Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What Do We Really Want in Mobile Search?

Surfing the Internet from our cellphones is becoming more widespread every day. It's certainly not something that everyone has (indeed, I only know one other person who does in my group of friends), but it's spreading. More and more people are realizing the power of the mobile web and are beginning to take advantage of it. And just like one of the biggest things we do on our home computers, searching is one of the biggest things we do with the mobile web.

The information we seek is often very different, however. Sometimes it's the same (lyrics to that song you just heard, a picture of your favorite vacation spot, etc.) but often it's very local in nature. We simply want to look up a phone number...or a movie showtime...or the weather. But we want it delivered just as quickly as we're used to our desktops delivering search results.

The big three players in search (Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft) have definitely noticed this and they've taken measures to make their product the go-to place for mobile search.

As I'm sure you all know already, yahoo recently announced its OneSearch platform for cellphone surfers. Just visit m.yahoo.com from your phone's browser to check it out. It's an all-in-one search and promises to deliver all the potentially desired results (news, images, web links, etc.) on one page so a minimum of clicking is necessary.

Google has had a mobile version of its search available to mobile users for a long time already. And there's no special address to use it...it figures out that you're on a mobile phone by itself. It very closely resembles its desktop counterpart, with a search box and options to select whether you want to search the web, images, etc.

Microsoft is also in the mobile search arena with Windows Live Mobile. Check it out mobile.live.com. It even offers an entire mobile portal for Microsoft users with access to Spaces, Messenger, etc. right from your phone. Its search page is similar to Google's, although you have to click Search to get there.

So how do they measure up? Which one does the best job at quickly delivering information while on the go?

Before we get to my opinion, let's perform some tests...I performed four identical searches on all three of the big mobile search competitors. First, I wanted to quickly find the weather for where I live, so I searched for "Weather 19382." Then I recreated something that actually happened to me...I was telling a friend about The Office and wanted to look up a picture of one of the characters, Andy, so they could know what he looked like...so I searched for "Andy office" in the mobile image search. Thirdly, I tried looking up a movie time for my favorite theater, so I searched for "300 Wilmington, DE." Lastly, I searched for a local business phone number, "Applebees West Chester, PA."

Here are the results for each search:

Weather 19382

  • Google: First the town name and current conditions (temperature, wind speed, humidity, etc.) followed by the five day forecast including pictures and high and low temperatures. Then there were web results from Weather.com, Weatherstreet.com, etc.
  • Yahoo: First the town name with high and low temperatures for today followed by the three day forecast, but only in pictures. Then there were web results from weather.com and weather.msn.com followed by image results that were completely random and had nothing to do with weather.
  • Microsoft: First the town name (which was wrong) followed by the current conditions followed by the four day forecast with no pictures and no formatting (all was in one block of text). Then there was a space for local results, but nothing was listed because I had to set a location (isn't a zip code a location?). Then there was a web result from weather.com followed by a link to a map of the zip code.


Andy Office
Note: Only the mobile version of Google has a specific image search...Yahoo and Microsoft don't, so I just did the search in their normal search box, hoping some images would come up.


  • Google: Three pictures on the first page, two of which are my man Andy. Score!
  • Yahoo: First web results (office furniture, unrelated Wikipedia entry), then mobile web results (The Devil Wears Prada details, a blurb about an episode of The Office, unrelated business listing), then images (the three displayed are unrelated...I clicked on More, but gave up after 4 pages...no pictures of Andy), then News (all unrelated), then local results (I guess it remembered my location from the weather search.
  • Microsoft: First local results (zero since I didn't set a location), then web results (office furniture, a link to a clip from The Office on YouTube (which I can't watch, 'cause I'm on my cellphone), then maps (zero), then News (a new office opens somewhere), and lastly Spaces (what even are these anyway?). Not a single image result.


300 Wilmington, DE


  • Google: First details about the movie (length, rating, genre, etc.) followed by individual theaters (including address, phone number, and showtimes for today) - the theater I want is second in the list. Then there were local results (Route 300 Cars) followed by web results (mostly things with 300 as part of the address).
  • Yahoo: First local results (business listings that didn't seem to have anything to do with the number 300...I don't know why they appeared. They were followed by Web results (the Chrysler 300, and businesses with 300 in their address. Next came mobile web results (all unrelated) and News results (also unrelated). No movie times at all.
    NOTE: Since it remembered my location last time, I figured it would remember Wilmington. So I went back to the main search and simply searched for "300." This time results showed up including showtimes for Wilmington at the top (but I had to click on an individual theater name to get their address and phone number).
  • Microsoft: First was an "instant answer" result, listing the movie's rating, genre, length, and showtimes for one theater (not the one I wanted)...and again, all the text was in one big, unformatted block. Next came local results (still zero), then web results (all unrelated), then a map of 300 Wilmington Ave. (gee, thanks), followed by unrelated news and spaces results.


Applebees West Chester, PA


  • Google: First local results with the West Chester Applebees at the top (including address, phone number, and a link for more). These were followed by web results (reviews of this Applebees and other West Chester business listings).
  • Yahoo: Almost identical to Google's results, with the West Chester Applebees right at the top with address and phone number followed by almost identical web results.
  • Microsoft: Local results first (still zero...why do I have to set a location?!) followed by web results (the first of which did contain the address and phone number I was looking for, but it was on a random website). Next came a map of West Chester University (unhelpful).


You can take that completely unbiased, even test as you like. Here's how it measures up in my mind. In the visual appeal category, Yahoo wins hands down. Its service is very pleasant to look at with lots of little pictures that don't take too long to download. But its results are spotty at best. And the way it remembers a location annoys me. It could be helpful, but as in my example, I wanted to look up weather for where I live, and the movie times for a theater 30 minutes away...why should I have to make it re-learn the location before it will show me what I want?

Windows Live Mobile was promptly deleted from my mobile bookmarks after I finished the tests. I found it completely useless. The other services delivered much better (or at least identical) results. Microsoft really needs to pull it together here if they want to compete.

Google easily performed the best in the searches, though. The results were right on every time. And while not as sexy as Yahoo's page, I still preferred it. I'll take accuracy over pretty any day.

STOP THE PRESSES!! Literally, just as I was writing the previous paragraph (at 10:47 p.m. on March 26) I went back to the Google Mobile page and saw a new link that wasn't there earlier today. It says, "Try our New Mobile Search." Fascinating! Google's released a new mobile search client within the past few hours! Probably to compete with Yahoo's new offering. The old service still exists, so I'm not altering my article above, but let's test the new service with the same search results. Here's what I got:


  • Weather 19382: Results were the same as above.

    NOTE: It appears as if the new mobile page allows me to add custom modules including weather, stocks, movie times, etc. That could really help me in the future...but let's just do the searches for now.
  • Andy Office: Disappointed here...the page shows 3 images followed by web results, but none of the images are what I'm looking for...let's click on More Images...there he is! Well, that's certainly not as fast as before, but at least it showed up on the second page.
  • 300 Wilmington, DE: Results were the same as above.
  • Applebees West Chester, PA: Results were the same as above.


So...the new Google search appears to be very similar to Yahoo's in that there's just one search box...you can't select Web, Images, etc. They promise (like Yahoo) to automatically figure out what you're searching for and deliver it. For the most part, it works, but the images let me down.

I think an accurate image search for mobile devices is very important...I use it all the time to look up pictures of people, animals, buildings, etc. to know what or who someone is talking about...or to prove a point. :-)

In conclusion, I will probably keep both the mobile Google and mobile Yahoo in my bookmarks. Google seems to be the best at delivering accurate results while Yahoo's interface is much nicer looking. But why use the more visually appealing one when I know Google will give me what I'm looking for more accurately? Plus, the Google mobile interface resembles the standard Google we've all come to know...white background with very little flair. It's been proven to work.

And with their new mobile search taking aim at Yahoo's new offering, this could be interesting.

So...what do you think? Do you like Google's old interface better? Or do you simply want to see the weather forecast and move along? Just grab that phone number and slap the phone shut? Do you want pretty results or accurate results? What do we really want in mobile search?

(originally published in my Newsvine column)