January 15, 2013

The Changing Landscape of Mobile Search in a SoLoMo World


Mobile devices and apps are undeniably changing the way we communicate and access information. So is the rise in consumers’ belief that user-generated content (UGC) sites are more trustworthy than corporate sites. People use apps from Yelp and Urbanspoon to find local businesses and services; they rate their experiences and review products and services on these sites as well as on more “traditional” ecommerce sites like Amazon and Zappos; they post their opinions on hotels and other travel services on TripAdvisor, Expedia, and Hotels.com. Using their smartphones or tablets, people access specialized apps to find what they need when and where they need it. Some call this trend “SoLoMo” for social-local-mobile, but whatever you call it, it’s being fueled by increasing smartphone use to find specific things.

Google remains the world’s top search engine, claiming nearly 70 percent of the global search market and 96 percent of mobile traffic. Its Android phones and tablets comprise three quarters of all smart devices, too, suggesting the Silicon Valley giant won’t falter anytime soon.

Despite this enormous lead, the future of Google search is likely to shift from web to mobile since the company must now compete with a growing number of mobile apps for vital traffic.

“It’s important to recognize that many mobile apps are really vertical search engines,” explained digital media analyst Rebecca Lieb. “It is impossible to really say anyone dominates a section of mobile in a sustainable way right now.”

The future of mobile search is unpredictable enough that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week dropped its longstanding antitrust case against Google. The market is evolving so fast that the FTC’s concerns about monopolistic practices became irrelevant 19 months into the investigation.

During that time, mashup apps like Urbanspoon, Hulu, Yelp, and Kayak gained solid footholds in the mobile market by combining several search tools into centralized locations. Despite some issues with accuracy, Apple’s voice assistant Siri also lessens the need for a keyboard, leaving Google no choice but to create an equivalent competing product.

Aggregate apps continue to sprout up by the thousands and expand the field of mobile search. The growth in use of these kinds of apps mean that more companies that have useful data need to find ways for developers to access that data and use it to create new ways to inform and engage their customers. The most common example today is location – when you book a restaurant via OpenTable, you expect to get location information and directions (which come not from OpenTable but from Google Maps).  This all makes a good API an essential component for companies looking to extend their reach and engagement with the online and mobile consumer.

There are great examples emerging today like Mazoom, a smartphone-specific search engine that returns only mobile sites in response to user queries, while Izik helps tablet users browse images as they search. A co-founder at Xyologic, which aims to overhaul app discovery with personalized suggestions, even went so far as to declare traditional search tools “obsolete.”

Only time will tell what resonates with mobile users, but as these startups take root, the future of mobile search will likely begin to hinge on personalized options, social media connections, and location-based services rather than traditional text and link-based results.

Why? No one wants to type long queries and peruse lists of search results on a small screen. And smartphone owners on the go can’t spare more than a few minutes to look for nearby restaurants or alternative airline flights.

All of this makes personalized search apps with social and local components more practical for smartphones and tablets because they are specific enough to return relevant answers right away.

And as more companies begin to realize this, mobile search-related apps will likely force “traditional” search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing to innovate beyond their current confines.  So don’t be surprised if in the future you find yourself using Google Restaraunts, Yahoo Accomodations, or Bing Flights as even internet giants find they need to go social, local and mobile, joining the SoLoMo revolution.