Although only a small percentage of mobile users use search, a panel of mobile professionals in Hong Kong agreed it has huge potential and is likely to be the closest thing to a killer mobile app.
They point to the fact that search is the most popular function on a PC Web browser. And just last month Google teamed up with KDDI to provide its 'au' users with search services and is in talks with China Mobile to launch a search engine for mobile services in China.
The key, according to William Mar, CSL's assistant GM of mobile devices and technology, is ease of use and quick results. 'On a PC the user can multitask and do other things while waiting for a search, but mobile search is focused so the user expects an instant response.'
With an estimated 40% of PC Web searches reported unsuccessful by some surveys, that's quite a challenge given the screen size and access speed of handsets.
'Mobile search is still hard to use. The interface is not easy to use - it sucks,' said Alan Zhang, senior business development manager of Baidu.com, the biggest search engine in China with a 67% market share.
CSL's Mar said content is not currently designed for the mobile format and the whole value chain has to be involved and learn from consumers. To develop a simple and easy to use mobile platform close cooperation is needed between all the stakeholders to get the display right, said Selina Chan, regional director of MSN's information services and merchant platforms.
Lawrence Wan, business manager of PCCW Directories, insisted that local search is vital for uptake, reflected in the fact that about 20% of the US Web population searches for local business info and mapping sites rank as the top search activity. But he added that search behavior differs from market to market. 'In the US, where YPs [yellow pages] are free, users are willing to pay for local content, but not in China where yellow page listing are paid for.'
Zhang noted that local search only accounts for a small part of search in China, where users are more interested in downloads, such as the exchange of music. 'Local search is not popular now, but is coming in a few years.'
Wan said that younger users are more focused on searches for entertainment while older people have more functional usage patterns, such as finding email addresses and maps. Giving the example of Verizon's SuperPages in the US, he said operators should start with basic listings, then add value with maps and reviews of restaurants and hotels, which create potential space for ads. The user currently pays, but there's movement toward paid ads.
MSN's Chan pointed out that the business model is still unclear moving forward, with service providers experimenting with paid for call and paid per click. Wan said he believes users shouldn't pay and sees the ad money eventually 'following eyeballs' to the sites with the most visited content.
About 150 people from the mobile industry attended the second Mobile Monday gathering of the Hong Kong chapter to listen to a discussion on mobile search. Mobile Monday, first launched in Finland in 2000 to foster business development through virtual and live networking events, now has 22 chapters around the world.