It must be the former analyst in me, but I do find it gratifying when one of my predictions, however minor, comes true. Back in mid-October, I lamented the state of mobile search on iCrossing's Reverse Direct Marketing blog, musing that perhaps the right stakeholders had not yet connected and that what was called for was a dedicated search button on mobile handsets, similar to the navigation buttons now found on most PC keyboards. At the time, I said it was "not out of the question," but I didn't expect the call to be answered so quickly.
In the wake of CES, the right stakeholders, it would seem, are Motorola and Google. The resurgent phone manufacturer has teamed up with the world's leading search engine (whose offerings morph with every leap in the company's stock price and vice versa) and the result will be a dedicated Google icon on many of Motorola's upcoming mobile handsets.
Some may yawn at the news and say "so what?" After all, Google recently announced a partnership with Dell to offer buyers of the company's computers a personalized Dell-Google homepage, a move that represents yet another attempt to seize control of the desktop and browser (and, in the process, render competitor Microsoft an ostensibly irrelevant also-ran). However, this constitutes a new salvo in a much older, more mature battle, one that has seen skirmishes for control over first operating systems, then desktops, later browsers and now search engines and homepages.
By comparison, the battle for control of the mobile phone screen is far more recent. Traditionally, it has been the province of the carriers, but lately, as services, devices and content converge, the walls have been coming down, making the Motorola-Google announcement a small but significant step for mobile search -- for several reasons.
Part of what has limited mobile searching to date is the mobile infrastructure, at least in this country. Slow networks traditionally have been kind only to the most patient of WAP users. Infrastructure constraints, however, are beginning to recede as 2.5 and 3G networks become commonplace across all the major carriers.
Another complicating factor has been the user interface (UI) and compact number pads on most mobile handsets, which can prove frustrating to those used to the ease of full-size QWERTY keyboards and external pointing devices.
And finally, there are issues surrounding the output of a mobile-initiated search query -- how to make relevant results appear on mobile device screens that are far smaller than computer monitors and do not, unlike monitors, conform to any set of industry standards.
Undeniably, these challenges are significant. And in light of what remains to be done for mobile search (and mobile search as a gateway to the ever-expanding universe of TV, video, music and other audio content available in carriers' walled gardens, on the open mobile internet and on in-home media centers), the Google icon or button on Motorola handsets resolves just a fraction.
What it does, though, is put search directly in front of the mobile user, which is sure to boost usage (here's hoping that network and browser development will keep pace), and, in turn, bring mobile marketers closer to mobile users (who numbered 202 million in the United States as of the beginning of January, according to CTIA -- The Wireless Association).
Naturally, there is much more to mobile search than an improved UI on consumer handsets. Content must be organized and optimized for mobile, just as with PC-based search, what AOL Mobile Search Services recently referred to as "right-sizing" the internet. That really is the "right" approach: Marketers who want to reach customers (and, in turn, enable customers to reach them) whenever, wherever and however they show interest, first should consider building a mobile presence optimized specifically for mobile devices and mobile search, and then plan on driving connections with interested customers by using a full range of mobile marketing tools -- everything from SMS and MMS messaging to mobile coupons to platform integration with other advertising media such as TV, print and outdoor.
It is a telling sign of trends in the search world that Google may have made the first move on the mobile UI front in providing the gateway to content (hence playing a role similar to the one it performs on the wired internet).
In contrast, Yahoo!, with its recently unveiled Yahoo! Go service, looks to be headed in the direction of platform integration across TVs, PCs and mobile devices for everything from email, personal information and contacts to photos and video. The service may only work on select handsets for now, but you can be sure that Yahoo! will quickly scale it to include a broader range of devices.
As far as this battle of giants goes, it looks to be one of branding (Google) versus retention (Yahoo!), although most observers seem to feel that Yahoo! has the stronger position due to its carrier relationships.
Fortunately, unlike in the battle over mobile network standards, both consumers and marketers stand to benefit here. We're still in the early days of media convergence, but the farther down that road we travel, the more important mobile search will become and the more emphasis we'll see on a mobile marketing model that comprises content creation, connection with interested customers, quantification of campaign results and refining campaigns based on analytics-based insights.
Search follows content wherever it goes, and it's going mobile.
Noah Elkin, Ph.D., is director of industry relations at iCrossing. He liaises with the analyst community, represents iCrossing at key industry events, contributes to proprietary studies and generates thought leadership as iCrossing expands its search offerings to wireless devices, interactive television and other emerging technology platforms.
Prior to joining iCrossing, Dr. Elkin served for five years as senior analyst at eMarketer, where he covered developments in mobile voice and data, wireless devices, mobile marketing and m-commerce. He holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University and received a B.A. with honors from Columbia University.