Googling for the future of mobile search

I was listening to an audio interview with John Markus Lervik, the CEO of FAST, the mobile search company, by Peggy Anne Salz, the author of Informa’s report on mobile search and content discovery.

The interview is thought provoking. For one, it made me realise that disintermediation is already happening to mobile content providers as search is bypassing the WAP and web portals that they have invested in. Eventually, mobile search will practically replace mobile portals. This is the story of Internet search and portals not only repeated, but exacerbated as handset screen real estate is limited.

Trends in mobile search
Major operators including Vodafone are already partnering with the likes of Google to provide rudimentary search functionality to their users. However, we are only at the nascent stages of mobile search. There are several trends emerging.

Firstly, the Internet search giants are moving their game onto mobile. This is epitomised by Steve Ballmer’s prediction: The “leading edge battleground between us and Google in local search really will come on the phone”.

This will clearly threaten mobile search start-ups who are positioning themselves on the side of the operator. In the interview, Lervik plays down the importance of Google et al by saying ‘we are confident that operators will see little benefit in partnering with Google beyond the immediate PR effect and that in the long term it will threaten their business’.

Mobile manufacturers are also willing to partner with Internet search giants to upsell the value of their devices, as indicated by the announcements of Motorola + Google and Nokia + Yahoo earlier this year.

Furthermore, mobile portals are moving to sit on top of the search engine, offering a dynamic content structure based on content relevance to the user and collaborative filtering.

Most importantly, handset user interfaces will play the role of the gateway to mobile search. Here’s where On-Device Portal products like Opera Mini, SurfKitchen, Cibenix and Zi’s Qix will come under the limelight. According to Lervik, “Operators need to understand that the future of their business is in controlling the user interface of their users’ handsets”

So where is mobile search functionality going ?
Current mobile search business models are limited in that they only focus in monetizing content (ringtones, games, logos) and inject advertising. Mobile search functionality itself has a very promising road ahead:

  • On-Device Portals will offer a front-end interface to mobile search, combining search with home-screen replacement, offline content caching, store-front functionality, one-click buy and predictive keyword matching (ala Qix).
  • Search will merge with personalisation, recommendation forming what Peggy Anne calls the mobile content triple-play
  • Search will be combined with location (esp. in countries like Japan and Australia where location services are more advanced)
  • With the increase of user-generated content, collaborative filtering will improve pure algorithmic search to provide recommendations based on what similar users have seen or written.

Mobile Search: Beyond WAP and ODPs
In a previous post I was arguing that the next step in the evolution of WAP is On-Device Portals. It is now clear that the next step beyond portals, both online portals and ODPs is mobile search.

Stay tuned.