By now, most of us know the basic ingredients for a good website: robust content comprising multimedia experiences from traditional text to the newest video applications. Add in a splash of all the bells and whistles that make a website dynamic and engaging and fold in a solid search technology that makes all of that content findable and usable, and you've got a winner.
The mobile experience, though, is still a relatively new concept compared to the traditional web-so figuring out how to provide the best mobile search interface remains a work in progress. Yet organizations are wasting no time working with the technology to expand their traditional web search capabilities into the mobile space. The immediate goal is to learn just what the tools need to offer through search interfaces in order to provide an equally satisfying and effective search solution for mobile site visitors.
It's a goal the companies know they can't waste time working to achieve. People are increasingly turning to their mobile devices as web searching tools. They are beginning to rely heavily on mobile search to quickly find the information they need to make decisions about anything from treatment of a health condition to what kind of car they want to buy. These searchers don't have time to waste. They want to enter just one or two keywords and receive their answer within the first batch of search results.
"From the customers' point of view, they want to have the most up to date, accurate information, no matter what they're doing," says Katrina Gosek, media and publishing market lead for the ebusiness team at Endeca Technologies, a search application provider. "The consumer wants the same information across all channels."
Customers in Context
To meet the demands of search users within the mobile channel, companies need to truly understand the context in which mobile users will search their content. Only then can they provide a search interface and tools that provide results that target those users' specific queries. "Search results have to have some sort of context of what is the searcher doing, and what goals the searcher has," says Sarah Glass, a researcher with Forrester Research, Inc. "Their goals, because they're moving around and about in the world, are very different. They're very immediate in nature."
In this environment, quick results are more important than ever. "It's trying to deliver an immediate solution that's relevant to that context," adds Glass. "It's very different from online to mobile. Online, people are going to research for hours and hours. On their mobile phone, they're going to find the answer and act on it, typically within an hour of doing that search query."
David Kopp, senior vice president of network and advertising services at Healthline Networks, Inc., says the healthcare information company discovered that in the healthcare space, mobile devices are used in very specific ways. Healthline Networks has noticed that the search terms people use with mobile devices are different from search terms they use on PC sites. "We categorize them as topics. They are things, for whatever reason, people are not totally comfortable searching from their PC about," explains Kopp. "They close the door and search from their mobile device."
Healthline Networks mobile users also search for physicians (name and address) from their mobile devices, which isn't surprising since they are typically traveling to an appointment when they search for such information. But, says Kopp, the searches can also intensify once users get to the physician's office. At that point, they are in the waiting room and want to do some research so they can ask better questions during their appointment, Kopp says. They also use mobile search after the visit to conduct research related to news the physician provided.
Auto Trader, a U.K.-based automotive website, uses Endeca Technologies' search solutions to power its search platform across different types of media. According to Jody Goodall, head of research and development for Trader Media at Auto Trader, the searches mobile users conduct are similar to those conducted by users of other channels. Users typically search for a particular make, model, and body style of a vehicle. They also use the search to conduct comparison shopping in order to determine what price they should pay for a vehicle and what price they should expect for a trade-in.
Mobile users often are searching for this information when they are in a car dealership and are very close to making a vehicle purchase.
Simplicity Is Key
Most companies seem to use their traditional search capabilities as the foundation and framework for their mobile offerings. Goodall says that regardless of channel, AutoTrader.co.uk offers site visitors a basic search and then gives them additional options. "You start with make, model, and then price range and you let them go from there," he says.
Healthline Networks, which utilizes its own propriety technology, optimized its Symptom Search and Treatment Search tools for mobile in order to serve
users who demand their healthcare information on-the-go. Symptom Search enables users to type in a symptom they have and get more information about
it as they seek a diagnosis. To use Treatment Search, site visitors can search by a particular condition or treatment. Interestingly, Healthline Network's RxList Pill Identifier Tool is more popular with mobile users than with web users. This helps users identify a pill that is not in its original prescription bottle. A mobile user has most likely stored the pill in a pill organizer he carries with him, while leaving the bottle that contains the prescription label at home.
While most traditional websites today are loaded with content and special features, a more toned-down approach seems to be the way to go when creating a mobile site and search interface. Having a clear and prominent search box is important, as well as the content that people need to answer their questions-and to answer them quickly.
While companies such as Auto Trader and Healthline Networks do offer similar functionality in their traditional and mobile search tools, they recognize that the presentation within the mobile setting must be streamlined. "You can't have as much information on a mobile page," says Kopp. "You have to figure out how to give people the right balance of content and navigation. Navigation is not as important. Content is more important. You're trying to get users to the content as quickly as possible."
Thierry Costa, vice president of marketing at SLI Systems, agrees. He suggests presenting the search box on top of the interface. SLI Systems provides search solutions for ecommerce websites. The Catholic Co., which sells Catholic books and gifts online, adjusted the visuals on its mobile site to make it more pleasing to the eye in that medium. "We don't have the flash banner, and we pulled out a lot of the niceties on the broadband website," explains Nicholas Cole, director of marketing at The Catholic Co., which utilizes SLI Systems' SLI Mobile product to power its mobile search capabilities.
Cole notes how simplified the design of the mobile homepage is for the end user. It contains the company's logo, the phone number, and a search box, as well as some of the company's top products. "Instead of having tons of calls to action and recommended products, the site contains the basics," says Cole. "People on mobile phones don't have a lot of time. It's just enough information for a customer to find what they're looking for, decide what to purchase, and make that purchase."
Understanding the Device
Cole says the mobile search functionality that The Catholic Co. provides to mobile users is the same as the search functionality PC site visitors enjoy. Users just type in their desired keywords. However, Cole says the company has already made some slight changes to improve the user experience. Users have the ability to narrow down the search results. "It's not really lacking any major ability that the full site offers," says Cole. "But we don't want to make it too complicated. Once we start complicating it, we defeat the purpose."
Customers can click on links to get more information about products, but they are not bombarded with that extra information when they conduct a
product search. "We give them access to the information, but we don't overload them with information on each page," says Cole. Users can even add an item to their carts directly from the results page.
Costa adds that organizations have to be careful with search results to ensure that they are not technologically cumbersome for mobile device users. "With limited bandwidth, you can't download huge pictures of products," he says. Instead, he recommends opting for thumbnail images.
Endeca's Gosek says the most important things their customers can offer the end user are faster access to the information they seek, a more simplified design, and easy-to-use navigation. Still, she notes that it's also crucial to keep the mobile device-specific applications in mind when developing mobile search capabilities. Working with those can only make the search experience an even richer one. "If you have an iPhone app, you can use the GPS and camera capabilities, and the mapping capabilities," says Gosek. "Think creatively about how you can leverage the capabilities of the device."
Last year, AutoTrader.co.uk launched an iPhone application to enable users to search for vehicles from the inventories of more than 5,000 automobile dealers. Users can create a car profile and use that to search for vehicles in their specific geographic regions based on a ZIP code or a GPS location. "We're focused on helping you very quickly and easily find the car you're looking for and effectively using the iPhone features you don't get on the website," says Goodall.
Increasing Functionality Across the Board
Most companies agree that mobile strategy continues to be an important part of business. As more people rely on their mobile devices for searches, the focus on that strategy will only increase. It will likely be driven, in part, by the increased capabilities of these devices over time.
Increased features and functionality are the goal for AutoTrader.com across all of its web channels, notes Goodall. He adds that users cannot yet sell their cars through the mobile function, but it's something the company is exploring. At this point, that capability is only available through AutoTrader.com's main site. One new feature the mobile site has is the ability for users to search for motorcycles, something site visitors had requested.
"We have a mobile development team in-house working on the development," says Goodall. "It's not going away. If anything, it's becoming more obvious that you have to cater different experiences to the devices and the users in their journey. We move a lot slower with our changes online. With mobile, there's an expectation. Things change fast and can't get stale. As phones get more powerful, as you go from 3G to 4G, you start to see there are more things you can do with it."
Kopp says that about one-third of Healthline Networks' total traffic now receives the mobile optimized experience, but with that experience comes an increase in overall engagement with end users. "We see 50% more engagement from users who get the mobile optimized experience," he says.
Goodall says AutoTrader.co.uk is continually growing its electronic userbase as people who visit the company via its mobile offerings also visit online. "It's a really deep, rich engagement," he says.
Costa says he expects more people will use their mobile devices for shopping in 2011 than they did in 2010. "In 2010, the name of the game was not to drive business, but to have a presence," he adds, noting that presence will be more of a requirement into 2011. Of course, widespread usability will remain a key challenge. Ensuring that all mobile device users can access these search capabilities, and that the search experience is a pleasant and seamless one, must be a top priority for organizations. Healthline Networks, like many companies, tracks what devices are being used to access mobile content, so these organizations know how important it is to provide device-specific solutions. Kevin Wrathall, senior product manager at Healthline Networks, says the company has noticed a big surge in traffic from users who have iPhone and Android devices.
Forrester Research's Glass notes that companies need to do what they can to minimize clicks and keep the interface simple. Interestingly, technology that has traditionally worked well on PC sites has the potential to work even better on mobile sites. For instance, use the "click to call" feature instead of adding just the telephone number to the mobile site. "Click to directions has the same unique value," explains Glass. "People are already on-the-go. They're not going to print out directions and go later. They're going to go now. Click to directions utilizes mapping technology that shows where they are, where you [the company] are, and the line in between the two points." It's a connection that mobile search will undoubtedly continue to strengthen over time.
Resources Featured in This Article
Auto Trader - www.autotrader.co.uk
The Catholic Co. - www.catholiccompany.com
Endeca Technologies - www.endeca.com
Forrester Research - www.forrester.com
Healthline Networks - www.healthline.com
SLI Systems - www.sli-systems.com