Directory Assistance

Free 411 Uses Contest to Boost Call Volumes

Free, ad-supported directory assistance has gone from the hypothetical growth engine for mobile ad revenue in some analysts' forecasts to a marginal segment in the mobile ecosystem. The largest and most visible provider historically has been Jingle Networks' 1-800-Free-411. However I suspect that call volume growth has stalled there.

That's what I surmise is behind a new contest to attract usage:

The nation’s leading provider of free directory assistance, 1-800-FREE411, announced today the launch of a “30 Days of FREE411” sweepstakes. Beginning November 1, 2009, every person who requests a phone number from 1-800-FREE411 has a chance to win $411 on the spot, with two randomly selected callers awarded the cash prize daily. In addition, every caller in November will be entered into a drawing for a chance to win a trip to Boston and a shot at the grand prize of $411,000.

At the beginning of December, one lucky caller will win an all-expense trip to Boston for two. During their two nights in Boston, the winner will play a game where they choose one cell phone from 411 available phones. Each phone is awarded a value and the winner will walk away with a minimum cash prize of $4,100, with one of the 411 phones valued at $411,000!

The major carriers initially announced free, ad-supported initiatives (i.e., Verizon, AT&T) but they've been neglected because ad-supported DA hasn't taken off and their traditional paid businesses are cash cows -- though with declining volumes. 

The chart below reflects that despite having access to the Internet on a mobile device, a large number of people see 411 as a resource they'll continue to use. However smartphone users tended to agree with the statement in larger numbers. 

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AdMob's September Metrics: Android Rising

AdMob's latest monthly metrics report shows that Android-based handsets are growing as a percentage of overall requests. This month's report also shows the rise and fall of various handsets over a period of nearly three years. AdMob also takes pains to counter criticism it has received by being very explicit about what its data do and do not reflect:

The report is based on the ad requests we receive from our network of more than 15,000 mobile Web sites and iPhone and Android applications. The data contained in the report is a measure of mobile data usage and does not represent the traditional view of market share based on the number of handsets sold.

And now for the data:

  • In September 2009, the list of the top 10 devices in the US included five with touchscreens, six with Wi-Fi capabilities, and six with application stores.  These devices are responsible for a much higher percentage of mobile usage than their share of handsets sold.
  • In September 2009 42% of requests in the US were made from Wi-Fi capable devices. 18% of actual US requests were made over a Wi-Fi connection in September 2009 compared to only 5% in September 2008.
  • Devices running on Android accounted for 17% of smartphone traffic in the US in September 2009, up from 13% in August 2009. The HTC Dream (G1) was the number three device and the
  • HTC Magic was the number 10 device in September 2009 in the US. As with the iPhone OS, much of the Android traffic in AdMob’s network came from applications.

The following tables reflect handsets responsible for mobile Web and app views on the AdMob network (US and UK). Note the shifts from 2007 to 2009: The rise of Apple, HTC, RIM and Samsung in the UK; and the fall of Motorola (and to some degree RIM) in the US. 

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The following compares US smartphone OS share on AdMob's network in Decemberr 2008 vs. September 2009 (bottom):

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  • iPhone -- 2008: 48%, 2009: 48%
  • Android -- 2008: 2%, 2009: 17%
  • Windows Mobile -- 2008: 15%, 2009: 5%
  • RIM -- 2008: 18%. 2009: 14% 
  • Symbian: 2008: 2%, 2009: gone
  • Palm/WebOS: 2008: 9%, 2009: 10%

None of these are market share numbers per se, as AdMob is now careful to point out. But they do reflect directional trends in the broader market.

New Apps Add Engaging "Gaming" Element to kgb Answers Service

Text answers service kgb this morning announced the release of an app for the iPhone and Android platforms. The app on either platform costs $1.99 and offers three free answers. After that the cost is $0.99 per question.

The competitive positioning of kgb Answers emphasizes the fact that there are "special agents" (humans, often college students) behind the scenes who can provide a more direct and efficient response to a question on the go vs. conventional search, which requires sifting through links on the small screen.

Previously the kgb service was only available via SMS at kgbkgb (542542). However the new iPhone and Android apps entirely change the nature of the experience and even turn it into something of a game in certain respects. I haven't yet downloaded the Android version, but I spent some time yesterday with the iPhone version.

I was impressed by the creative "reimagining" of the kgb service and the way the additional features and content expand it significantly. Here are some screenshots that offer a sense of the iPhone version of the app:

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The app's home screen allows users to flip through a broad range of previously asked questions, mirroring the Q&A "scroll" on the company's site. If you want to find out the answer to one of these questions, you can submit the question and get the answer free of charge. Some example questions from just a few minutes ago include:

  • What bird can fly 11,000 miles in about 90 days?
  • What is the tallest mountain in the USA?
  • What two unrelated countries have the same flag?
  • What land animal stays pregnant for nearly 22 months?

The app also gives users the ability to explore related questions and answers free of charge. For example, one of the free questions I submitted was "What is the infamous first word of the movie Citizen Kane? (Answer: Rosebud). The answer page provides a list of several related Citizen Kane questions and answers that users can browse for free.

All of this free content creates a kind of trivia-game experience (in many contexts), which is a way of getting users engaged and to recognize the value of the service. In addition the app takes advantage of integration with the iPhone. Accordingly, if there's an address in a response or answer the app provides a map. Answers can also be shared via email or Facebook and are saved and can be searched or starred as favorites for later access.

All these features make the kgb app much broader and more useful than the traditional SMS version of the service. 

Arguably the only direct competitor to the core kgb Answers service is free, ad-supported ChaCha, which does not have an iPhone app at this point but provides the ability to call a phone number and speak queries instead of typing them. There are a range of other, somewhat more indirect competitors the closest of which is probably Aardvark, which relies on a network of peers to answer questions. There's also Yahoo! Answers (and similar Q&A services). Of course Google and other traditional search engines are competition as well. However, as I suggested above it's often frustrating to click back and forth through a bunch of links on the small screen. Google in mobile is fast but often paradoxically inefficient.

Because kgb Answers is a premium service and consumers pay per use, the company doesn't have to worry about advertising coverage or clicks (though one might imagine selective advertising at some point). However it does have to demonstrate enough value to convince users to keep paying. Generally that means it must deliver better answers than can the other free services or Google. Yet the iPhone App also changes the nature of the kgb service into something more engaging and entertaining than a straightforward Q&A service.

We understand that kgb has some other interesting apps in the pipeline as well. The company also operates the 118 118 and 118 218 telephone-based services in the UK and France. 

Aardvark Now a 'Social Search Engine'

Aardvark has relaunched its site and rebranded to a degree as a "social search engine." The site is sexier but the service is the same. I've also written about this at Search Engine Land.  One can now access Aardvark via Vark.com, Twitter, IM and the iPhone. 

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Aardvark competes with a range of companies, but most directly with companies such as ChaCha, kgb and of course Google, because of its ubiquity. My guess is that Aardvark would see itself as a unique company in many respects but in the context of "human powered search" it has a number of other firms to contend with. The challenge for everyone in this space is how to differentiate from Google and establish a service that is more:

  • Useful
  • Trusted
  • Efficient/Responsive/Specific
  • Fun

Siri is coming soon too; it's not human-powered but will also be potentially competitive with Aardvark, kgb, et al. Here are our previous articles about Aardvark:

New TMP-comScore Survey Data on Local Mobile Search

For the past three years ad agency/CMR TMP Directional Marketing (and now its search agency 15 Miles) have been studying local search behavior, using comScore's panel. During the past two years there's been a local-mobile component to the survey (n=4,000 US respondents). The chart below shows use of mobile devices to find local information (directory assistance is one of the choices): 

What the data reflect is that among these respondents 60% of smartphone owners have conducted a local search through an app or browser, while only 19% of non-smartrphone owners have. This goes to data pricing and cost factors as well as usability.

One interesting fact: smartphone owners (in this survey) don't seem to be substituting the mobile Internet for directory assistance usage. That may be because they tend to be more affluent and less price sensitive. But compare that with the attitudes shown in our April, 2009 survey (second graphic below) about the relationship between traditional DA and the mobile Internet.

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Source: comScore-TMPDM/15 Miles (10/09)

By contrast, we found that smartphone owners and those intending to buy smartphones were in general agreement with the statement that the mobile Internet was a substitute for traditional 411:

“Now that I can get the Internet  on my mobile phone I no longer need  to call 411”

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Source: April, 2009 (n=707 North American mobile users)

Aardvark Launches an iPhone App

Aardvark, which is now describing itself as “social search engine" is really more like an "answer community." Regardless of the label the company uses to describe itself it has launched an app for the iPhone. I've written about Aardvark several times in the past and wrote up today's announcement at Search Engine Land. 

This may turn out to be the turning point for the company (like Pandora or Urbanspoon's iPhone apps). We'll see. But that's my intuition. 

The thing that struck me as I spoke to co-founder and former Googler Max Ventilla is that with the arrival of the iPhone app people will start to "get" what Aardvark is all about and see use cases more clearly: word of mouth on the go. People have been able to get to Aardvark via mobile but not in a simple way (SMS is still a way off). But it's a broader service that isn't simply about "need it now" recommendations. I can ask where to go on my 10 wedding anniversary or who won the 1957 world series or what's the best pinot noir for under $20

The services that it most directly competes against are ChaCha and kgb. The difference is that Aardvark is trying to build a community of user contacts to respond to queries vs using professional or semi-professional agents. And building that community is where the challenge resides. 

To that end Aardvark leverages both Facebook (and Facebook Connect) and Twitter as "entry points." If Aardvark can gain traction in mobile it can build momentum toward faster and more comprehensive answers, which right now take from about 2-5 minutes to receive. But the quality of responses has been good so far for me. 

The PC-mobile integration will also benefit loyalty and engagement. 

I asked Ventilla about speech and voice interfaces. He said they had built one but that alpha testers were not ready for the additional "complexity" it apparently introduced. Ventilla isn't abandoning speech, he's just defferring it. He also told  me that, like speech, there are many more enhancements coming in future versions of the app.

Aisle411: (Really) Local-Mobile Search

There are various forms of in-store marketing: coupons on shelves, end caps, on floor, in-store video, POS screens and so on. But here's something really valuable and fresh: Aisle411. We discovered it through the Voxeo blog.

The company works with retailers (big boxes) to help consumers locate products on store shelves -- within the store. I don't have a dollar figure but I know from personal experience that this is a problem: consumer wants to buy something but can't find it on the shelf. The salesperson is either ignorant, not available or otherwise unmotivated and so the consumer winds up frustrated ("I guess it's not here"). How many sales are lost because somebody can't find the item they're seeking and give up? 

Consumers are prompted to call 1-877-AISLE411 by an in-store display. They're taken through a DA-like menu (store, city, item) and ultimately directed to the aisle where the item is normally stocked ("sippy cups are in aisle three"). The system also gives stores the opportunity to promote other items (upsell related items) and specials of one sort or another. 

It's pretty interesting. Here's a quick demo with call flow

kgb Piggybacking on US Open (Tennis) for PR

SMS-based mobile search/answers provider kgb is using the occasion of the US Open tennis championship to promote its service:

The. U.S. Open begins Aug. 31, and kgb is on top of its game to answer all your tennis-related questions. Below are some actual U.S. Open questions that have been served up to kgb's 542542 text answer service.

Who has the most U.S. Open men's singles titles? How can I purchase tickets for this year's U.S. Open? Who is the youngest U.S. Open women's singles champ? Who are the top seeds at this year's U.S. Open? When was Roger Federer born?

Mobile answers service ChaCha is most similar to the kgb offering; however, the crowdsourced Aardvark is in the same segment as well. All these services co-exist and compete with conventional search on mobile handsets. The chief difference is that kgb is a premium service that doesn't feature ads (at the present time), while ChaCha is free to users but has advertising. 

Voice Search Better than Its Press

The SpeechTEK conference in New York just concluded and I was not there. Authour, however, attended and I'm sure will have some interesting thoughts and reflections. However Internet News covered a mobile voice search panel at the show. From the discussion in the article it sounds like the panelists were more bearish on the state of voice search than they need to be: 

While many see opportunities, they also see barriers, panelists said. Services are restricted by factors as various as noise conditions and the need to limit the vocabulary size of recognition engines, which are also known as recognizers, said moderator Michael Cohen, manager of Google's speech technology group. 

When we visited Siri last week we had an extensive discussion about the state of speech recognition and the consensus in the room was that the industry had crossed a line and that voice was now pretty effective and reliable. I agree that things are now to the point where more mobile users will adopt voice as a regular or semi-regular interface and input mechanism -- as they become aware of it. 

I've used most of the commercial systems available to mobile users and find them, to varying degrees, to be fairly accurate. Sure, they're imperfect. Sure background noise interferes sometimes. But they work pretty well. This has been my experience with Tellme and with Google voice search on the iPhone and with Android. (I haven't used Vlingo enough to say.) I especially like the voice capability with Google Maps on Android. I also haven't been a regular user of Nuance products/tools, although Authour has. 

So I'm more bullish on voice than the guys working on it appear to be. However, I don't see it as some sort of mobile search panacea or substitute for other tools in all cases; it will coexist with predictive text, the camera and other interfaces or input methods.

WhitePages Takes Aim at 411

Recently WhitePages.com has aggressively gone after print white pages with its "Ban the Phone Book" site and environmental arguments against print. Now it's making arguments against traditional directory assistance:

In Canada, directory assistance costs consumers and businesses an estimated $252 million and in the US, it's as high as $6 billion a year. The cost has dramatically escalated over the past decade with the increase of cell phone usage. The average directory assistance expense for cell phones is around $2.00 (CAN) and $1.67 (US) per call. Traditional landline directory assistance is slightly lower but still between $.95 and $1.50 (CAN) and an average $1.26 (US) per call. 

Our previous research has indicated varying levels of awareness and cost sensititivity to DA pricing. But the fact is that most mobile phone users don't call DA because they're generally aware that it costs money. In our most recent consumer survey (n=707, 4/09) we found that only 20% of respondents said they called 411 from their mobile phones. Of that 20%, just under 90% (86%) said they only called "a few times a year."

Separately we asked mobile users whether they agreed with the statement, “Now that I can get the Internet on my mobile phone I no longer need to call 411." A majority of smartphone users (58%) and those intending to buy smartphones said yes, while a majority of non-smartphone owners (68%) said no. This makes obvious sense. 

It's also pretty obvious that traditional DA call volumes are declining because of Internet competition, which is also increasingly true in mobile. Somewhat paradoxically we can thus expect more price increases from carriers seeking to milk remaining DA revenues from unsuspecting consumers, while driving the aware and price sensitive out to alternatives. 

What's curious however is that the free DA sector has really failed to materize in any significant way as a 411 alternative. Consumers remain largely ignorant of free 411 alternatives and companies are reluctant to spend money to market the services. 

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."

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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Verizon Pitches Self-Service Audio Ads for 1-800-THE-INFO

First the good part: audio ads on free directory assistance (DA) platforms can be very effective. The bad part: most consumers don't call DA on mobile phones and most people who do call DA on mobile phones are still unaware of the various free options. Both AT&T and Verizon, which have traditional consumer-pays DA, also operate free services:

  • 800-yellowpages (AT&T)
  • 800-THE-INFO (Verizon) 

Both are ad supported. But the carriers have done little to promote them partly because of fears of "cannibalization" of call volumes from the cash-cow traditional DA offering.

At one point not too long ago there were high hopes that these free services would become significant mobile ad platforms -- to date 800-Free-411 is the most heavily monetized -- but, relatively speaking, advertising hasn't materialized at the levels hoped for. And it's unlikely to happen in the near term either. The whole segment is something of a disappointment from a revenues standpoint, although Free 411 is supposed to be profitable.

Boosting call volumes of these free services is the key to increased monetization. However that relies on promotion and traditional awareness marketing, which simply isn't happening in the sector. Free 411 and Goog 411 are the most well known. 800-yellowpages also shows up as one of the most used, but that's probably a "false positive," based on the familiarity of the "yellow pages" brand. 

This morning Verizon put out a press release on behalf of 1-800-THE-INFO promoting self-service advertising via VoodooVox's platform. The release says:

Businesses can start advertising on 1-800-THE-INFO simply by going to http://www.800theinfo.com/advertise.htm and following the steps to create an advertising campaign that includes audience targeting and scheduling. Businesses can upload their own pre-recorded announcements or create new ones through the platform's Audio Talent Network of voice-over actors. In addition, businesses have the ability to see up-to-the-minute performance analytics during their campaigns . . .

Through the VoodooVox self-service interface, advertisers can create an account and launch their first campaign in as little as 30 minutes, and the average one-month campaign usually won't cost more than $200.

This is really a play for brands and franchises, who already have radio assets. It's unlikely to have any traction at the "local-local" level among true SMBs. 

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To attract more advertisers, these services need more users. It's pretty simple. 

Free 411 Offering Long Distance, Int'l Calls to Generate Usage

God bless 'em, Jingle Networks (800-Free-411) is supposed to be profitable but neither it nor the "free DA" providers have broken out of obscurity. Several years ago I had thought that free DA would be widely used by mobile consumers, especially feature phone owners, as an alternative to search in some cases and that there was a strong ad opportunity accordingly.

While the ads convert well, the call volumes haven't continued to grow and the overwhelming majority of mobile users don't call DA at all, let alone the free services. Among the free services Jingle's 800-Free-411 is the best known. But it remains somewhat mysterious as to why more consumers aren't using them. The quick answer is lack of promotion. Answering the question of why depends on whose service you're discussing: carriers, independents, search engines. 

Now in a bid to gain some new attention and usage (and ad inventory accordingly) Jingle is offering free long distance and international calls:

Callers from the continental United States can place a five minute call through 1-800-FREE411 to reach out and connect with loved ones no matter how far away they may be. To place a free long distance call, callers dial 1-800-FREE411 and listen to the main menu prompts where they can select "free call."

After entering the phone number that they wish to call, including a country code, they will be connected free of charge for five minutes. Callers have to listen to two short advertisements and there is no limit on the number of calls they can make in a day. Mobile phone callers may still be charged for minutes by their service provider. 

This move will generate some usage but it won't solve the free DA segment's main problem: lack of consumer awareness.

In our most recent research (n=707, 4/09) 79% of survey respondents said they simply did not call DA/411 from their mobile phones. Among the 20% that did, 46% of that group called it once a month or more frequently. But 86% of those who did call DA on their mobile phones only called it "a few times a year." There are some claims of higher usage rates in the market, but in several surveys over the past two years we have consistently seen ignorance or lack of consumer awareness regarding the free DA services.

Google is using Goog 411 primarily to train Voice Search; the carriers don't want to cannibalize their cash cow 411 businesses and Jingle doesn't have the money to run TV ads and so relies on PR and promotions like the one above. But without awareness advertising this segment will limp along or disappear as more people turn to search and app-based alternatives on their mobile devices. 

New kgb TV Commercials Seek to Build Awareness, Usage

One of the things that's very interesting about kgb's text-based Q&A/search service kgbkgb (542542) is that it's doing traditional marketing to build awareness and usage of the service. Unlike competitors, kgb's offering is not free to consumers and its not ad-supported (at this point).

The company has been running TV ads for some time. Two new ads made their debut last week:

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Most comparable to ChaCha (but without voice input) kgb charges consumers $.99 per question in addition to any carrier SMS charges. ChaCha is free and ad-supported.

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Related: See also, Aardvark Taps Twitter as Another Entry Point

Aardvark Taps Twitter as Another Entry Point

When it came out of beta, last week, I wrote about "answer community" Aardvark. The service is building a network -- or leveraging existing networks like Facebook -- to enable people to respond to questions that search engines can't answer as easily or well. In my prior post above I discuss my experience when I asked Aardvark (Vark) for recommendations on "generally available pinot noir wines for under $15."  

I've also written up a piece this morning at Search Engine Land on how Aardvark is starting to use Twitter as another "entry point" or onramp for the service: 

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You can now sign in to Aardvark using Twitter (as you can with Facebook Connect) and ask questions through Twitter, privately via direct message or publicly. The latter scenario will send the question to Aardvark as well as one's own Twitter "followers," broadening the pool of potential responses. 

At one point I thought a Vark-like service or similar capability would emerge at Twitter. But I no longer think that Twitter will put any effort into formally developing it. 

The LMS/Opus crew met with Aardvark yesterday and talked through a range of issues, including:

  • Mobile access
  • Voice input
  • Monetization 

Voice isn't "quite there yet" so it's going to be awhile before people can speak their queries. Mobile input is already available via IM and email. But the Vark team recognizes mobile as a primary use case for the service. In terms of monetization, CEO Max Ventilla spoke about affiliate links and hand offs being mapped to the content of user queries and answers. This makes sense and would be potentially unintrusive. The challenge for Vark is volume and scale to generate any meaningful revenues from such deals. The team will probably need to look at other monetization scenarios later as well.

A great many of the queries that pass through Vark are going to be about places and things to do, making it a kind of local-social search tool. Indeed, travel and entertainment will be primary use cases for the service. 

There are now a number of companies that in one way or another are trying to provide human answers/responses to queries. These include ChaCha, kgb's Text411, Yahoo! Answers and a number of online Q&A communities. The site that Aardvark is most like is the original incarnation of Mosio, which is changing and taking on a more enterprise flavor. 

ChaCha is trying to find the right balance of humans and automation to control costs as ads ramp up. Text411 is a consumer pays service, which might limit demand. Yahoo! Answers, which is now showing near real-time response, offers inconsistent quality and generally anonymous answers (although you can invite friends to be a part of your network). 

For its part Vark may have challenges generating revenue, although the affiliate model conceptually makes lots of sense. However the Vark consumer experience is very strong. Community members are not getting paid to respond and have lots of control over how often they receive questions and what types of questions they get. So there are controls to avoid Q&A fatigue. 

Another interesting thing here is the notion of decentralization implicit in the model. Vark doesn't need a massive audience of users (me --> the world) to provide a good user experience. The site needs people to bring their immediate networks (via email or Facebook).

If my friends can't answer my queries, their friends probably can. Over time a landscape of smaller communities connected through Vark will create the kind of scale the site is hoping to achieve. But I only get and respond to questions that flow within my extended network. Consequently the experience could work quite well at 10K users, a 100K or, eventually, 20 million (or more) users.  I'm not asking the world for a response, just my network and their friends. 

There were three of us at the meeting yesterday with Aardvark. Everyone uniformly was impressed with the consumer experience and the thinking behind it. However there was some skepticism about Vark's ability to monetize effectively. Of the three of us I was probably the one who'd consumed the most kool-aid. But I'm genuinely impressed with Aardvark. 

Aardvark Launches: Social Search, Social DA, Answer Community

Ever since we wrote about Mosio in October of 2007 we've been watching and waiting for someone to really break-through with a human-powered mobile search utility that can archive scale. ChaCha and kgb to varying degrees have done that and represent a hybrid between traditional directory assistance and Web search; one can ask any question of a quasi-professional human in the background, while some query responses are automated via a database. 

Yahoo! Answers uses community to answer questions but answers don't show up in real time; although Yahoo!'s Marc Davis has told me that increasingly there are responses in near-real time from the community. 

Twitter and Facebook have the potential to evolve or develop angles that enable them to be used as Q&A services -- what I've called in the past "social DA." But those use cases are not fully developed on either site. 

Now Aardvark, which we can call an "answer community," is trying to bring all these things together. I wrote about "Vark" on Screenwerk in March:

Vark is a private beta Q&A service that leverages IM and tries to organize people into networks and get them to self classify around areas of expertise . . . It’s not that far removed from Mosio (w/o the mobile dimension however) or ChaCha or the new text411. Yahoo Answers is also a cousin of this service . . .

This weekend the NY Times wrote a piece on Vark to coincide with the service coming out of private beta:

It begins with the social network that you’ve established elsewhere. Presently, it requires Facebook; other networks will be added, it says.

Once signed up, you submit a question to Aardvark via an instant message or e-mail, and its software looks among your Facebook friends, and friends-of-your-friends, for volunteers to answer it. You can exclude any friends from the potential contact list.

Those friends-of-friends may turn out to be a great fountain of hitherto untapped information. For example, none of your 200 Facebook “friends” may have recently stayed in Napa and be able to recommend a bed-and-breakfast. But if each of their friends can be tapped, the pool of prospective wine-country authorities jumps from 200 into the tens of thousands.

You wouldn’t want to bother those thousands, however, with your question about Napa B.& B.’s. Aardvark has devised ways to drastically narrow the search, asking only those who are most likely to have an answer, and asking only a few of them at a time, protecting your network of volunteers from being asked too often.

The Aardvark system assumes that no single answer will serve for everyone who poses the same question. It uses information about interests supplied by registrants and from outside social networking profiles to match interests, demographic characteristics, common affiliations and other factors. It also checks whether prospective advice-givers are presently signed into one of three instant-messaging services. (The company says an iPhone version is in the works, too.)

Thus the availability of "friends of friends" and the specialized routing of questions are the "secret sauce" here. This morning I asked about Pinot Noir recommendations:

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Within about two minutes I got this answer in email:

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And it turns out to be a very good wine:

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This is a very specific question and answer. However in this particular case Google has arguably even better results for this question. But in many specialized contexts, or where trusted opinions are needed, there won't be equally good results (or any perhaps) at the top of Google SERPs.

Vark is trying to create scale without the costs associated with a ChaCha or kgb model. But it's also trying to provide the "real time" response of those services lacking in a more conventional online Q&A service such as Yahoo! Answers. Getting it right -- not an easy thing -- could drive huge mobile query volumes. ChaCha has seen dramatic growth since becoming a mobile service, with many people doing in excess of 40 or more queries a month. 

ChaCha Announces Big Q&A Milestone

There are a wide range of companies that have been dancing around a user experience that combines search, machine algorithms and human editorial input. Companies such as Yahoo! (Answers), ChaCha, Mahalo, Mosio, Amazon (Askville), kgb, Vark -- and now arguably Facebook and Twitter -- among others are playing in this space. Whether we call it "social search," "social DA," "Q&A" or something else it's an effort to scale human discrimination and input into unstructured queries and questions over the Internet or mobile networks.

ChaCha, one of the pioneers in the space, just announced it had hit "150 million questions" since the January, 2008 launch of its mobile offering ChaCha Answers: 

ChaCha ranked among the top 10 short message services with the most traffic -- including Facebook, Twitter and American Idol -- according to the newly released Q1 Mobile Messaging Report from The Nielsen Company. Providing answers for the Sundance Film Festival to the history-making Presidential Election, ChaCha is growing faster than any other SMS answers service, including Google SMS and Yahoo! SMS. Since its launch 18 months ago, ChaCha has answered more than 150 million questions via mobile cell phones and the web . . .

ChaCha's audience extends to the web, too. According to Quantcast, www.chacha.com (http://www.chacha.com) ranks among the top web sites in the United States with more than 2.3 million monthly unique users. With more than 14 million searchable questions and answers and thousands of new answers published to the site every day in categories such as sports, entertainment, health, beauty and travel, ChaCha has increased its traffic 1,000 percent since its launch in January 2008.

Like all mobile marketing firms ChaCha is seeking to educate marketers about the value and ROI of mobile. The firm uses sponsorships, contextual and geotargeted advertising to monetize up to three SMS messages that a user may receive during an individual session.

Bing Mobile and Rebranded Bing 411

Live Search mobile has relaunched as Bing Mobile at m.bing.com. It's just a rebranding in this case because none of the new functionality from the Bing interface makes it into the mobile version (screenshot below).

1-800-Call-411 has also been rebranded "Bing 411." This is a different number than Call-411, but both numbers send you to the Tellme-driven service now announced as "Bing 411." This is a much richer and more complete experience than Goog-411 (this is a case where it's clearly better not just a little better). In addition to business listings you can get movie times, traffic and weather. And they've put back search by neighborhood, which is an incredibly valuable feature. Authour's observations on Bing 411 are posted on the site here.

When you search for restaurants on Bing 411, for example, it also offers you a star rating as opposed to just the business listing information. This is consistent with Microsoft's presentation of Bing as a "decision engine" rather than just a search engine.

If Microsoft were really smart it would do separate marketing around Bing 411 to get mobile users engaged with it. That would in turn drive branding, adoption and loyalty (to varying degrees) on the PC search side. 

Mobile Bing

 

Goog 411 Adds Intersections Info to Service

The Google Mobile Blog announced that callers to Goog 411 can now get information on the nearest intersection to a desired business location:

If you're out and about, you can call GOOG-411 and get local information about businesses. Now we've made it even easier to orient yourself without a map in front of you: call GOOG-411, ask for 'details', and in addition to the address and phone number of the business, we'll also point you to the nearest street intersection or adjacent streets.

This is a helpful addition to the service. Now Google needs to add the ability to request information by neighborhood and not just city (e.g., "cafes Tribeca, New York). 

I don't have data on whether Goog 411 and related services from competitors are more popular with feature phone users or whether they're equally used by smartphone owners. However, in our most recent consumer/mobile user survey we found that only 20% of respondents said they called 411 on their handsets. Interestingly smartphone owners were more likely to call 411 on their handsets. They may be less concerned about cost, which is a factor cited for not calling.