The Fight for Mobile Search


The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is now wrapping up, with one of the more notable soundbites coming from Google — reporting yesterday that it’s seeing 50 times more searches on the iPhone than any other mobile handset.

Even for a relatively small search volume, this is a massive ratio. It’s so big, in fact, that Google’s head of mobile operations made the engineers go back and check the logs again. Sure enough, the numbers were telling the truth — not only about the present but the future: At this rate, if more iPhone-like devices make mobile searching so easy, the number of queries made while standing up will outstrip the number made sitting down in just a few years. Which is something to stand up and take note of. Or not take sitting down. Or…sorry.

Point being, mobile search is getting big, and will only continue to get bigger. Now, anyone who reads anything I write knows that I take the anti-hype position until scale is really proven. But as a rule, if you’re using a mobile data plan — which is pushing up against 15 percent of total U.S. mobile subscribers by a generous count — you’re using search. It’s arguably the most compelling thing you can do on the phone besides talk on it. Which, bear in mind, is still far and away its most popular function, just to keep things honest.

Still, Google won’t win mobile search without a fight: While they’ve currenly got a little better than 40 percent of the search market to Yahoo’s 25 percent share, Yahoo is seeing more than 17 million monthly unique visitors to their WAP search site. All you media planners out there know that this positions their mobile property as a top 50 overall website, ahead of even’s traffic. Plus they can port their behavioral targeting technology over to WAP, making the case even stronger for shifting traditional ad spend to mobile display inventory. (Incidentally, it also probably speaks to the eventual demise of indy mobile search providers like Jumptap, who have great technology, but none of the penetration or brand recognition to keep up with the big boys).

Even with the additional revelation this week that Google lost its contract for providing mobile search on T-Mobile’s deck to Yahoo — which Google contends is waning in significance as users navigate away from carrier sites — the launch of Google’s Android operating system might very well change the game. If they can get preinstalled on enough handsets, Google could concievably own your entire mobile experience: covering off on everything from email to IM to maps to video to blogging to your dinner tonight.

But Yahoo has their own counterpunch in the form of “Go 3,” which is the latest rev of their on-handset browsing experience (with a WAP version in the works). The app allows you to access your Yahoo mail, news, travel info, and of course search — featuring smart algorithms that know when you type in the name of a film, you probably want local theater locations ahead of the director’s bio. They’ve also pledged to make their upcoming releases compatible with all mobile operating systems, including Google’s Android, which could be an interesting Trojan Horse play.

Either way, AT&T is currently seeing double the average revenue per user (ARPU) for iPhone users compared to traditional handset subscribers. Once carriers start seriously lowering prices on data plans — realizing that the real money will be in volume, just like with texting — your SEO and SEM strategies will actually center on mobile rather than fixed search. And then your media analysits will have to stay even later at the office trying to sort out which search came from where. Sorry guys… Hopefully the schwag will get better!