Yahoo and Mobile Search

rbaeza-mayo-2006.jpgOne of my fellow speakers at the Barcelona chapter of Mobile Monday was Ricardo Baeza-Yates Director of Yahoo! Research Barcelona. Ricardo had to leave early, so we didn’t have much of a chance for a chat, but there were some very interesting aspects of his presentation.

I think it’s fair to say that Ricardo¬†sees mobile as an adjunct to the web, as opposed to a completely separate channel and therefore his presentation was about search generally, with a few choice snippets about mobile.

The main principle about how Yahoo! approaches search is the “Wisdom of Crowds”, which means search results are honed based on tags, links and previous results to search queries. This means that they’re doing an awful lot of work into how items get tagged. In other words, if they have a picture of a banana and I’m looking for “fruit”, I’m not going to find it.

One really interesting game that explores this issue is their ESP Game. You play with an anonymous and uncontactable collaborator, by simultaneously being shown an image. You both type in tags until you have a match and then move to another. You have 2 1/2 minutes to get through and agree as many images as you can. It’s not very easy actually and demonstrates some of the complexities of accurate or intuitive tagging, as well as being quite fun.

When Ricardo moved on to talk about the difference between search on a mobile and search on a PC, there were a few surprising differences. Search on mobile uses more words, despite the comparative difficulty of inputting. I’d guess that this is down to the user wanting to be as accurate as possible, first time, rather than subsequently wanting to refine things.

The other idiosyncrasy of mobile search is that there’s more variety in the queries submitted. I can’t remember the exact figure (does anyone know?) but it was something like for PC search, the top 20 queries account for about 50% of searches, whereas in mobile,¬†the top 20 are¬†only 2%.

All the big online guns (Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft) are focusing their sights on search as the key to to unlock mobile revenues and it may well be important. I have a feeling that it won’t be quite as important as everyone assumes.

My theory is that what people want on a phone is discovery, rather than search, at least at this stage in the game. So a¬†mash-up of “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web for Your Mobile” (ironically),¬†an element of serendipity, a dose of peer ratings and smidgeon of your friends’ recommendations. This isn’t a million miles away from the Wisdom of Crowds that Ricardo spoke about in terms of how results are delivered, but maybe it calls for a different user experience.

[tags] ricardo baeza-yates, barcelona, mobile monday, yahoo!, search, discovery, mobile [/tags]

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