Local Search

Picture the Power of Location-Aware Twitter

Twitter execs say the company is developing an application programming interface (API) specifically to make it easier to associate geographic location with the content of Tweets. This is something that third-party applications like Twinkle have done for some time, providing a way for mobile Twitter users to communicate with those nearby. There have also been a number of user-driven initiatives to embed geographic "hash tags" (like #SF or #NYC) so that Twitter search could sort out geographically relevant comments, questions or queries.

Reports say that the new API is designed specifically for third-party platforms like Tweetdeck and Tweetie, and will enable Twitter users to link latitude and longitude information to their Tweets. An immediate improvement would be to associate the lat/long info with the designation of a neighborhood (using the facilities of the likes of Urban Mapping or Maponics). Associating location with neighborhood should benefit people who use Twitter to learn who's nearby, what's nearby, and what can be done without getting too specific about exact location.

There is already significant evidence that geocoding Tweets will sound the alarm among privacy mavens who oppose any openings for targeted advertising delivery. Yet there is also evidence of a critical mass of Twitterers and social networkers who enjoy publishing their specific locations for the purpose of promoting local activities. Still experience with Yahoo's Fire Eagle, Google's Latitude and Brightkite's (ahem) Brightkite have cultivated an increasingly sophisticated set of mobile users who are prepared to control (and game) the location-aware Twittersphere to serve their desired ends and objectives.

Apple, AT&T, Google Imbroglio Raises Age-Old Questions About Innovation and Regulation

On the Opus Research Web site, I posted this set of thoughts about the how Apple's shunning of Google Voice and related applications:

It reads like very old news to those of us who closely follow the trials and tribulations of Google Voice on the iPhone. Nonetheless this column by Andy Kessler in the Wall Street Journal spells out all that is wrong about the way that the App Store's staff formally rejected and expunged Google Voice and related iPhone applications and enablers. Kessler subscribes to the theory (first spelled out in detail by the folks at TechCrunch) that AT&T was the eminence grise that urged Apple to nix the Google Voice application on the ostensible grounds that it duplicates too many native iPhone capabilities (and what telephony application doesn't). Kessler almost needlessly points out that the reason for the rejection is the fact that "AT&T is dying" and wants to cripple any innovation by phone app developers while it essentially overcharges for minutes of use (for voice) and kilobytes of content (for data). Whether AT&T or Apple precipitated the rejection is irrelevant. What's more important is that a stench is building around present practices that make it hard, or expensive, for application developers to bring a host of new services to market. Kessler brings up many of the memes espoused by the Freedom to Connect (F2C) mavens, urging wholesale changes in public policy surrounding communications, especially the end of exclusivity and ownership of the airwaves. This is no time for the FCC to treat incumbent carriers like the SEC and Treasury Dept. have treated large banks and mortgage facilitators. As Kessler puts it, "new features for apps like Google Voice are only limited by the imagination." Hear! Hear!

SMS Rising as Coupon Medium

Scarborough Research has found that the combined category text/email now exceeds "Internet sites" as one of the ways that US consumers obtain coupons. Newspapers remain the top source.

The firm's recent consumer survey found "that 8.6 million (8%) of U.S. households currently acquire coupons via text messages and/or email." According to Scarborough:

Those consumers who obtain coupons via text messages and/or email tend to be young, affluent, educated and female. Scarborough data shows that they are 14% more likely than the average adult to be ages 18-24; 51% more likely to be a college graduate or have an advanced degree; and six percent more likely to be female. Where do these consumers live? The top local market for text message and/or email coupon users is Providence, RI. Twelve percent of households in Providence typically obtain coupons via text message or email. Washington D.C., Atlanta, San Diego, Austin and Chicago, where 11% of households get coupons via this medium, are also among the leading markets for this activity . . .

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While I understand the logic of grouping email and SMS together, they're two distinct mediums. However, we've also found high levels of consumer acceptance of mobile offers and coupons (vs. other types of mobile advertising) in our consumer research. 

Layar 'Augmented Reality' Browser Cool but Imperfect

One way to think about the Layar "reality browser" is as a parallel universe of content and applications: a visual way to discover and render content on mobile devices using the camera as a navigation and input mechanism. However the experience as it currently stands -- while very cool -- is cumbersome and not an immediate replacement for traditional search or apps, as ways to get content.

For example, it's easier and quicker to use apps from Yelp, AroundMe, Places Directory, Superpages or numerous others to discover restaurants or other business types and locations near me than it is to scan the immediate area with the camera on my handset using Layar. Beyond the visual field, I discovered that Layar also shows results and information (often from Google) from farther away than the immediate area in front of me.

However what's interesting is that third party apps and content, including dozens of brands, apps (e.g., BrightKite, Yelp) and data providers are available through Layar. An example use case involves looking at a house for sale and pulling up the "real estate prices" app/layer (I believe the data are Europe only right now) and getting price and other information there on the camera screen. (One can do this with the Zillow and Trulia iPhone apps.)

The example given in this video uses BrightKite. Raimo van der Klein, CEO of Layar, demos Layar before a live audience. He scans the crowd in front of him and finds BrightKite users and their information. There's certainly a "wow factor" that comes with the functionality. 

That said, I'm unlikely to use Layar to find something to do or someplace to eat later today or this evening, somewhere else. But if I'm right in front of a restaurant, I might use it to get reviews and prices, etc. Similarly I assume that it will extend to products (reviews, prices) and other objects and experiences in front of me. It's much less useful when I'm not near the thing I'm considering or interested in. 

Though imperfect -- and I'm sure it will get better -- Layar takes advantage of the camera in the phone in a way that leverages the unique properties of the handset and mobile use case vs. simply duplicating local search on a PC. In apps like Layar, Zagat/NRU, Amazon and ShopSavvy, among a few others, we're seeing how the PC and mobile experiences are beginning to diverge. 

New Yelp iPhone Release Adds Content, Features

The forthcoming Yelp update for the iPhone adds a number of new features as well as brings more of Yelp over from the PC side. The new features include:

  • Sales and deals near you: this is content that exists on Yelp that will now be available via the mobile app (the change may motivate more businesses to add sales and deals)
  • Maps: offer improved search and now they now take advantage of multitouch and can be pinched, zoomed and expanded
  • Talk: this is a feature on Yelp on the PC. However, now you can read and respond (Q&A) to community posts in mobile (becomes Twitter-like on the iPhone)
  • Comment on reviews: users can choose buttons that label reviews useful, etc (ranking/rating reviews). In addition, you can send the reviewer a compliment. Those on the receiving end can also reply. 

Click the image below for a video tour of the new features:

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What's striking is that when Yelp first launched on mobile, at the behest of Palm three years ago it was kind of a fun experiment. Now mobile has become a strategic part of the business.

Acrossair's Tube Finder Shows Off Interesting Local Search Features

This video from the BBC showcases a very interesting proofpoint of the power of local mobile search. While "finding the nearest tube stop" is both peculiarly British and urban in nature, the demonstration of "augmented reality" (AR) is dramatic and could inspire quite a number of related applications to depict "who's nearby", "what's nearby" and "what-to-do nearby" as seen through the AR vantage point.

See also this related article: ‘Augmented Reality’ Is Also A Form Of Search

CityVoter Launches iPhone App

City guide and local search utility CityVoter has launched an iPhone app. I spoke briefly to CityVoter CEO Josh Walker about the app and provided some feedback. During the call, he acknowledged that it was imperfect but that the company was testing it and would develop version 2.0 after gaining customer and market feedback. He characterized it as a first effort. And with that caveat, it is a good one. 

CityVoter provides local content for media partners such as local TV affiliates and newspapers. 

The new iPhone app features categories that allow users to browse the top five businesses ("winners") in each. Some of the categories are clever or non-traditional (such as "cheap eats," "great meals," "out and active"). The difference between CityVoter and many other local sites and mobile guides is that it features "best of lists" (based on community voting) rather than an extensive list of businesses in the particular heading or category. 

The idea is efficiency. Walker pointed out that this was especially true for mobile, where users often want quick information. Here are some screens:

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The app lacks certain features that I believe would make it more useful. But the top lists, use of images and category browsing are very helpful. I told Walker that the horizontally scrolling "parade of winners" on the home screen should be modified in my view. 

The highly visual nature of the app is central to its appeal. And that's most fully expressed on the carousel screen. 

One of the interesting things about the app is that unlike some of its competitors that use categories and location awareness to find nearby businesses, CityVoter doesn't do that. It only uses location to find the user's city at the outset.

Will Android Help Google with Share in China?

The news comes that Google has lost market share in China to native search engine Baidu, which now has a roughly 65% market share according to a report recently issued by US investment firm Bernstein & Co (relying on third party data). Others put the Chinese market even more in Baidu's hands (per iResearch):

  • Baidu: 75.7%
  • Google: 19.8% of the searches, down slightly more than a point from the previous year

It struck me, however, that Android might be a "back door" for Google into increased market share.

There are going to be at least two Android-based phones in the market through China Mobile in the next month or so (from Lenovo and HTC). Smaller rival China Unicom is reportedly working with Apple to launch the iPhone in China. There are also various rumors of a Dell smartphone launch announcement in China (OS unknown) in the next several days.

China is the world's largest mobile market with 700 million subscribers -- more than twice as large as the US population. Having several Android phones in China will give Google another bite at the Chinese search market, so to speak, which may enable the company to gain search share where it doesn't seem to be able to on the PC. 

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Related: The rumored Dell phone is reportedly to be an Android device. 

Wine Apps Should Take Cue from Amazon

There are sites that write about and review every new app on the market. That's a daunting task that I decline to pursue. However I do want to make a comment about wine apps.

I saw a review of three (mostly) iPhone wine apps in the NY Times last week. There are several others in the iTunes store, but the article focused on Drync, Snooth and the Wine Enthusiast. They're a mix of paid and free, with different capabilities and data. Snooth will also show wine stores nearby that sell the desired wine.

The big missing feature in all of them is the ability to take a picture of the bottle or scan a barcode (in a store) and get pricing, reviews etc. You can do this today with ShopSavvy on the Android platform, as well as Amazon's app. I've used the ShopSavvy app for wines. I'm not sure whether Google Product Search (with barcode scanning) works for wine. 

Early on I spoke with Drync CEO Brad Rosen, formerly of Zync and then briefly of uLocate/Where after the latter acquired Zync. He told me that that they had sought to incorporate barcode scanning but that the quality of the scans (think restaurant, low light) was often poor and it compromised the user experience. 

Product photos in the Amazon example are largely being shipped off to Internet serfs somewhere in the developing world and identified (is my understanding). In some cases they're identified through image recognition and matching. But from a user-experience standpoint, taking a picture of a product (or wine) and then emailing it is much easier than keying in the varietal, brand and year. 

I think the common use case for these apps is: you're in a store and you want to know if the wine you're looking at is good and the price is reasonable. At least that's the situation I find myself in with some regularity. 

Android MyTouch 3G Finally Arrives with Sherpa

In something of anti-climax (because Google previous gave out the phones causing a lot of early reviews), the T-Mobile MyTouch 3G is finally here (it's been out in the UK for many months as the Vodafone Magic). It's much improved over the clunky G1 -- sleeker and without a physical keyboard.

I've been using it fairly heavily for the past couple months. And today I finally downloaded Sherpa from Geodelic and got a chance to play with it a bit. But before I talk about Sherpa, here's my quick rundown on the MyTouch experience: 

Highlights:

  • Voice search and voice search on Maps
  • Google Voice app
  • Camera barcode scanning and camera search apps such as ShopSavvy and Amazon
  • Multiple apps running simultaneously (if you care about this; in my experience it's not a huge advantage or benefit)

Weaknesses:

  • Dull screen resolution (by comparison to the iPhone and Pre)
  • Awkward virtual keyboard (compared to the iPhone)
  • Poorly organized apps store (Android Market)  
  • Less intuitive user experience (than iPhone)

Overall it's a terrific phone but falls short in a couple of areas because of comparisons to the iPhone.

Sherpa, by Geodelic, is one of the "marquee" apps being promoted by T-Mobile to help differentiate the phone from smartphone competitors. In my very preliminary usage I'm relatively unimpressed  however. The app has a novel carousel interface that shows nearby businesses and attractions across listings categories. Users can "search" using a query box but the app is intended to offer up listings based on handset location and usage history/preferences over time. 

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Colorful icons allow users to find restaurants, cafes, banks, shopping and so on at the touch of a button. Profile pages initiate calls and map lookups. There are also map and list views of places. 

I recognize this is "version 1.0" but the offering at a high level, and in terms of some of the interface elements, is not very different than Where, AroundMe, Places Directory, Earthcomber, MapQuest and a few others. 

Many companies, including Geodelic, Aloqa and MobilePeople, among others, are now vying to be a kind of all-encompassing local search (or discovery) tool on the mobile handset, not to mention Google Maps, Yahoo mobile (app + mobile Web) or the Microsoft mobile/Bing smartphone client. 

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To succeed in this local-mobile segment, companies need to bring together rich and complete data, solid intuitive functionality and then some differentiating feature or combination of elements. It's a very tough challenge in a crowded arena. Companies need to think also about voice and the camera as auxiliary input mechanisms -- if they make sense for the application. 

I look forward to the Geodelic iPhone app and subsequent versions of the software.

Amazon Releases Android App, Debuts New Wireless Store

Amazon released its mobile app for Android devices, allowing users to search for products with a conventional query in a search box or to use the camera take a photo or do a barcode scan to find products:

The application includes the experimental Amazon Remembers feature that gives Android users two different ways to use their device camera to find and remember items available for sale on Amazon.com: they can either snap a photo of an item or scan a barcode, and then receive a product match. For barcode scans and many photos, matches are instant. Other items take just a few minutes. 

The same functionality is available for the iPhone and BlackBerry devices (Amazon remembers).

In my limited testing the photo function was more effective than barcode scanning to identify products. For example, I took a picture of one of the Harry Potter books in my house and almost instantaneously Amazon had identified it. Other items I snapped and scanned took longer (a high end kitchen knife, an iPod stereo dock, a magazine) but the photo functionality was generally faster and better of the two methods. In one case Amazon used my overexposed picture of the iPod dock and did find the identical product (though it took about 7 minutes). 

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Regardless of method, these tools allow you to access reviews and product specs and potentially buy the item online (from Amazon or related sellers). 

ShopSavvy, another Android app with barcode scanning capability offers the ability to buy the product or item online or locally, with maps to local stores that carry and have it in stock (though data partners such as Krillion). Google Product Search also allows barcode scanning but relies on third party barcode scanning apps such as ShopSavvy, which must be downloaded first.

It's important to point out that these apps use the camera as a search tool and it's quite a bit faster and easier than typing in a query such as "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" for example. The camera and voice will emerge as key parts of the mobile search (and content discovery) experience over time. Barcode scanning and comparable camera search capabilities will become requirements for mobile shopping apps over time. 

Consumers will use these tools in stores to: Check reviews and prices and less frequently to buy products online to be shipped to their homes or elsewhere. To some degree they will boost the "look in store buy online" phenomenon, which is a minority use case today. 

Amazon has also launched a new online store for mobile handsets, similar to its online shoe store Endless:

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New Maponics "Neighborhood Boundaries" Released

In many local search situations - primarily in urban areas - the concept of "neighborhood" is more meaningful than a street address, intersection, Zip Code or V&H coordinates. That's why we've been interested in the development work that location-based services specialist Maponics has done in the area of defining "neighborhood boundaries" that can be incorporated in local search utilities. The most recent release of its "Neighborhood Boundary" features neighborhood boundaries for over 70,000 neighborhoods in 2,800 cities in North America and Europe. In each area, the software organizes business addresses is assigned to a neighborhood defined by an unambiguous single-line boundary enabling Maponics customers (in this case developers of local search sites) to build search algorithms that are free of complex code required to treat overlapping boundary issues.

In a press release, the company noted that the new release will make it easier to build local search services taht take advantage of the software's ability to:

identify residential, commercial, industrial and mixed-use neighborhoods

find neighborhoods containing theatre districts, cultural districts, museum districts, large public parks and other attractions

filter neighborhoods containing subdivisions/planned communities, airports, rail yards, military bases, and mobile home/trailer parks

identify all neighborhoods corresponding to a city’s downtown area

recognize those neighborhoods containing hospital complexes, shopping malls, education facilities and other attributes

There are especially interesting prospects in when speech-enabled mobile search is involved. It just seems more natural to say "Find a French restaurant in the theater district" rather than "Find a French restaurant near the intersection of Fifth and Forbes" (even though supporting both modes of entry is the most user-friendly approach).

As I've written before, I think that the concept of "neighborhood" is even more powerful for social, mobile services. There is less of a potential for invasion of privacy if an individual can indicate that they are "in South Park" rather than giving a precise address. What's more, mobile geo-location by its very nature is annoyingly imprecise, especially when trying to place an individual at a specific address. There's much higher probability of accuracy when assessing location by a broad, unambiguous "neighborhood" rather than address. Maponics already claims Google, Trulia, Citysearch, Yellow Book USA, infoUSA , Pitney Bowes , D&B "and many others" as customers. Look forward to more neighborhood-aware services to be introduced in the coming year.

comScore: 29 Million Smartphones in US

Measurement firm comScore says that there are 29 million smartphone owners and more than 1,000 mobile devices (obviously extending beyond smartphones) being used to "access mobile media" in the US market. The company also contends there are 233 million mobile subscribers in the US. CTIA says the number is 270 million.

Using comScore's 233 million mobile subscriber "base" and the figure of 29 million smartphone owners arrives at a penetration rate of roughly 12.5%. Our data suggest a 15% penetration level. Others in the market put the smartphone percentage even higher.

The reason the smartphone number is important is that smartphone adoption is directly correlated with mobile Internet engagement (leading indicator) and, over time, mobile ad revenues. The comScore data affirm this; smartphone users are:

  • 3x as likely to mobile browse mobile Web
  • 3x as likely to use a mobile app
  • 2x as likely to send photos or videos

The company also said that 59.5% of US mobile users have sent or received SMS messages (see our SMS marketing report here) and 25.3% have received an SMS ad.

Separately, comScore identifies the top mobile applications categories:

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Source: comScore (May, 2009)

There are "three worlds" in mobile: apps, mobile Web and SMS. In the case of smartphone owners, they will use all three to varying degrees. However non-smartphone owners are generally not going to be very engaged in the "mobile Internet" because of data plan cost (and corresponding inhibitions) and generally poor user experience.

What's interesting to contemplate is an emerging category of phones that exists between low-end feature phones and the iPhone and its bretheren. This category is represented by INQ's "social mobiles," phones offering built-in apps that provide a better experience on Facebook, Skype, Twitter: 

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According to the release:

The new phones offer high-spec functionality without the hefty price tag - shaking up the market by giving operators a unique proposition - a 3G social mobile with the speed, usability and suite of applications capable of driving data usage in the mass market.

The INQ Chat 3G is the company's first qwerty-style phone, while the compact INQ Mini 3G expands the range and provides an entry-level social mobile ideal for the price-sensitive prepay market. They complement the award-winning INQ1.

For the two new phones, Twitter joins the suite of communications applications that INQ has already woven into the heart of its social mobiles: which include Facebook, Skype and Instant Messaging.

These are inexpensive phones that offer a high-end app experience around certain functions or sites. This doesn't provide an iPhone-like mobile Internet experience, nor is there an app store, just a few high use case apps specifically tailored to the phone. I suspect we'll see more of this sort of device, not a true "smartphone" but more full featured and high functioning than today's lower end phones -- especially to appeal to the price sensitive youth market.  

YouTube Local: Google's Ingress into Mobile Video Content

Today, Brian Stelter in The New York Times reported that Google's YouTube property is adding "News Near You." it is a feature that uses Web servers' (and presumably mobile network operators') ability to assess geographic location to tailor video newsfeeds. Over time it will evolve into a local video news station thanks to a program by Google and YouTube to enlist participation of local media outlets. Stelter makes a Bay Areas start-up called VidSF into the poster child for the new service, but YouTube started the program months ago and has solicited content from over 25,000 organizations who have posted video news in the past. To fill the inventory, it touts video news from YouTube stalwarts AP, ABC News and Reuters.

To date, according to the Times' story, 200 news organizations have joined the effort. The lure is a split of advertising revenues that appear on the site. These are not significant today, but could grow as the Google search engine serves up links to YouTube in response to to searches on its much trafficked Web site. In addition YouTube itself sports robust search capabilities. 

In many ways, YouTube is giving structure - and perhaps a financial base - to an effort that has been haphazard. Stelter reports that the organizers of News Near You were surprised to find that several newspaper outlets, including the New York Times, The Dallas Morning News and Cincinatti Enquirer, were already posting video's to YouTube. What continues to be missing is a parallel effort to enlist local businesses or brands with local outlets to tailor their promotional messages to local viewers.

In short, there is a long way to go - in terms of content aggregation, audience building and proof of utility - before News Near You becomes a truly local resource but the technology elements are there.

Skyhook Releases 'How To' (Make Money) Guide for Apps Developers

Skyhook Wireless has released a white paper entitled "Developer’s Guide to In-Application Advertising: How developers today can make money off apps" (.pdf). As the title indicates, it's aimed at mobile app developers or would-be mobile developers. The document offers a range of "how to" information and advice, including best practices.

It's a kind of crash course on mobile advertising and the mobile ecosystem for those unfamilar with the wonderful world of apps or how to make money with them. In addition, there are also interesting bits of data sprinkled throughout, from Skyhook's recent survey of mobile app developers. For example, location and demographic targeting appear to be the most desired capabilities or qualities among developers:

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At the end, the report also features a list of vendors: ad networks, analytics providers and "ad enablers."

Micro-Hoo Mobile: Comments from the Conf. Call Transcript

This morning's conference call with Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer covered a broad range of topics related to the Microsoft-Yahoo! search deal. Here are some excerpts from the call transcript related to mobile:

Bartz:

We want to invest in what is really important to our future success, including winning audience properties, display advertising capabilities, and mobile experiences . . .

I'm excited that this agreement provides us with the focus and the resources to invest in our audience properties, display advertising leadership, and mobile experiences . . .

We have the option of using the Microsoft technology for the mobile Web experience. It's not exclusive as it is on the PC. But we certainly have the benefit of it, and we will start, in fact, exercising that right to do it.

So, the only difference is it's not exclusive. If somewhere down the road we wanted to switch, we could, but there's no intent in that arena.

Ballmer: 

I think all of us would say we don't know what we don't know about all of the scenarios that we're going to try to invest in, in the mobile case. If -- and Carol can speak for herself, but it won't make sense to do a whole separate crawl of the Internet for Web sites to do mobile search, and yet what that really looks like, even whether the ad model for mobile search looks like the ad model frankly for PC search, I think that's an interesting question, and this gives Yahoo! flexibility to consider that broadly.

Bartz:

think the thing is for us is what we're very interested in, just like by the way with PC-based, we're very interested on doubling down on the mobile experience to integrate search as part of that, to integrate our content such as our normal finance, news, sports, homepage, that sort of thing. So, being able to have an integrated search is important, and it also frees us up to, as I said, really invest in the other areas of the mobile experience.

So, again it's a partnership that is very supportive, and allows Yahoo! to do what it does well, and that's really be the center of information, entertainment, friends, family, activity, and that sort of thing, both the desktop and the mobile experience we're looking for.

What this means is that Yahoo!, although not required, will be using Bing algorithmic search index for mobile. It makes sense from an economic perspective. Part of the reason Yahoo! is doing this deal is to outsource technology development and reduce costs. It would thus make no sense to invest in search for mobile and not on the PC. 

Mobile search monetization and how that will go is a little more unclear. One version of the story is: direct overlap between PC and mobile. But that's been more Google's approach. Yahoo! has treated PC and mobile search separately. So I'm unsure how this will play out. In the broader relationship Yahoo! will sell "premium search" (complex campagins to large advertisers) while Microsoft will handle the self-service aspect of the business. Yahoo! will thus manage the PC + mobile search and display ad campaigns for large advertisers.

Separately, there are open questions about how differentiated Yahoo! Search and Bing will be on the PC side, but they will certainly be very differentiated on the mobile side (compare m.bing.com with new.m.yahoo.com) despite the fact that they will use the same index. 

ChaCha 'Transformers' Ads Drive Big Awareness

Mobile answers service ChaCha released the results of a case study today based on an SMS campaign run on its network for the movie Transformers. It ran in June before the movie's theatrical release. We feature this case study in a white paper publishing later today on SMS marketing.

Insight Express performed the study. Here are some datapoints and takeaways:

  • Males, 18-34, showed a dramatic 57% point increase in mobile ad awareness
  • Teens showed increases in unaided awareness, mobile ad awareness and purchase intent
  • Slightly older users, ages 19-24, responded best to the campaign with increases across all metrics
  • The campaign outperformed Insight Express' mobile norms in unaided awareness and mobile ad awareness 

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New Yahoo! Mobile Homepage (Re)Launches

Yahoo! recently launched its new, customizable homepage for the PC. Though in development for a year it represents a gutsy and postive move for the site. And in the past couple of days Yahoo! updated its mobile site, better aligning the new PC homepage with the mobile experience (though it's still not fully aligned).

The Yahoo! Mobile iPhone app was a dramatic improvement over the old Yahoo! Go application when it launched in Q1 of this year. And the new mobile Web portal in some respects offers a better experience than even the iPhone app.

The new mobile Yahoo.com is somewhat more streamlined, simpler and cleaner than the earlier version of the mobile website. It has three principal sections: Today, My Favorites and All Sites. The Today section is programmed by Yahoo and is essentially a news site featuring news, display ads and video. My Favorites is a highly customizable area that includes mail, a feed reader and incorporates social network updates ("Social Pulse"). It also allows for simultaneous updating of Facebook and Twitter. The former Yahoo! mobile social networking tool oneConnect appears to be gone. 

Finally All Sites is a useful collection of Yahoo! properties from Local and Messenger to Sports, Movies and Search. As an aside, the iPhone version of the site can tailor content (and ads) to user location because Safari now supports location (after the 3.0 software update). 

The layout and overall user experience on m.yahoo.com keep improving and these most recent changes and upgrades make the new mobile version of Yahoo! probably the most useful single destination on the mobile Internet. 

Latitude on the iPhone: Falling Short of Its Potential

Google finally released Latitude for the iPhone and iPod Touch device. When Latitude first came out we wrote about it and saw its potential for Google:

Latitude is very likely to succeed because it presents a compelling, simple proposition: “see where your friends are in real time.” It’s also easy to adopt and, as mentioned, built upon large installed bases of existing Google users, in the form of Google Maps for Mobile and Gmail. 

Yet the iPhone implementation is curiously "flat." It's currently missing the messaging feature of the Android version, "shout outs," which makes it much more interesting and useful.

In Android, Latitude is integrated directly into the Maps app and there's a map view and a list view, which provides access to IM/Twitter-like updates (shout outs) with those to whom I'm connected. While it's difficult to describe in the abstract, it's essentially mobile IM (a la Google Talk). Thus Latitude becomes a location-based messaging platform, beyond a simple friend finder.

The Google Mobile Blog explains why the iPhone version of Latitude is a Web-based app, rather than a native app for the iPhone:

We worked closely with Apple to bring Latitude to the iPhone in a way Apple thought would be best for iPhone users. After we developed a Latitude application for the iPhone, Apple requested we release Latitude as a web application in order to avoid confusion with Maps on the iPhone, which uses Google to serve maps tiles.

Google, like Apple, continues to push for improvements in web browser functionality. Now that iPhone 3.0 allows Safari to access location, building the Latitude web app was a natural next step. In the future, we will continue to work closely with Apple to deliver useful applications -- some of which will be native apps on the iPhone, such as Earth and YouTube, and some of which will be web apps, like Gmail and Latitude.

Unfortunately, since there is no mechanism for applications to run in the background on iPhone (which applies to browser-based web apps as well), we're not able to provide continuous background location updates in the same way that we can for Latitude users on Android, Blackberry, Symbian and Window Mobile.

As a Web app I'm guessing it can't do messaging, which is why the shout outs/IM functionality doesn't appear.

The paragraphs above from the Google Blog post are strange and interesting. Google is explaining why Latitude may fall short on the iPhone and it's also gently criticizing Apple for deficiencies in the functionality that Latitude is able to deliver:

"Unfortunately, since there is no mechanism for applications to run in the background on iPhone (which applies to browser-based web apps as well), we're not able to provide continuous background location updates . . ."

This line: "After we developed a Latitude application for the iPhone, Apple requested we release Latitude as a web application in order to avoid confusion with Maps on the iPhone, which uses Google to serve maps tiles" is also very interesting. Apple wanted to avoid "confusion." Hmmm . . . Confusion may be a euphemism for something else.

I think Apple wanted to avoid Google totally taking over the the Maps app on the iPhone, one might say "colonizing" it. Even though Maps on the iPhone has Google branding and data, it's not completely Google centric at this stage.

As a consequence of all this Latitude for the iPhone (in its current form at least) will probably fall short of its potential. 

Google Mobile Adds Layers to Maps

The Google Mobile Blog announced that Symbian and Windows Mobile users can now add multiple search results and content layers -- including Latitude -- to Maps for Mobile:

To get started with Layers on Google Maps for mobile 3.2, hit the "2" key or select Layers in the menu. You can toggle various layers on and off, and you can mash up combinations like friends' Latitude locations against a planned route. Google Maps for mobile Layers is available now on Symbian S60 and Windows Mobile phones, and will come soon to other platforms. The upgrade is available for all countries where Google Maps for mobile is currently available.

This is a mirror of what's going on with the PC side, where Maps enables layers of search results to be shown simultaneously. Right now on Android you can layer Latitude on top of a map with search results.

Google is also making Maps for Mobile more "browse-friendly": 

Under Search, you'll find a link to browse popular categories, which helped us avoid the pain of typing on a mobile whilst out on the road (only available in the US and China for the time being).

On Android voice search on Maps works well to minimize typing. It's not clear how voice search will interact with layers in the Android or iPhone versions of Maps.