AOL Plays to Growing Mobility

Do cell phone users really want to perform searches and surf the web from their cell phones? AOL is betting that they do, and a recent survey backs this up. But the key is knowing what they’re searching for.

Everyone is always looking for the “killer app.” When it comes to cell phones, aside from making phone calls, a lot of the search engines seem to think that it’s search. That makes sense if users really want to surf the web on their cell phones. I have never surfed the web on my cell phone, and I don’t want to, but apparently plenty of people disagree with me. In fact, according to a recent mobile lifestyle survey conducted by AOL in conjunction with the Pew Research Center, 30 percent of adults want to browse the web from their cell phones. Given that three out of every four Americans own a cell phone, that’s potentially a huge audience.

AOL climbed aboard the mobile trend in July 2005, when it unveiled web, local and shopping search services that were similar to those available at its own search site. The problem that many have observed with taking web services mobile, however, is the size of the screen. I’m typing these words on the same lovely screen I surf the web for research at work; it’s more than one year old, and is about 17” diagonally. My Nokia cell phone is maybe two months old, and its screen measures less than three inches diagonally. For some things, size really does matter. Don’t tell me I can have a satisfying web surfing experience on such a small screen!

AOL apparently understands this. The company added a new feature to its mobile search designed to make web surfing more pleasant on a small screen. Called “Surf the Web,” it should reduce aggravation for those who want to surf on their cell phones, and maybe even encourage those who wouldn’t consider doing it before to give it a try.

With AOL’s new “Surf the Web” search, the user types in keywords and the service automatically navigates him or her to a web page of interest. It then intelligently reformats the page to fit the screen of the cell phone, automatically. This has to be an improvement over rendering the page as is, which forces users to scroll to see the whole thing.

What is intelligent reformatting? The technology finds the most important content on the web page and displays it first, regardless of where it actually is located on the page. It also resizes graphics to fit the screen of the mobile device. Finally, it makes a major adjustment that many users should appreciate: it takes the main navigation for the site and includes it in a single “Quick Nav” link. This way, users can have access to all of a website’s navigation with a single click, without having it take up a ridiculous amount of space on a small screen when it isn’t needed.

AOL is accomplishing this feat with the help of InfoGin, a company that creates web to mobile content adaptation solutions. In this case, AOL is using InfoGin’s transcoding and content analysis technologies to extend desktop search and navigation to wireless devices. It should make surfing the web on the really small screen a bit more user-friendly.

In addition to improving the experience of mobile web surfing, AOL has also enhanced some of its mobile search services. These are only available for GIS-enabled devices. They’re so obvious in retrospect that you wonder why they aren’t more widespread. For example, it lets you use the “Locate me” function in a very sensible way. Once you’re located, searches in AOL’s Cityguide, Moviefone and MapQuest Maps will offer results based on your current location, with no further input needed.

Parents who monitor their children’s whereabouts will be pleased to hear that the service keeps a history of the phone’s location and previous searches. This history can be accessed both via the phone itself and the web. The history would also be helpful to users trying to revisit newly discovered restaurants or other new favorite places.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the MapQuest Navigator service, which is supposed to be coming soon from AOL. It will enable users to access Global Positioning Service (GPS), which will deliver turn-by-turn, voice-guided directions on a mobile phone. I’m in favor of anything that will help me get from where I am to where I need to go without getting lost!

AOL is hardly the only search engine offering some kind of mobile search service. Both Google and Yahoo! have their own versions. And given some of the numbers from the mobile lifestyle survey mentioned earlier, all three services might end up growing in the future. The survey covered public attitudes about cell phones and was based on telephone interviews with more than 1,500 adults from all fifty states except for Alaska and Hawaii. Nearly 1,300 of those surveyed were cell phone users. The survey was conducted in March 2006.

Some analysts have interpreted the results to show that adults are becoming increasingly dependent on their cell phones. Indeed, 29 percent of those polled said they could not live without their cell phones. Talking about behaviors that are a bit less extreme, more than half of those polled keep their cell phones on all day, every day. Forty percent of those in the 18-29 age group said they were likely to get rid of their landline. As someone who made that leap well over a year ago, I can certainly understand why.

Cell phones aren’t just being used for phone calls anymore. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed said they send SMS text messages to family, friends, and business colleagues. In the 18-29 age group, it was more like a whopping 65 percent. And more than a quarter said they’d like to have desktops IMs from at least some contacts automatically forwarded to their mobile device. Again, the 18-29 age group showed that they loved the technology even more; 50 percent of them wanted IM forwarding of selected contacts.

How about email? While only eight percent of cell phone users access email from their phone, almost a quarter of users said they’d like to be able to do so. Checking email is already something of a portable experience for anyone who has web-based email, so being able to check it from something other than an Internet-connected desktop is really just another step in that direction.

But of course, the questions about usage most likely to interest AOL and the other major search engines involve search. I can’t say I was surprised to hear that more than half of those surveyed either use mobile maps on their cell phone now, or would like to have that service on their next cell phone. Just under a third gave the same answer for mobile search, and a similar number for browsing the Internet. Assuming we can trust the results of the survey, many of AOL’s new features play right into those desires.

But are users really going to be searching for restaurants, movie theaters, and directions to places on their cell phone? This leads to an interesting piece of research sponsored by Google, whose results hit the press in late February. Google gave computer scientists Maryan Kamvar and Shumeet Baluja access to about a million of its mobile search methods. The goal of the research was to gain a better understanding of the needs of wireless web surfers. And boy, did they get an eyeful!

As one analyst noted, apparently what wireless web surfers really need is a porn portal. According to the researchers, more than 20 percent of Google searches conducted from cell phones were for “adult” content. Of searches performed from PDAs, however, adult searches made up less than five percent of the total.

This is still valuable information for those with mobile search services; the scientists theorize that the results reflect that PDAs are used for business, while mobile phones are used for entertainment. Interestingly, while most searchers leave the Google site after finding what they’re looking for, porn searchers are more likely to stay—and hunt for more porn, again emphasizing the “entertainment” factor of mobile phones.

So where will this trend go? The researchers think that the proportion of queries for “adult” content from mobile devices will fall as the mobile web becomes more popular among mainstream users. If so, this is just another example of pornography driving technology; remember, the prevalence of adult videos on VHS tapes has often been credited with the VCR’s victory over the Beta format.

Again, it’s worth keeping in mind that mobile phones are being used for entertainment, and that searches performed on mobile phones will most likely be aimed at facilitating entertainment. Maps and directions will be a big help to someone who is mobile in finding any kind of entertainment; when you’re out and about, they’re exactly the kind of thing that would be convenient to have at your fingertips. I’m looking forward to seeing AOL—and Google, and the other major search engines—getting their acts together to make this as easy as possible.

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