Google's Challenges in Mobile Search

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Google’s dominance on the Internet is unquestioned, but its mobile search offering will have to address four major factors if it is to dominate wireless the way it rules the online world. There’s no denying Google’s momentum in mobile: Its Android operating system is attracting handset manufacturers and carriers at impressive rates, its developer community is showing growth, and thanks to a deal with Verizon, the OS will soon enjoy the reach of America’s largest mobile network operator.

That momentum will help Google’s mobile search business nearly triple over the next two-plus years, Jefferies & Co. is predicting, surpassing the $500 million mark in 2011. And that figure seems almost modest, as mobile search is expected to help fuel $4.2 billion in ad revenues in the U.S. alone by 2015, according to new figures from Coda Research Consultancy. But mobile search is still a wide-open space teeming with competitors, including pure-play search providers that sometimes understand the pros and cons of wireless better than their Internet counterparts. So Google’s offering will need to address four key issues if the company is to retain its dominance as mobile search gets legs:

  • Consider the device. People look for different things from mobile search than from traditional online search, so results should automatically differ based on the device being used. Just as Google uses device-detection technology to format web pages accordingly, it should deliver different results to mobile phones than to computers.
  • Tie the PC to the phone. Google has moved effectively in this direction with new features that integrate Google Maps on the PC, enabling users to flag specific sites on computers then access information about them later from their handsets, and it has introduced a feature that keeps users’ mobile and desktop histories in sync. It must continue to tie the two devices together to help usher its online users into mobile search.
  • Deliver results based on context. Search histories and filters are a start, but Google and its competitors must do a better job of considering factors such as time of day and location when returning results, minimizing the need for users to scroll through screens to find what they’re looking for.
  • Expand its search categories. A quick look at search apps for Apple’s iPhone indicates a demand for information regarding specific topics like baby names, medical documents and song lyrics. I think there will always be a need for such niche apps, but Google could compete against downloadable search apps by building out its mobile web search to include a host of categories.

Google’s invaluable brand and massive footprint on the web give it huge advantages as it builds its mobile business, and Android is gaining traction in a big way. As the company tries to recreate its online success in mobile, it must increasingly consider the differences between phones and computers. And because handsets may eventually overtake computers as a search platform, this is a game Google must play to win.

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