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Search Technology Goes Mobile

Linda Dailey Paulson

Pages: pp. 19-22

As Web-search technology has become more popular, it has also become big business. For example, search providers are making money by running paid advertisements along with query responses. This has set the stage for a battle among search providers—particularly Google, MSN, and Yahoo—to provide new services, attract users, and increase advertising revenue.

Now, the fight has moved to the wireless battlefield. Major Web search providers—including Fast Search & Transfer, Google, and Yahoo—are promoting new mobile services. These include traditional information searches, local searches for information about nearby businesses and attractions, and even searches for display-screen wallpaper images.

America Online and MSN also have mobile search services but, said market analyst Charlene Li with Forrester Research, "They are just not as well developed." Smaller search providers, such as Synfonic and 4INFO, are also offering services for mobile users.

Mobile search could yield revenue for the search vendors, who would either license their technology to other companies or provide the services directly to customers. They could also sell advertisements that run with query results.

Wireless-network service providers would also earn money as searchers pay for minutes of service or for text messaging. This is part of the providers' larger strategy to get customers to use their mobile service for more than just phone calls.

Users would receive information they want such as the names of nearby restaurants, even when they're away from a PC, and local enterprises would get more business.

However, adoption of mobile search still faces several hurdles, including the difficulty of using devices with small screens, slow and unreliable network services, and a potential lack of widespread demand.

Driving forces

Industry observers say that the growing number of cellular customers, including longtime users who are willing to try new services; technology advances; more phones that can access the Internet; and the lure of mobile e-commerce may drive the demand for mobile search.

Broadband mobile networks

Mobile networks are getting faster as wireless carriers move from second-generation technologies to higher-performance 2.5G and 3G approaches, which offer rates up to 3.1 Mbits per second downstream. Carriers are now looking toward 3.5G, with speeds of perhaps 14.4 Mbps, and eventually 4G, which promises rates of 100 Mbps or more.

Improved performance makes the networks better-suited for advanced, data-intensive activities such as search. In addition, faster networks will encourage mobile searches because users won't have to spend as much time, and thus money, waiting for query results.

Better use of small screens

Small cell-phone screens make it difficult to view search results, noted Forrester's Li. Thus, search services based on easy-to-read text-messaging capabilities may have an advantage over graphics-heavy microbrowser approaches.

However, browser-based approaches with few or no graphics may also succeed, said Bob Rosenschein, chair and CEO of GuruNet, whose offers traditional and mobile search services. With mobile search, he explained, "People just want raw, quicker, briefer information."

In recognition of the growing number of Internet-connected phones, more organizations are designing Web pages for display on cell phones.

For mobile devices and networks—which offer smaller screens, lower performance, and less bandwidth—Web content is generally written in stripped-down formats. These include Extensible HTML (XHTML) Mobile Profile, which offers fewer presentation elements and features than XHTML, or Wireless Markup Language (WML- formerly the Handheld Devices Markup Language), which displays no graphics.

Also, mobile-search services typically return fewer results than traditional search programs because reading dozens or hundreds of results is too difficult on small screens.


Retailers are looking at mobile search as a way to drive e-commerce by giving users, even when they aren't near a PC, an easy way to find online businesses and products. Conversely, increased e-commerce opportunities could drive mobile search.

This approach could be particularly effective in countries with populations that don't have easy Internet access, home telephone service, or the disposable income to purchase a PC, said Susan Aldrich, a senior vice president at the Patricia Seybold Group consultancy and market-research firm.

In these countries, Aldrich explained, "The [mobile] phone is more likely to become a computing platform."

However, Forrester's Li said, most retailers aren't involved in mobile e-commerce yet.

The technology

The basic search technology functions much the same way in a mobile system as it does on the desktop.

For example, some vendors' mobile search engines work with the same spiders and indexed databases of Web pages that the companies developed for their desktop-based searches. Some mobile-only search services have created their own databases and crawlers. Local-search services work with a database of businesses organized by location.

Some engines search only for Web pages especially designed for mobile devices, while some search the entire Web, including mobile pages.

Mobile search providers use various algorithms to determine the relevancy of results to a query, as is the case with traditional search services.

Users can access some mobile-search services via their phone's microbrowser, and some use text or multimedia messaging to directly query search databases. There are also mobile-search systems that work with both techniques.

"Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses," said Forrester analyst Charles Golvin. Short Message Service (SMS)-based search is more direct but somewhat less intuitive to use because of the precise way that queries must be created, he explained. Browser-based search, on the other hand, is easy to use because it mimics the PC-based paradigm. However, it is more time-consuming because the user must start the browser and access the search function before submitting the query.

Messaging-based mobile search

SMS systems send text messages of up to 224 characters between cell phones that use Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology.

Mobile search services can both receive queries and send results via SMS.

Users of some mobile services, such as Google's, call a phone number that connects them to a dedicated SMS server and then displays a search interface on the screen. Once the user types a query via the phone's number pad, the search engine looks for relevant material in its database and then transmits it via SMS.

Developers like SMS because it's an open standard and thus works with multiple carriers' technologies, as well as other specifications, explained Sanjay Beri, Synfonic's president and chief technical officer.

Some search providers, such as Google, also work with the multimedia messaging service, an SMS extension that enables transmission of images, audio, and video in addition to text.

Network service providers charge SMS users either per-message or monthly subscription fees.

Browser-based mobile search

Many phones with Internet access come with microbrowsers, which function like conventional browsers. Because of mobile devices' low memory capacity and mobile networks' low bandwidth and relative instability, microbrowsers must be small applications. In addition, they can work well only with smaller files written in formats for wireless systems such as XHTML Mobile Profile and WML.

However, newer microbrowsers are considerably more functional than their predecessors. And today's smart phones—such as palmOne's Treo and Research in Motion's BlackBerry—offer color displays, enhanced graphics capabilities, and bigger screens with room for more information.

Mobile search engines

Companies such as Fast Search & Transfer, Google, and Yahoo have developed major mobile-search engines. Many cell phones are preconfigured with links to these companies' mobile portals. For example, Sprint phones link to Yahoo's portal, T-Mobile phones link to Google's portal, and Verizon phones link to MSN's portal.

Fast Search & Transfer

Fast Search & Transfer, which makes a desktop search engine, has created the Fast mSearch service, which Figure 1 illustrates. Cellular service carriers and content providers that want users to be able to search their material offer this mobile service under their own names. With the service, users can search the Web for information or to find specific types of commercial content, such as ring tones.

Graphic: Fast Search & Transfer's mSearch mobile-search service works with general Internet content in formats accessible by mobile devices, as well as content produced by the users themselves or by their business partners. The system processes content for easier access in subsequent searches. mSearch includes a personalization engine that recognizes and analyzes users' mobile-search behavior and thereby learns about their preferences, so that they can return information they're interested in.

Figure 1   Fast Search & Transfer's mSearch mobile-search service works with general Internet content in formats accessible by mobile devices, as well as content produced by the users themselves or by their business partners. The system processes content for easier access in subsequent searches. mSearch includes a personalization engine that recognizes and analyzes users' mobile-search behavior and thereby learns about their preferences, so that they can return information they're interested in.

Cellular providers offering Fast mSearch can control the information that users can access, noted Michael Brady, Fast's senior director of mobile solutions. For example, Brady said, providers can ensure that e-commerce queries will yield only products from partners that will share revenue resulting from the searches.

Brady said Fast mSearch's technology works with techniques to recognize and analyze users' mobile search behavior and thereby learn about their preferences. This promises to personalize the service so that users receive only information they're interested in, such as scores for their favorite baseball team or specific types of restaurants in a particular city.


Google's mobile search tools are both browser- and SMS-based, said Deep Nishar, the company's director of product management. For each mobile-search query, the tools return three results.

Google also offers a mobile, browser-based version of Froogle, a comparison-shopping tool, for users of WML- compatible devices, noted Nishar.

The mobile Google local search system is similar to its desktop-based counterpart. The mobile service presents users with one screen for entering a business name or category and another for entering a city name or zip code. It returns 10 results along with a small location map, driving directions, and, if the device supports it, a link for dialing the number directly.


Yahoo's mobile search service works with SMS, as well as microbrowsers. The company has released Yahoo Search for Mobile, which offers most of its popular desktop-based services, including Web and local searches, said corporate spokesperson Nicole Leverich.

Yahoo designed the mobile service so that its results include fewer graphics and more focused information than its desktop-based version, Leverich explained.

Other mobile search services

Synfonic offers an SMS-based local-search service through its mobile portal. Users dial the portal's phone number, then type in shortcuts for the type of business and location they're looking for—such as "R" for restaurant, "C" for Chinese, and "LA" for Los Angeles. Users create these shortcuts in advance on Synfonic's Web site.

The service subsequently returns three of the requested local businesses, along with their phone numbers and links to reviews and maps, said Synfonic's Beri. has developed to deliver word definitions and other factual information—based on reference materials from about 100 sources, including search engines, encyclopedias, almanacs, and dictionaries—over microbrowsers.

InfoSpace—which makes the Dogpile Web metasearch engine—has announced plans to roll out its InfoSpace Mobile search engine within a year. The engine will translate the company's Web-based search and phone-directory services for use on cellular telephones. The engine will let users make natural-language queries by typing them on a keyboard.

MotionBridge is a popular European mobile Web-information and product search engine, handling several million queries per month. It powers the portals of cellular service providers such as Orange, O2, and T-Mobile. MotionBridge returns advertisements along with query results.


Despite technological improvements, searching the Web on a phone with a small screen can still be frustrating for many users, noted the Patricia Seybold Group's Aldrich.

Also, wireless networks can be slow and unreliable. Users can thus wait a long time, particularly when signals begin fading, for query responses. In addition to being inconvenient, this can be time-consuming and, therefore, expensive for cellular customers.

In addition, said Forrester's Golvin, demand for mobile search may be limited. Many cell phones don't access the Internet, and, more importantly, many customers with Internet-ready phones haven't bothered connecting, he explained. In fact, Golvin noted, only 11 percent do so. For mobile search to become profitable, more users must access the Internet via their cell phones.

Many users appear indifferent to using cell phones for services such as search. According to a Forrester survey, of the 64 percent of respondents who had mobile phones, only 4.4 percent used nontelephony services such as accessing e-mail or weather information, by late 2002. Only 6.2 percent used the services by late 2003, the latest statistics the company had available.

According to Google's Nishar, mobile-search vendors also face challenges developing robust services that will work well with multiple network formats and on numerous handsets with diverse capabilities.


Mobile search is likely to change when more carriers adopt faster 3G-network technologies. According to Golvin, increased speeds will improve browser-based searching and, more importantly, will enhance advanced applications and could encourage more users to try services other than telephony, such as search.

In the long run, said Fast's Brady, the mobile-search marketplace winners will be service providers that make themselves helpful by delivering personalized results based on a user's interests.

Forrester's Li predicted the big traditional search vendors, such as Google, will be the key mobile search companies because they will have the clout to strike deals with the large cellular service providers. She said the smaller firms such as Synfonic and InfoSpace will most likely be niche players if not acquired by the bigger companies.

About the Authors

Linda Dailey Paulson is a freelance technology writer based in Ventura, California. Contact her at
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