In late April of 2007, I interviewed Ask.com‘s Gary Price about the topic of mobile search. While this interview is therefore a bit dated, I still find a lot of interesting stuff in it. This is typical of speaking with Gary, who is a walking encyclopedia of everything taking place on the web. Few people have better command of all the things going on across the web.
Gary is a renowned expert in search, particularly structured data search, and a respected leader within the search, library and education communities.
In addition to his former position on the editorial team at Search Engine Watch, Price is the editor of ResourceShelf and Docuticker, online news sources for online researchers, librarians, journalists and educators. Price has been a frequent speaker at Search Engine Strategies, WebSearch University, Computers in Libraries, Internet Librarian and numerous other industry conferences.
Prior to joining Search Engine Watch and ResourceShelf, Price worked as a reference librarian at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He co-authored the book The Invisible Web with Chris Sherman and has compiled several well-known web research tools, including Price’s List of Lists and Direct Search, a compilation of invisible Web databases. He has received numerous awards which include the Innovations in Technology award (2002) and the Anges Henebry award (2004) from the Special Libraries Association and Alumnus of the Year (2004) from Wayne State University.
Gary’s role at Ask.com is to help make search better for users and be a resource to the Ask.com community.
Eric Enge: What got you interested in mobile search?
Gary Price: One of the reasons that I am so interested in mobile, is that there is so much opportunity to save the user time and effort. You have a learning curve, but over time things do become much easier. There are so many things I can use that save me time, effort, and aggravation, and, I think that is also the case for the typical consumer. For one thing, they don’t have to be tied down to a computer.
Eric Enge: One of the ways I think about it is that we are becoming an attention deficit society, where we want everything instantly and in small doses.
Gary Price: Yes, that is right. There was a study that came out earlier this week about the reasons that Wikipedia is so successful is that it is convenient. That goes precisely with what you just said, if it is not convenient, forget about it.
If mobile is done right, it can really make things more convenient for the typical people like my mom, who is not a web geek like you and I. For younger people, the mobile phone is almost built into their body.
I look at it two ways, right now I see both the Blackberry and Treo crowds, phones that have a Qwerty keyboard in there, versus the phones which do not have Qwerty keyboard, where if you want to hit the letter C, you have to hit the three-button or the two-button three times. We have got those types of devices competing. Obviously, those things will change overtime.
But, in terms of the applications, what I am going to do when I am done with you is take my Treo, put some software on it called PDANet, and I can take the connection from my wireless phone, put it into my regular laptop, and get a really decent connection, a connection fast enough that will allow me stream music, do email, update my web site and so forth. That is one example of something that you can do with mobile.
I can convert currency, I can make plane reservations, and I can make train reservations, right over the phone. You can find out where the train or airplane currently is. The city of New York allows you to see a review of traffic jams right on your mobile device. It is one thing to see traffic or listen to a traffic report, and it is another thing to see that mess right on your phone.
You will be able to do more and more of that. I also think that cell and mobile technology is going to be the end of what we traditionally call the Podcast. Downloading an audio stream, and then listening to it, is going to become a thing of the past. It will all be done using a mobile device, and you will simply stream the podcast in real time. And then, we even have companies like Upsnap, that allow you to listen to content just by dialing a traditional telephone number.
Eric Enge: What about putting GPS devices in the phone, which then allow you to do things such as say “Italian restaurants” and it will give you Italian restaurants near you?
Gary Price: That is the next thing. Right now, I think location based search is the next step. But, that leads to camera phone searching. I have written a lot about that on ResourceShelf. There is a business called MoBot that has been doing this kind of stuff for several years, where you point your camera at a magazine ad and then information about the magazine is sent back to you using your mobile device. Then, there is Semacode, and they have project that they are working on called Semapedia, where people put symbols in front of various locations around the world, such as the Eiffel Tower. Then, when you get there, you hold your camera phone up to the little symbol and you will get the Wikipedia answer for that particular location. So, camera phone searching is the next step.
Another step is based on the idea of pointing your camera at a street sign, or just a phone physically knowing where it is coming from, as you suggested that will be here very, very soon. So yes, if you are at the corner of whatever and whenever in Downtown Boston or Downtown Chicago, it will know that there are three or four Italian restaurants within the six block radius of where you are. Those are things that are not only fun and cool, but are very practical.
Eric Enge: Yes, integrating location based stuff is very interesting.
Gary Price: For example, on my Treo I use a directory tuned.mobi and I can listen to radio right now to WBZ radio through my phone. I can even look at airport control towers, and have their information streaming to my phone. Then I can use my phone to track where the airplanes are in the air. Streaming audio, and streaming video is why the Podcast will become more like Mobilecast or a Cllcast. You can actually do it right from your phone at anytime.
Eric Enge: Checking the status of a plane if you are running late to the airport, does not seem uber geek to me.
Gary Price: Absolutely, there are a couple of reason why you said that. There is a site called mobile.flightstats.com, which is the mobile version of a site called flightstats, that gives you all sorts of information about the plane and what is going down at the airport.
Another service that is very popular is SMS text messaging. 4info.net is probably the leader, and the SMS services are working with some of the major web search players. That’s another way of accessing information. You can now set up alerts, for example with Flightstats, so as you are driving, you can be notified with SMS text messages of delays in the flight.
Major newspapers and magazines are also coming up with mobile sites, every week there is another one or two of them. Recently, I just saw a brand new magazine from CondeNast, the publisher of Vanity Fair, and they just came up with a new magazine that is really good called Portfolio. When they released their official site, they also released their mobile site. You can check on information, and when you want to read the news you can get it that way. And another area is having email delivered to your mobile device.
Every major cell provider offers SMS gateways that allow you to send email. So for example, say that the FAA puts out alerts for different airports. Using this mobile SMS gateway, I can have them sent to my SMS account within a couple of seconds.
Eric Enge: Do you have any insight into you know the level of usage of these kinds of services today, or how it is going to grow overtime?
Gary Price: My insight is really anecdotal. I have seen a lot more interest when I go out to do public speaking. The number of people coming to the sessions has grown, and it seems like there is a lot of interest shown in what I am talking about.
Eric Enge: What about RSS feeds and mobile?
Gary Price: I think the concept of RSS goes extremely well with mobile. Services like Bloglines have mobile versions. One service I use is called xFruits, that allows you to take any website and make it mobile friendly within about ten seconds. There are many of these services that allow you to take traditional web content and make it mobile friendly. You can also take an RSS feed, or an OPML list, and make it very mobile friendly with xFruits.
And then, through another usage of the mobile phone in the traditional sense would a service like Evoca, that allows you to create a Podcast via a simple phone call. You do not even have to set up a microphone. You can use Evoca, talk into the phone, and say “Hi, this is Gary and Eric and we are going to talk to you today about mobile searching”. When you are done, you press stop and then you have a Podcast within a couple of minutes. xFruits also has a service called Vocal Fruits that allows you to take an RSS feed, and read that RSS feed so you can then listen to it over your phone.
Eric Enge: What is the quality of the text to speech today?
Gary Price: It could be better, but it keeps getting better and better as time goes forward. It’s actually an old technology. I am ninety-nine percent sure that back in 2000-2001, Yahoo had a service, called Yahoo by phone, that would actually read you your email over the phone.
Eric Enge: I ran a group that developed a software application about fifteen years ago now, that allowed you to dial-in to your PC and have it read you things from your address book, appointment calendar, etc. This whole notion of remote retrieval by a phone has been around a long time.
Gary Price: Voice activated services are also popular now. I have used Traffic.com, with which you can set up a driving route for yourself, to go to an address, and every morning at the time you specify, it will be delivered to you, via the phone and read to you. You can also set the traffic conditions to a certain level, and they will call you back and tell you when the traffic conditions on your route are at that level, and you can take another route.
We also have the acquisition of Tellme by Microsoft. Tellme was around, I think in the late nineties, when I was first paying with it. I have bought movie tickets through them, because I was worried that they might be sold out, so I went onto Tellme and spoke my movie order into the telephone and my tickets were waiting for me.
Eric Enge: Some people may thing these things are geeky, but then I look at my kids, all the stuff that we consider geeky is routine to them.
Gary Price: AOL has an application and it allows me to very easily and quickly get full access to AOL’s instant messaging. For your kids’ generation instant messaging is probably the predominant way they communicate with people. And I find myself doing as much instant messaging now as email. Within instant messaging, whether it be AOL, Yahoo, MSN, or Google, you can add voice to that. With some of my colleagues at ResourceShelf, we do a lot of Skype stuff, and with Skype you have instant messaging and chat. I have also been playing with Orb lately, and that allows me to stream music for my desktop directly to my mobile. Another one that I like is SoonR.com, and that allows me to search my hard drive from my mobile device. I can say what folders I want to search, and what folders I want to make mobile accessible. You can use the mobile web to get onto your own computer.
That is a another area. In an enterprise situation there are going to be a lot of security issues that people are going to be timid about, but if something is really useful to an organization, they will figure out a way to make it secure enough.
Eric Enge: What happens a lot of times is that somebody in the sales or the marketing team just buys it and begins is using it, and the IT guy freaks out, because this makes a hole in his security scheme and then either tries to shut it down or figures out how to deal with it. On another note, what are the most well known transcoding services?
Eric Enge: Let’s take a look together at Ask’s mobile service.
Gary Price: Sure, we have been nominated for a Webby Award and we are very excited about that. Two things to note about Ask mobile – one it is carrier agnostic, it will work with any carrier if you have a mobile web browser, and two, one of the things that we offer is aerial imagery in mobile. I believe we are one of the only major ones to offer aerial imagery without having to download a separate application.
I think that’s important. Geeky people like us are into mobile widgets. But I am not so sure that the average person is going to take the time to download all these different things. Whether it be on the mobile web or whether it be on the regular web, I think that takes a lot of extra effort, and first it takes knowledge that the thing to download is out there, and second it takes the time to actually download them, and three sometimes they might not work in your particular phone and now you have wasted the time you spent downloading it.
Eric Enge: And, it was not convenient anymore. Is there an issue with teaching people about these things?
Gary Price: You took the words right out of my mouth. I really think that everyone should be taught how to search for information (whether it’s on the web, by phone, at the library) and how to evaluate it. This is a critical skill in our world, and I think that it’s a failure of our education system that we don’t teach this. It should be an entire semester class.
But, if you have m.ask.com on in front of you, do you notice something that is missing from that page you would find on every other major search engine?
Eric Enge: A search box.
Gary Price: Exactly. We have found, during the testing of this service that the second people see a search box, they will start searching. So, you want to know what the weather is in Boston or the weather in San Francisco, and if you don’t have a qwerty keyboard, using a search box would require something like sixty-eight or seventy keystrokes. Not very efficient. With our service, I just have to hit the number six or click on the word weather, type in a zip code or the city name, and I get what I am looking for.
Eric Enge: It is a much faster process. You are just catering the environment and designing the user interface to a very specific audience, the mobile audience.
Gary Price: One thing that we maybe doing more in the future, is bringing all the smart answers over to mobile web search. We are now giving you suggestions, and if the suggestion is Boston tourism, you can quickly do the whole thing just by clicking. That is saving people a lot of time and effort. If you have a set of directions, and you hit the number two, you can reverse your direction with a single click
What you see is a map at the bottom, a road highlighted on the map, and the ability to send it to the phone. Below the map, you will see the aerial imagery. In addition to getting the list view, you can get a turn view. If you click on turn, you get every one of the steps of the directions as a specific advance and you get visual cues to what you will have to do, turn right, turn left, go straight, that kind of thing. I think that really will help in a mobile situation, when you are perhaps looking at your mobile phone as you are driving, and those visual cues can often help you make a decision a little bit more quickly.
Obviously Ask City will be coming to Ask’s mobile service, which I am very excited about. If you go to the second page, which is like clicking the next link of the number nine, you get other information like area codes and currency. I have also read stuff from 4info.net/, things like pick-up lines, bars, and horoscopes, which are really popular, and you can do that right from here as well.
One of the other things, I think is really neat is the area code search. Try typing in 617. Now if you click on Massachusetts, we give you the key cities and the area code, and we give you a direct link for the time, a direct link for the map, a direct link for business listings and now you can click on web resources 617, and it will run the search again.
Eric Enge: All of this helps you, even if you have a Treo, or similar device, that has a Qwerty keyboard, because the keyboards are still so small. I have seen some interesting things out there in terms of comparison shopping services too.
Gary Price: The New York Times had an article about things like Semapedia and MoBot, and the whole idea of your camera phone being a barcode reader. For years, Amazon has been working with certain types of phones, not a Treo, but other types, where you can actually use your phone to show a UPC symbol, and then get comparison pricing information from Amazon or from other providers. This is another huge area that I think is going to be important, the idea of being able to walk into a store, hold your cell phone up to a product, see that the price at Target is 895, and see that the price at Wal-Mart is 950 and then make your decision that way. Or hold your camera up to a symbol of a magazine, or any newspaper, or just to the ad itself and you can compare the pricing that way. I think that is a huge thing that is going to be coming.
Eric Enge: Have you looked at all into the monetization of these applications, and what people are doing with about?
Gary Price: As you know I come at this from a little bit different perspective, and I do not often think about monetization. One related note for web search in general though is that people are learning to ignore the ad listings when they search, and there are all these different companies that allow you to remove all the ads from a results page.
Eric Enge: That is a problem, but I do think that there is an audience of people, who know they are ready to buy, that might be more interested in seeing the ads than the people who are in a research mode.
Gary Price: Right, but I would also argue that there is still a huge amount of people that do not understand the difference between the organic listings and the paid listings.
Eric Enge: I agree. I have had it happen many times that I have been talking to people who did not know the difference.
Gary Price: What I am trying to say is, if advertising is put everywhere, people are going to become blind to it. And, as I mentioned there are the tools that allow you to remove the ads. Customize Google is one that that I am sure you have heard of, and this one is specific to Google. They have had over five million downloads of it. With one click I can remove all the Google ads from any Google results page. But, what makes it more interesting that in the past week or two, if you go to the Customize Google Blog, which is on the site, they have made it now that you can still see the ad, but they turn off the click tracking, meaning that nobody has to pay for the ad and Google does not make money from the ad.
Eric Enge: I would think that was actionable, and that Google had a very good chance of winning a lawsuit against them for this business of turning off the click tracking. As for removing the ads, well, there may be a pretty good lawsuit there too.
Gary Price: I have always thought that the way to do advertising in mobile is to focus on brand name advertising. So, if you are ESPN Mobile, one set of scores may be sponsored by company A, and another set is sponsored by company B.
For example, on The Discovery Channel, they use sponsors. For example, I remember seeing a map showing where different crabbing boats were, and the map was sponsored by Lexus. What has Lexus has to do with crabbing? I do not think you can drag your car into the Arctic Ocean or the Arabian Sea and go crabbing with it, but again it just reinforces the name over and over again and that is so important.
In my view you could do the same type of thing with mobile. One reason for this is that the mobile results page space is so limited that you are going to have to put it where it is going to be noticed, but you cannot, but if you are put three or four ads on a mobile results page, it may take forever for the page to load, and there is no room for it in the first place. My thought has always been to have mobile search and mobile search activities branded by specific companies. And of course, obviously, with the internet you could have the branding localized.
And you could localize the sponsorships too. If you are three blocks south of Eric’s pizza shack and if you go into Eric’s pizza shack between now and 3 PM and give him the number 1234, they will take twenty percent off on your order.
Eric Enge: Adding a GPS location device could make this really accurate.
Gary Price: Yes. Theoretically, Starbucks could know that I am sitting on their wireless system in Starbucks, and they could press something upon the screen saying, if you come up to the counter right now and order a cup of coffee and a brownie, we will give you twenty percent off.
There is another company in Boston that is actually doing a lot with that, Skyhook Wireless. They have this mobile product called Loki which is phenomenally cool. They can tell me when I am sitting at my computer, where it is on my particular street. I stayed in a hotel, and I have used Loki, and it has told me that I am within fifty feet of where I am actually sitting. It is not even the front address of the hotel, but specifically where the room is in the hotel. From there, I can find the closest movie theatres, closest transportation information, and other local information.
Looking at it the other way, I can actually see every platform and every metro stop here in Washington and have it tell me things like the next train is coming in three minutes. I can get that now on my mobile phone. Or, if I am in Boston, I can also get notified on my mobile phone that the orange line or the green line has been shut down or that there is a fifteen minutes delay between these stations.
I mean that is so practical, and why couldn’t they have a sponsor, politely sponsored by Borders book store here on Eighteenth today.
Eric Enge: People do not want to be slammed with a message. They have so much power and control today, that you have to start by building a relationship and serving them. Basically, it is old fashioned marketing and branding. It is just different because they have far more power than they did ten years ago when everything was just screaming at them through the TV set.
Gary Price: TV has a great example of brand focused advertising. When you watch soccer, they do not show commercials, because the action never stops in soccer. But if you look at the countdown clock, you will see it is sponsored by MasterCard or VISA, and that is the same type of thing that I am talking about here.
Back to my crabbing show example from The Discovery Channel, I watch this show about guys risking their lives in the Bering Sea, and then below it there is a watch clock, and sponsoring that clock is an opportunity.
Related to this, you want to know what upsets me about web advertising? When I type in some stupid phrase like “dead women”, you will get ads back telling you to will check out eBay for what you are looking for. That is just such a waste of time and effort, and they just drag down the whole concept of contextual advertising. A lot of times the ads have no relationship to what I am actually searching for.
Over a long period of time, maybe three years to five years, that’s going to cause people just to become blind to the ads, or to want to go out and buy some piece of software to specifically remove them.
That is why I think understated branding is a way to really establish your name and hopefully get a good reputation for your product.
Eric Enge: Excellent. Great call, good and interesting stuff.
Gary Price: I enjoyed it as always.