Battle for mobile search

Catherine Holahan
22 Feb 2007

When it comes to Web search engines, Google is the winner by a wide margin, handling nearly twice the requests of its closest competitor, Yahoo! After all, people use Google as a verb synonymous with Internet research. But while cell phone users may say they're going to 'Google' something on the Web, there's a good chance the search engine giant may not even be involved.

The emergence of Internet-connected mobile phones, or what's known as the Mobile Web, is turning the wireless search business into a horse race"”one that's too close to call. Unlike its dominant role in search on the computer, Google's (GOOG) slim U.S. lead in search via mobile phones is far from secure.

Google is the early front-runner in the U.S., with Yahoo hot on its heels, according to M:Metrics, a researcher that focuses on the mobile market. The company estimates Google had about 4.75 million U.S. subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2006, roughly 1.1 million more than Yahoo (YHOO).

Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN Mobile was a distant third with slightly under a million subscribers. Google does have a lead worldwide thanks, in part, to deals with leading telecom companies in China, India, Japan, and Europe.

Still Wide Open

But Google and Yahoo may not even be the true leaders. Medio Systems, a four-year-old startup, is quietly powering the default search feature on many phones from Verizon (VZ), T-Mobile (DT), and Amp'd Mobile services, among others.

Trouble is, M:Metrics and other researchers don't track Medio because its search engine is bundled into other wireless carriers' offerings. Medio chief executive and co-founder Brian Lent says his 'white label' search engine actually has more users than Google's mobile product. 'What we see is that someone who goes to Google search will often switch and use our product,' says Lent.

Regardless of who is leading at the moment, the mobile search field is wide open. What's more, though brand matters to mobile users, it seems that service matters even more. 'To think that you have a straight line from Internet success over to mobile is missing what is happening in the marketplace,' says M:Metric senior analyst Mark Donovan. 'This market is up for grabs.'

That's why startups and search giants alike have scrambled to come out with the killer application for mobile, launching a stream of new search products within the past several months. At stake is a global advertising market estimated to reach roughly $11.4 billion by 2011 (see, 11/28/06, 'Ads Migrate to Mobile Handsets'). Worldwide marketing revenue from online search overall is expected to reach $27.4 billion by 2010, according to Oppenheimer & Co., a national investment company.

Howdy Partners

Take Yahoo. On Feb. 12 the company launched a new test version of its 'Yahoo! Go for Mobile 2.0' service. The product, which will be supported by more than 100 types of mobile phones, allows consumers to search directly from Yahoo's map service, making it easier to find the nearest coffee shop when on the go.

The announcement came on the same day that Yahoo officially added LG Electronics to a list of partnerships with mobile device manufacturers including Motorola (MOT), Samsung, Nokia (NOK), and BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion (RIMM).

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