and information. Rarely do we need all that when we are sitting in front of our computers. We need that information on the go — and the Internet has bred us to expect immediately and for free, without calling friends, flipping through phone books and guides or dialing 411 for 99 cents a call.

With new offerings from Google and Yahoo, all that information is now accessible from any wireless device: cell phones, PDAs (both Windows CE and Palm based) and Blackberries. You can search anywhere you can get a signal — with nearly all the capabilities of the Web-based engines.

There are three primary methods of accessing Web-based content via a wireless device: WML, XHTML and SMS. SMS, which stands for Short Messaging Service, is the simplest technology, usually used to send and receive text messages. WML stands for Wireless Markup Language and is used for WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) enabled devices, like many mobile phones and PDAs. XHTML stands for Extensible HyperText Markup Language, and is a form of regular HTML used in Web pages. XHTML conforms to strict standards and allows Web sites on your wireless device to look as close as possible to their computer counterparts.

Each technology has its advantages and shortcomings. SMS is universally accessible on wireless devices, but it lacks the pizzazz of an HTML page. Google is currently the only search provider using SMS to provide search results to mobile devices. Google’s unique service works like this: The user sends a text message with a search request to 46645 (GOOGL), and Google sends back a text message (or messages) with the answer.

You can use Google SMS to conduct local searches (text the category or business name and the ZIP code or location to GOOGL); to look up residential phone book listings; to get driving directions; find movie show times; get weather forecasts; check flight times; and see instant stock quotes. You also can text a question to GOOGL and get a response using Google’s Q&A. Other Google search features work here, too: Use define to get a definition, enter an area or ZIP code to look up; use the calculator feature or enter a word to spell check. Froogle and regular search results also can be accessed via Google SMS.

Google SMS stands out as the simplest way to access Google’s database. You don’t have to connect to the Internet (a plus for those who get charged by the minute or by KB downloaded), and the results are saved as text messages. The only cost to the service is that of sending a text message. SMS’ simplicity also is its biggest detraction. All you get is a text message, with no option of linking to a page or automatically calling a local result. For pure text information, like weather, flight times, checking a price when you’re in a store, Google SMS excels.

Both engines also offer enhanced WML/XHTML products that can be accessed by WAP-enabled mobile devices. These are closer to the traditional engines, just in a smaller, more condensed form. Both offer Web search, with only titles shown, and image search that allows you to download images to your mobile device. Yahoo even offers image storage; snap a photo with a cell phone and e-mail it to your Yahoo account.

One of the most promising features of mobile search is the ability to do local searches. Enter in a business name or type and the ZIP code or location in which you are looking, and Google and Yahoo quickly return a list of local matches. Highlight the phone number in the listing and you can automatically call it from your cell phone. Both also provide maps and driving directions to help find your location; Google’s new clearer map technology really shines here.

Yahoo Local excels in the WAP search, as it’s based on Yahoo Local search, which acts more as a yellow pages than Google Local, which is based on the search engine. Yahoo Local even provides ratings so you can pick the best pizza store in your neighborhood.

Google Mobile also offers Froogle to find prices on the go, and the unusually helpful “Number Web” feature, which lets you enter search results simply as numbers and have Google guess what you are searching for. Google Mobile accurately guessed that 14992 was “pizza.” Yahoo offers a slew of features, like the Yahoo site, including news, alerts, games, messenger, e-mail (Yahoo Mail only), sports, finance, weather, movies and your Yahoo address book and calendar.

Overall, Google and Yahoo mobile versions don’t differ greatly from their regular sites. Google is simple and streamlined and Yahoo is rich with features. On the go, Google offers better options for quickly finding information, while Yahoo offers more information about local results — as well as many great features to help pass time on the go.

Yahoo also has made the first steps to mobile/WAP advertising. After you log in, a single sponsored link appears above all your options. Does that mean a future of unique mobile PPC advertising, behavioral marketing on our phones that tracks our calling behavior, text ads on WAP-enabled sites? We don’t know. But the ad on Yahoo Mobile was for free “The Apprentice” tickets — and we clicked it.

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