UK consumers are waking up to the fact that they no longer need to be in front of a PC to search the internet. Millions are turning to their mobile phone to browse the web, providing advertisers with opportunities to target consumers on the move - and the medium is expected to experience a major upturn in the coming year.
Mobile-internet browsing was first offered nearly a decade ago, but it hasn't been a resounding success, as network operators made promises they could not fulfil. The high cost for consumers has also been a big barrier, with users wary of incurring weighty charges for downloading music and video clips. In addition, sites have been badly put together and connecting has taken too long.
In January 2007 just 5.7m UK consumers went online via a wireless device, compared with 30m who logged on from a PC, according to Telephia and comScore. This puts the mobile audience at less than 20% of that for the conventional web.
Yet many believe there is potential for the mobile web, and, by implication, search. A recent survey by internet firm Hostway shows that the vast majority of consumers would use the mobile web if they could avoid hefty fees. 'Bill shock has stifled uptake,' says Martin Wilson, head of mobile marketing at Yell.com. 'There needs to be far more transparency in the industry.'
'There haven't been enough people using mobile search to convince advertisers to experiment,' adds Paul Mead, head of search at ad agency VCCP. 'It will be at least 18 months before mobile search is a cost-effective way of targeting consumers on the high street.'
In response to this, the UK's biggest network operators are now offering unlimited web access for a one-off monthly payment. Vodafone recently unveiled a £16m communications campaign to boost awareness of its WAP service, 3 is offering unlimited mobile internet access for a flat monthly fee and T-Mobile has launched a Web 'n' Walk service that offers unrestricted browsing via mobile for £7.50 a month. 'Our aim is to get as many people as possible using the mobile internet,' says Peter Northing, director of content products and services at 3. 'Then advertisers will be able to target consumers on the move more effectively.'
These offers are expected to boost mobile-web use in the second half of this year, driving internet search engines to extend their pay-per-click services onto wireless devices. The £1.2bn UK search market dwarfs the mobile marketing sector, which was valued at less than £50m last year, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau. However, Yell.com predicts that in the next few months, 49% of consumers will experiment with mobile search, providing a significant revenue stream for Google, Yahoo! and MSN.
Google has the biggest share of the sponsored mobile search sector, reaching 4.5m users in the first three months of 2007, according to mobile measurement firm M:Metrics, compared with 3.8m for Yahoo and 1.1m for MSN. In an attempt to corner the fledgling mobile market, Google extended its AdWords paid-search model to wireless devices in July last year. The service allows advertisers to bid their way to the top of the search results page on mobile phones, as on the web. 'Mobile search is a key area of development for us, given that mobile users outnumber PC users by two to one,' says Jim Holden, managing director of syndication and distribution at Google.
Take-up of Google's AdWords service has been strong, with brands keen to associate themselves with the most popular mobile searches, which centre on ringtones, music downloads and sports results. However, the size of mobile screens limits the number of sponsored links Google can offer, meaning prices are often at a premium.
David Thacker, product manager for advertising products at Google, cites the recent launch of Google Maps for mobile as an important innovation. This is an application that can be downloaded to a mobile phone and allows consumers to search for local information and directions. If you're looking for the nearest cinema, for instance, you can access a map and directions. 'This is an important area for advertisers because people will welcome useful geographical information along with search results,' says Thacker.
This area of mobile search is rapidly catching the attention of consumers and advertisers. Most of the big internet search engines and network operators are rolling out services that allow mobile users to locate their nearest pub, club or restaurant while on the move. If a consumer is looking for a pizza restaurant in Putney, for example, they type the keywords 'pizza' and 'Putney' into a search box to bring up a series of results listing the phone numbers of nearby options, as well as directions and user reviews.
Google and Yahoo! allow advertisers to bid on these highly targeted keywords on the premise that they will drive consumers in-store. Tesco, Pizza Hut and McDonald's are the brands most searched for in terms of locality, but smaller firms can also benefit from shoppers accessing the web while on the high street. As Andy Walker, chief executive of mobile marketing firm m-spatial, says: 'Those carrying out localised mobile searches are in the area and looking to make a purchase. Any way you look at it, this is solid gold for advertisers.'
Yahoo! is widely regarded as having the most sophisticated mobile-search offering. Last month it announced the UK launch of OneSearch, which allows consumers to search the entire internet from their mobile, rather than just sites created for wireless devices. It is designed to make finding information easier by returning a range of search results, such as news headlines, images and weather, on a single mobile web page. 'Mobile search has been a disappointing experience for consumers and advertisers,' says Richard Firminger, Yahoo! Search Marketing's sales director for Northern Europe. 'We're working on making the process as intuitive as possible to drive take-up.'
Another aspect that has hitherto deterred advertisers from using mobile search is the difficulty of booking a stand-alone wireless campaign. Yahoo! is seeking to remedy this with the launch of its Panama search marketing platform later this year. The enhanced offering will eventually allow brands to book cross-platform search campaigns that span PCs and mobile devices.
'Consumers want to access search facilities through fixed-line and mobile depending upon the access method available,' says Steve Page, chief executive of wireless search specialist Mobile Commerce. 'Advertisers will need to develop a holistic search strategy if they want to stay at the forefront of the consumer's mind.'
MSN is also to extend its adCenter search platform onto mobile. This will allow advertisers to target paid-search campaigns by keyword and demographics. In May, it stepped up its efforts in this area with the appointment of former O2 executive Hugh Griffiths to spearhead its wireless strategy. 'We are working to provide advertisers with innovative mobile search solutions,' he says.
MSN has already integrated its Windows Live Search facility onto the mobile platform. It has also acquired voice-activation service Tell Me Network. 'Say you were at a conference in an unfamiliar town, you could say "Indian restaurant" into your mobile and it would display the relevant search results,' explains Mel Carson, MSN's community manager for its European advertising platform. 'We're not offering the service yet, but we're working on it.'
Directory enquiries brand 118 118 offers a similar service in the UK. Powered by search engine Miva, callers are sent details by SMS of the number requested. Advertisers can then pay for their brand to be listed as a second option on this text, so the details for BA, for example, might be followed by those for Virgin Atlantic.
According to Miva president Seb Bishop, consumers are receptive to these options. 'Our research shows that 93% of consumers welcomed this second ad because it's targeted and gives them two numbers for the price of one,' he says.
Despite the flurry of activity surrounding the mobile web, experts estimate it remains about 0.6% the size of the conventional internet, and 10 years behind in development terms. A Google search for hotels on the fixed web returns more than 31m results, compared with fewer than 200,000 on the mobile internet. Similarly, research from Brand Attention shows that FTSE 100 companies are 97% less likely to have a branded presence on the mobile web.
More importantly, the consumer experience has yet to convince everyone. 'All marketers should use the mobile internet at least once,' says Neil McCarthy, commercial director of dedicated search agency Tamar. 'In most instances they will be horrified at how poorly their brand is represented.'
However, the rising penetration of WAP and 3G-enabled handsets is making the mobile internet a more compelling prospect, which Google, Yahoo! and MSN are convinced will prompt brands to invest more heavily in paid-for search to drive consumers to mobile websites.
5.7m UK consumers accessed the internet via a wireless device in January 2007.