The Search is On

Users can't buy content if they can't find it, so an increasing number of mobile operators and content providers are scrambling to offer search capabilities, as well as an array of tools to encourage users to explore more of the content at their fingertips. The raft of recent announcements, involving market giants like Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and a growing number of white-label search providers including InfoSpace, Fast Search & Transfer, Medio Systems, and JumpTap shows that carriers and content companies are excited about mobile search. However, many companies are effectively limiting their services and the relevance of search results by partnering with a single search engine.

T-Mobile has teamed up with Google to offer web 'n' walk; Verizon Wireless sealed a deal with Medio Systems to offer a Verizon-branded search service; 3, a U.K.-based mobile multimedia company, tied up with Yahoo! to offer a mix of content and mobile applications; and the list goes on.

But a business model based on an alliance with just one search engine is fundamentally flawed. Japanese mobile operator NTT DoCoMo read the writing on the wall and created a mobile search ecosystem of over a dozen engines, directories, and content companies. Each brings its own index and expertise—delivering i-mode subscribers a well-rounded list of relevant results.

On the vendor side, Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia has launched an initiative to offer customers a comprehensive out-of-the-box mobile search experience that delivers vertical search through a variety of search and content partners. What's more, Nokia's approach pays close attention to user context, enabling a mobile search approach for every category and search situation.

Such examples underline the critical importance of offering users a broad choice of search engines and a balanced set of relevant results going forward. They also portend the proliferation of mobile search engines and the emergence of a new breed of mobile-enabled content companies that, like search engines, provide users the ability to search their own content as well as content found on their affiliated partner sites.

Unfortunately, most mobile content will likely remain virtually invisible to consumers unless the industry finds a way to aggregate search results into a comprehensive set of compelling results. Put another way, the mobile space desperately needs an impresario with the capabilities mix to combine a multitude of search results, allowing users the freedom to effectively search across a variety of content providers with one standard interface.

That impresario may be Mobile Content Networks (MCN), a U.S.-based mobile search company just coming out of stealth mode. MCN, which is a search platform provider, not a search engine, may shake up the search industry and throw open the door to content companies that have been absent from the mobile party. This is because MCN can incorporate the results of any or all search engines into a relevant subset of results. More importantly, MCN also connects with the content growing and flourishing under the radar, such as blogs, user-generated content, and all of that legendary "long tail" content.

Marc Bookman, MCN's CEO, says the company saw early on that a federated enterprise search approach would aid the mobile industry. "The mobile space has many of the same characteristics as the enterprise with respect to heterogeneity of content, user-access rights issues, the sophistication of its developer community, and the incompatibility of devices and systems," Bookman says. "We hypothesized that what worked in the enterprise could work with mobile—and added features to deal with the plethora of content, user-interface, and business-process issues."

The result is what MCN calls a "real-time mobile search platform," which automatically accesses the freshest content and places it prominently in the search results. Put practically, a road warrior searching for financial news won't have to settle for the company website; she can connect with the latest stock quotes and the highlights from a dedicated service like Reuters or Dow Jones.

It is not just about ensuring the quality of mobile search, though; it's about delivering users a choice of the sources they search. Accustomed to having their pick of search engines and content on the "fixed" internet, users demand similar flexibility from mobile searches. Against this backdrop, MCN's technology doesn't just enable a more open approach to mobile search; it lays the groundwork for (yikes!) Web 3.0, a converged and connected space where all content providers—be they pro or the users themselves—can reach out everyone, everywhere.