Mobile search

We’ve gotten very good at finding what we’re looking for online. Ever since the early days of AltaVista, Lycos and DogPile we’ve become experts at finding Thai restaurants in Hoboken, NJ and singing telegrams in Anchorage, AK. Just type a few keywords into the search box and click the go button. Your best result will be on the first page, right? Pretty easy.

Fast forward to 2008 – and the proliferation of mobile phones, PDAs and palmtop computers that can access the web. Things become much more interesting.

There is an increased sense of immediacy based upon our physical location and actions. In the old world, we designed sites for users who were typically sitting at a desk with a keyboard and mouse. Today we design sites for people who are surfing the internet while walking the dog, boarding a plane, driving to work and cheering for the home team during the playoffs.  Mobile devices are with us all the time.

Good-bye keyboard.  Good-bye mouse.  We’ll miss you.

We are using our thumbs to type now. We are scrolling down our tiny screens with trackballs, slide-wheels and pencil-thin styli. We are clicking with phone keys, tiny buttons, pens and our fingers. We need results need to be simple, easy to read, accurate and light weight. And we need it now.

Mobile platforms need to distill web content down to the bare essentials, trimming away unnecessary page clutter while pushing relevant content to the top of the page.

John Markoff’s New York Times article sums this up more eloquently than I.

“The small screen forces you to be even more ruthless and focus on usability almost like a haiku,” said Barney Pell, Powerset’s founder and chief executive. “That’s what happens with design for the small screen. You have to think about what the most important thing the user is doing is.”

There are currently only a few methods of searching the web on a mobile device (although, there SHOULD be more, in my opinion*.)

The first method is the one we’re most familiar with.  We type search terms into a little box and hit submit for results. As long as the web server produces valid XHTML and mobile friendly CSS, most phones will display results without too much trouble. Many mobile sites that offer search, offer this method.

Another method uses SMS and allows users to search via text message instead of using web forms. This can be a faster way of getting results in some cases if you have little or no access to a strong mobile signal for WAP searches. Depending upon your carrier’s packages, SMS can also be used without a data plan (which is usually much cheaper than a full data plan).

A good example of this is Google’s SMS service. If you happen to have a text message plan for your mobile device, try this. Send a text message to 466453 (GOOGLE) with the message of “pizza and [your zipcode]”. You should get a text message back from Google with 3-4 of the highest ranking listings along with click-to-call links to contact the restaurant.

You can also send links to your users within the text message. A good example of this is our own classified ad platform on the Houston Chronicle’s mobile site. For another interesting test, try sending a text message to 24766 (CHRON) with a message of “ford mustang”. You will get a text message back informing you how many results this search produced and a link to the mobile search results (if you have a WAP access).

This is pretty useful, but still not perfect.

Within the last year location-based services have grown quickly in popularity. Mobile platforms like Brightkite, Google Maps and Fire Eagle are gaining ground with many mobile users. Using a mobile device’s internal GPS (or triangulation from cell towers if your device doesn’t have a GPS), the device determines your location and allows you to simply search for the word “pizza” to produce local results for you (since it already knows your location).

We will begin to see more of these services over the next few years. However, I think we can do even better than that.

As I’ve said in the past, our mobile phones are audio devices first and foremost. Let’s put that audio technology to good use.

* Allow me to speak “Find Starbucks” into my phone to trigger a Google Maps search or speak “Browse CNN” to auto-dial a browser bookmark. Surfing the internet hands-free might be extremely useful if I were driving a car, walking the dog or even peddling a bicycle.

With devices like Apple’s iPhone and Google’s upcoming Android platform the possibilities are nearly endless.

Let’s push the limits.

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Some resources that can help you get started with mobile web development:

Dev.Mobi – A website dedicated to mobile web development
Blue Flavor’s web development guide is a good start – and they’re nice folks too.
Mobile Web Development – by Nirav Mehta a more in-depth look at mobile development
Mobile Web Design – by Cameron Moll – a great introduction to the mobile web

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