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Microsoft is shutting down the Tellme-powered 800-Bing-411 line on July 1, 2012 (it was originally supposed to be June 1). Bing 411 was arguably the best of the several "Free DA" services in the market, which was launched by 1-800-Free-411.
In 2004 when Jingle Networks' 800-Free-411 appeared it made enormous sense. It was an ad-supported DA service that captured users' directional intent (just like search) and could deliver ad impressions against those queries. Some analyst firms assumed it would lead to billions in mobile ad revenue (audio ads). We also thought it would be a much bigger deal than it turned out to be.
I had called it "mobile search for the rest of us." However, the rapid rise of smartphone adoption after 2007 had a lot to do with the demise of Free DA. At one point there were a growing number or competitors in this this market sub-segment:
Most of these are either defunct or languishing. Goog411 turned out to be the voice tuning and training wheels for Android voice search. Accordingly, Google got the utterances it needed and shut the service down a few years ago.
In April 2011, Marchex acquired Jingle Networks for $62 million in cash and stock. The primary reason Marchex acquired Jingle was not for 800-Free-411 but for its carrier and other relationships and its more recently developed ad network.
Whether because the services weren't sufficiently promoted or didn't quite work as promised -- again Bing's was quite good at one point -- or whether smartphones simply offered more control and capabilities, it's hard to say why the market never really developed. Certainly the consumer logic was there but the revenues and usage never materialized.
See related: Bing 411’s Three-Year Run Ends June 1
For some time smartphones have been outselling PCs. And last week hardware tracking firm Canalys confirmed this was the case for the full year 2011.
The firm includes tablets -- it calls them "pads" -- in PC shipments. If it had not done so the numbers would look worse for the PC industry. Overall, there were 488 million smartphones "shipped" (a metric I think has dubious value) vs. 415 million PCs. However 63 million of those are "pads."
Deducting pads from the PC shipments, the number is reduced to 352 million for the year. What that means is that approximately 136 million more smartphones shipped than PCs. The discrepancy gets even larger (200 million) we include "pads" in a broader "mobile devices" category:
Below are the Q4 and full year 2011 smartphone shipments figures.
I'm in favor of eliminating the "shipped" metric, which is not necessarily representative of consumer purchases or devices actually in market. However the larger point here is merely to call out the growing gap between "mobile devices," broadly defined, and more traditional PCs.
Marchex has acquired Jingle Networks, which operates the 800-Free-411 consumer service and a mobile ad network. The acquisition is valued at $62.5 million and is a mix of cash and stock. Jingle had previously raised roughly $70 million since it was founded in 2004 in multiple rounds from investors.
The acquisition will boost the Marchex Call Advertising Network and (finally) provides Jingle with an exit. Jingle launched with terrific fanfare and seemed like a great option for mobile callers seeking to avoid growing 411 fees. However, the growth of smartphones has taken a toll (so to speak) on directory assistance call volumes and they continuing to erode albeit at a relatively stable pace.
Compared to traditional carriers, Jingle had a more interesting and diversified model than traditional 411. (Google shuttered its Jingle competitor, 800-GOOG-411 last year.) The best of the free 411 services was Microsoft's, Bing-411, which continues to operate.
Marchex says that the addition of Jingle's calls and mobile network to its own will deliver "annualized reach of more than 500 million phone calls across digital media." The company says that Jingle's revenues will be $26 million in 2011. Call-based advertising will now constitute "75% of [Marchex's] revenues on an annualized basis by the end of 2011."
Marchex says that the overall market for calls is worth $179 billion annually and includes both online and offline media. These are ads "intended to generate calls." The company also says that some of the campaigns on its call network generate 10X response and conversions from consumers vs. clicks.
Canada's Yellow Pages Group annonced that its popular YPG mobile app would be pre-loaded on some BlackBerry devices from carrier TELUS:
Starting in October, TELUS will preload the popular Yellow Pages™ mobile application on select TELUS BlackBerry™ smartphones activated by TELUS consumer clients. The app, which has already been downloaded over one million times, allows users to quickly look up information about millions of Canadian businesses by category, name, or location. Business lookups conducted on the TELUS mobile web portal will also be powered by the YellowPages.ca search engine.
But what's most interesting is that the app will include connection to an enhanced DA/concierge service:
This partnership also includes options for TELUS mobile customers to complete a voice-assisted search and to receive confirmation or address information via text message. An optional "concierge" service will also be made available allowing mobile users to connect with a TELUS 411 agent to provide additional assistance such as driving directions or accommodation reservations related to search results.
There's no word on pricing in the press release but I suspect this service is billed on a per call basis. But because of its tie-in with the YPG app it is differently positioned than pure DA. You'll invoke it when you need specific, additional help. I'll be interested to hear how the app and the DA feature work together and how popular the enhanced service is.
To my knowledge this is a novel implementation and integration of DA into an app, although I know that Tellme had some very ambitious and non-traditional plans for "enhanced" DA services (which may never be realized).
Although Microsoft chose not to provide us with a demo unit this time, we've come to understand that the company has done an excellent job of integrating Tellme's speech recognition features into the Windows Mobile 7 workflows. Greg Sterling's post from the Bing event noted the integration of Tellme in passing and provided this link to a video demonstration. The Speech@Microsoft group has adopted the "press and hold the home key" convention to invoke speech recognition which, in turn, can be used for voice dialing, to search for local businesses or to launch one of the apps on the device.
The latter two services reflect an equally deep integration of Bing and Bing Maps as the default search engine and geographic information services, respectively. As Greg notes, contrary to some of the early, very critical, reviews of the Windows Mobile 7 OS, invoking and providing commands to apps doesn't have to involve never-ending scrolling - just a few well-chosen utterances. A Microsoft spokesperson noted that alternative search service providers would be able to submit "apps or hubs for the Windows Phone 7", but it is unclear (and doubtful) that they would enjoy the same level of integration with Tellme's voice command structure.
Yelp said that in May it had 32 million unique visitors, making it one of the leading local sites on the Internet. The company also released some data about iPhone usage, which are quite impressive. This is verbatim from the associated Yelp blog post:
Sites like Zillow and Trulia have expressed that about 10% to 15% of traffic comes from their mobile apps. The Yelp number is huge by comparison and shows how significant mobile has become to the company's overall brand and strategy.
Yelp's content and use cases, in most cases, are a direct fit for mobile. Non entertainment related verticals might not see the same levels of traffic and usage. But the data above illustrate that the mobile market and mobile strategies cannot be put off by publishers and advertisers for much longer.
Yelp has also taken another step in the direction of Foursquare et al by adding badges:
Now when a user checks-in to a combination of businesses, they will be able to earn "Yelp Badges." Badges you earn will help show off where you're checking in. For example, if a yelper loves to get their nigiri on at sushi restaurants, they can earn the "Sushi Sensei" badge . . . Once earned, badges can be shared with friends both via the Yelp iPhone app, as well as on Twitter and Facebook.
If users are checking into the same businesses in a given time period and/or neighborhood, they can also earn "Royal" status. Got the most check-ins at a business? You're the Duke, good sir (or Duchess, for the ladies). Most Dukedoms in a 'hood? You're the Baron! Most in the city? You're the King! . . .
The free directory assistance business seems very compelling -- on paper. Almost 80% of the mobile market in the US doesn't have a smartphone. Directory assistance (411) costs $1.75 or more per call. Yet the market has failed to materialize despite repeated efforts by various companies, including Google and Microsoft.
Now a VC-backed, Indian company is trying it again with the US launch of 1-880-JustDial:
1-800-Justdial announced today the launch of its free, personalized directory assistance and category search services in the United States. Consumers can now dial 1-800-Justdial (1-800-587-8342) from anywhere in the country to obtain business listings and conduct category searches.
Justdial operators are available 24 hours a day and always provide one ring pickup service, enabling users to speak to a live person and obtain fast local search results or recommendations for nearby restaurants, movies, events, florists, plumbers, dentists, car rentals, or almost any other product or service under the sun.
Justdial offers more than simple local business search, making it quick and easy for people at home, at work, or on-the-go to receive information like listings and local recommendations, or even nearby hotels in a certain price range. Callers simply dial 1-800-Justdial (1-800-587-8342), reach a live operator that picks up within one ring and state what listing or category of product or service they are looking for by neighborhood, zip code or even intersection. Justdial sends callers relevant listings via e-mail or text message and also connects callers to the listing of their choice, all free of charge. Users can register their phone number and address for maximum speed and personalization when using Justdial, enabling the operator to recognize the user and provide recommendations and listings near their home, work, or any other registered address or location.
The service promises real people (probably Indian agents using the Internet) and flexible search parameters. We haven't tested the service yet so can't confirm or contradict any of the company's claims. Other services that offer "human-powered search" on mobile devices include kgb and ChaCha (although more and more queries are machine answered) -- and then there are myriad Q&A services such as Aardvark (Google) or Quora.
Just Dial said that it has proved the model in India, answering more than 70 million calls in 2009.
A service like this behind a traditional 411 number would have a shot and customer loyalty and repeat usage. However I'm very skeptical that the service will break out and become a mainstream success. Jingle Networks' 1-800-Free-411 has been around for years and not been able to grow beyond a certain point.
There are two trends that conspire against these services:
That was fast. After launching its iPhone app late last year, barely six months ago, and raising approximately $24 million in funding word now comes that Siri has been acquired by Apple. Siri is an "artificial intelligence" platform that manages speech and text input and connects "natural language" requests to actions such as buying movie tickets, getting taxis or making restaurant reservations.
The Siri technology comes out of SRI with funding from DARPA and exists “in the middle,” between the speech recognition and the back end, tied to the third party APIs. There’s a very sophisticated “engine” and algorithm there that enables the service to understand queries and commands such as:
It seeks to move beyond "search results" to their ultimate objective: getting some task accomplished. Indeed in some respects it is/was the ultimate local-mobile application. Now Apple owns it.
In the growing myopia of "Google vs. Apple" coverage people can only see the acquisition as part of some larger "war" between the two companies or an effort to block or thwart the other. However, Siri's technology independently could well have broad application to the iPhone and iPad regardless of the existence of Google or its mobile ambitions. But it doesn't hurt in that horse race either.
Dan Miller has some insightful thoughts and perspective in his post.
AT&T Interactive has added voice search to its YPMobile app. The speech technology comes out of AT&T Interactive labs, which previously released the quasi-experimental "Speak4It" local search app.
In my brief testing this morning I found the app does well with traditional business name and category queries. There were no mistakes. But it doesn't do well with "semantic" queries such as "What's going on this weekend for kids?" That sort of search is the specialty of "personal assistant" Siri, which does a good job with unstructured queries.
In fairness to the YP Mobile app, most people have been trained to use voice search to do a version of directory assistance-style lookups. And for those it will do fine. There are now at least 10 voice search-driven local apps in the iTunes app store from Nuance, Google, Vlingo, Microsoft, AT&T and others.
Voice search will at some point be a mandatory part of any local-mobile search tool.
I also expect that at some point AT&T will offer a Buzz.com mobile app. It would be intriguing and useful if voice were integrated into that hypothetical app.
Glympse is a simple and elegant mobile app that allows "real-time location sharing" via mobile devices. Users who receive a "Glympse" (via email or otherwise) can see the movements of the person in real time on a map, as he or she travels to a destination. We wrote about it when the company launched a year ago. It has versions that work on the iPhone/iPod Touch, Android, Windows Mobile and of course now the iPad. Glympse continues to build out its offering and service and today announced real-time location sharing on Facebook:
Glympse goes beyond static "check-ins" or a simple map showing your location, and allows iPhone™ and Android users to quickly update their status via their mobile phone so their Facebook friends can follow their real-time movements on a dynamic map, for a set period of time.
It also works via Twitter too (although you only get the link via Twitter and must click away for the rich media experience).
The person receiving the "Glympse" doesn't need any software online or on a handset to see the map and movement. That functionality has now been extended to the Facebook news feed so that Glympse user movements and the related map can be viewed in the Facebook news feed like you might view a video in-line.
Here's a screenshot:
Glympse users can share their location and subsequent movement with one person or many depending on whom they choose to notify. (What's not entirely clear to me is whether, when I send a Glympse to my wife or friend, all their Facebook contacts get to see my movements too. I supsect there are controls and that's not the case.)
The video below shows a demonstration of how it works and how it operates on Facebook:
Glympse has lots of privacy controls so its not a stalker app. Even if someone forgets that Glympse is on -- it requires multitasking support to work "in the background" so won't work continuously on the iPhone until OS 4 -- it will expire after a limited duration.
I also find it interesting that, from a positioning standpoint, the company is now trying to ride the "check in" wave, which makes sense: "Glympse . . . goes beyond static "check-ins" or a simple map showing your location . . . "
I think the Facebook application and integration will drive considerable awareness and growth for Glympse. There's tremendous utility here for people, but the new Facebook integration adds a novel and "fun" dimension as people can now post their movements to their networks (e.g., trip across the country, etc.).
Social search/answer engine Aardvark was recently acquired by Google for $50 million. Now former Facebook employees have created a very similar new service, Quora, that very much resembles Aardvark and to a lesser degree competitors kgb and ChaCha, which recently launched a Facebook site/service.
Quora offers users the ability to specify areas and topics of interest and expertise, and ask the community open-ended questions on any subject. There are some other novel features, such as the ability to follow topics, specific questions and people. It also reminds me a little bit of LinkedIn Q&A.
Quora has reportedly raised $11 million in funding.
kgb has launched a new "answers" website that leverages the company's database of information and historical answers to user questions. The database returns a list of up to six possible matches to each query (see below).
In about 10 quick and pretty varied searches I performed off the top of my head there were answers or responses to nine of them. The one question the service didn't "get" was: Which is healthier blueberries or kiwis? The question is automatically populated in a field for submission to a human agent if the user wants additional information or the desired answer isn't there among the choices.
As an aside, there's also interesting data that can come out of this -- and which the company should develop -- around trending topics and questions (as with search queries) that reflect news events and popular culture.
Here's an example of what an answer page looks like:
This expands the service considerably, which also offers mobile apps and an SMS option. While there are ads on the website the primary model is per-use fees of $0.99. However, the mobile apps allow for similar exploration and discovery of a certain amount of information for free.
Competitor ChaCha is entirely ad supported and now relying heavily on its automated database and less on human agents. Aardvark, just acquired by Google for a reported $50 million, is a peer-to-peer Q&A network in mobile and on the PC. It's also free and had only an embryonic business model surrounding the concept of transactions or affiliate hand offs, similar to what Siri is doing.
While ChaCha has struggled somewhat to find advertisers willing to take the plunge (despite good metrics), kgb also faces challenges in growing usage amid a sea of free offerings in the market. However this new kgb Answers site should help increase the visibility of the service and potentially boost frequency and engagement.
In a discussion with the company last week, I was told its Super Bowl commercial created a massive traffic spike and almost crashed the company's systems, which reportedly survived the onslaught.
ChaCha introduced a new Facebook app that submits questions to users' Facebook networks and to ChaCha simultaneously:
With ChaCha's Facebook App, when individuals pose a question to any friends within their social network, the question is also automatically submitted to ChaCha. ChaCha rapidly returns an answer from its huge database of hundreds of millions of answers. ChaCha will show up as another friend with an answer to the Facebook user along with answers from their network of friends. Users can also select "add to profile" to get a permanent "Ask ChaCha" prompt on their profile pages.
Additionally, Facebookers can select "share" when they submit a question, and the question and answers will post to their friends' Facebook walls. Individuals receive points for questions they answer for pure recognition and fun, and based on points attainment, users receive different titles which are displayed on a leader board.
It allows users to ask select members of their networks or the entire network.
There are a few interesting things going on here in my mind:
Google just bought Aardvark for $50 million. ChaCha might be attractive to Microsoft or another potential buyer for similar reasons; however 90%+ of ChaCha's answers are coming via an index of previously answered questions for cost/efficiency reasons. That database will provide the answers for these questions rather than real-time human responses; Facebook provides the human answers in this case.
The company also says it's answering a million questions a day. Though very impressive that's much smaller volume than a conventional search engine.
ChaCha has raised $52 million in several funding rounds.
Update: CEO Scott Jones provided the following clarifications and addition information to me in email:
Yes, we are at a million answers a day… which is less than online search, but perhaps a better comparison is that we’re ahead of google’s mobile text answers service which has been out for a few years AND it is radically higher than aardvark’s daily answers (through both web and iphones).
In addition to facebookers answering questions, we also will continue to have guides answering questions. Both human/social ingredients are important to provide relevance (which google lacks), accuracy (which google also lacks, hence the million results dumped in your lap for you to figure it out), and speed (which aardvark lacks even when they sometimes do provide an answer).
kgb offered a couple of commercials (that I saw) last night during the Super Bowl. I enjoyed the sumo wrestler spot especially and thought it was effective. Unlike many commercials broadcast during the game the humor and content of the spot was directly tied to the brand and the service.
This morning ChaCha put out a release that found the Doritos commercials were the favorites of the teen and young adult ChaCha user base:
ChaCha, the service that allows users to go online, call or text questions on mobile phones and receive free answers within minutes, says that a poll of its users, primarily teens and young adults, who asked questions during the Super Bowl last night showed that their favorite commercials were for Doritos. The ones they disliked most were for Go Daddy and the one most talked about, as measured by text traffic, was Denny's, mostly asking where was the nearest location of the restaurant to collect their free meal on Tuesday. Inquiries about the teams involved also skyrocketed with 60,000 (about 10x the norm) asked throughout Super Bowl Sunday.
Here's the kgb "I Surrender" commercial.
In general most of the commercials last night I thought were pretty weak. "Green police" (Audi) was another commercial I liked quite a bit.
We've been writing about Aardvark since before its launch. I originally characterized it as an "answer community," but the company recently adopted the moniker "social search engine," which is a bit more familiar and something of an established "category" of search engines.
Last week Aardvark co-founder Damon Horowitz (one of the architects of its algorithm) and Sepandar Kamvar (who was behind Google's personalized search and now teaches at Stanford) wrote a research paper called “Anatomy of a Large Scale Social Search Engine." The document is something of an homage to an earlier paper written by then Stanford grad students Sergey Brin and Larry Page "Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine."
The paper goes into how queries are analyzed and routed among people and offers a great deal of interesting information and data that I won't summarize here. You can get the report and take a look if you're interested. What I'm going to highlight is the distribution of queries:
A substantial portion of these fall into the traditional "local" (offline) categories as one might expect. But the range of queries is quite broad: people looking for advice and general information from "experts." Furthermore, here's what the paper says about mobile usage of Aardvark:
Mobile users had an average of 3.6322 sessions per month, which is surprising on two levels. First, mobile users of Aardvark are more active than desktop users. (As a point of comparison, on Google, desktop users are almost 3 times as active as mobile users.) Second, mobile users of Aardvark are almost as active in absolute terms as mobile users of Google (who have on average 5.68 mobile sessions per month). This is quite surprising for a service that has only been available for 6 months.
We believe this is for two reasons. First, browsing through traditional web search results on a phone is unwieldy. On a phone, it’s more useful to get a single short answer that’s crafted exactly to your query. Second, people are used to using natural language with phones, and so Aardvark’s query model feels natural in that context. These considerations (and early experiments) also suggest that Aardvark mobile users will be similarly active with voice-based search.
Mobile usage is more active than PC usage; this makes sense given the many information sources on the PC (alternatives to Aardvark), as well as the challenges of using conventional search on mobile devices (notwithstanding voice search).
Aardvark, kgb and ChaCha exist along a continuum in a broadly similar category of peer-to-peer search -- a kind of DA 2.0. The three have different business models and different degrees of usage and penetration. Aardvark, similar to Siri, ultimately seeks to make money from affiliate referrals (but may develop a premium version for certain segments of users). ChaCha is entirely ad supported; kgb uses a more traditional per query consumer-pays model.
Free DA provider Jingle Networks (800-Free-411) has launched iPhone and Android apps. They're generally useful and visually appealing but otherwise unremarkable, directory style apps. The noteworthy thing is that the company is seeking to grow volume and extend the brand through these apps. It also offers additional advertising opportunities for Jingle in mobile.
Jingle says that it does about 15 million calls per month or 180 million per year, compared with billions of calls annually in the US directory assistance market. Jingle is arguably the best known of the "free DA" providers, followed by Google's Goog 411 service. The most complete is Bing 411, powered by Tellme.
Somewhat strangely, the public has not raced to adopt these services as once was expected (despite the money savings they offer). Lack of awareness is one factor, as is "inertia" around the number 411. Yet traditional directory assistance volumes also are in significant decline in the US. The decline of landlines and the rise of smartphones are likely also directly affecting traditional DA. Smartphones in particular make content and information available to users that far exceeds what is typically offered on a DA call.
kgb, which operates a "wholesale DA" business as well as a consumer-facing information services in the US and Europe, has reacted to the market with clever "reinventions" of the traditional offering on the iPhone (kgb answers and Knowtopia), which adds a game-like dimension to the service. The company is also doing Super Bowl advertising in an effort to further build awareness.
Text answer provider kgb continues to broaden the depth and breadth of its service offerings by expanding its roster of supported phones to include popular RIM-branded smartphones while, at the same time, delivering a new "entertainment" app, called Knowtopia, to iPhone owners. Today its flagship, premium application - kgb Answers - is available to owners of the Blackberry Curve 8300 series™, Curve 8900™, World Phone 8800 series™, Bold 9000™, 9600 Tour™, and the Storm 9500 series™.
As we noted here, the app launched for iPhonea and Android-based devices in October. It marked a radical "revisioning" of the text-answering procedure, making it visually interesting and more entertaining. With Knowtopia, kgb takes the entertainment aspects of the answer business to the next level, transforming it into a never-ending mobile trivia contest. This is an organic extension of kgb's core resource, the network of "special agents" and the database of knowledge (both questions and answers) that they have compiled over the past year of operation.
Knowtopia seems like an ideal "time sink", akin to Twittering, but more conducive to face-to-face interaction. The application intersperses poll questions with trivia questions to promote interactivity. It also acts as a portal into the kgbkgb SMS text-based answers sevice reached through the 542542 short code. Thus, the new application extends the kgb franchise into the entertainment realm in a way that is tightly linked to the company strategy of delivering content on a pay-per-query basis.
Vlingo released what it calls the top 10 voice-powered mobile Web searches of 2009:
On first glance, this list is considerably different than Nielsen's top mobile sites of 2009:
Here's Yahoo's top PC search queries list of 2009:
Here's Google's main list:
As TechCrunch correctly points out the Vlingo list is "action oriented" -- people trying to accomplish some objective out in the world or on the go.
As we long ago discovered people calling directory assistance (the earliest form of "voice search") were usually “in the car" (where other search methods are more difficult). DA callers also emerge as “qualified” sales prospects typically on their way to potentially conduct a transaction in a store or other offline business.
The presence of YouTube on the top of the Vlingo list is curious, although smartphone users consume a great deal of mobile video. The presence of social networks however is consistent with broader mobile Internet trends.
The Vlingo search query results above are coming, of course, via Google or Yahoo search. So in that larger context, there's general consistency between the Vlingo and Nielsen lists above. However, I wonder if the "yellow pages" and "white pages" queries are not "yellowpages.com" or "whitepage.com" but stand-ins for a broader range of local and business or people searches.
My belief is that while mobile search queries will skew local in the near term they'll be generally comparable with PC search queries over time.
WhitePages.com follows up its popular iPhone app with a full-featured one for Android devices. This follows the company's successful launch of Caller ID as a stand alone Android application (paid app). The Android app largely mirrors the iPhone app and features:
Here's a video demo and tour of the Android app's features:
WhitePages.com is hugely successful, if seldom discussed, online, with roughly 19 million monthly users in the US.