Local mobile search: Directories vs Google

Directory Publishers Can Beat Google & Co. To Lead In Local Mobile Search & Services If They Provide Actionable Answers

Published: May 2008
Author: Martin Wilson

In-Brief: Directory publishers are better positioned to deliver compelling location-based information and services than rival portal providers and search engines.

Martin Wilson

At first glance it may appear that the nimble newcomer Web 2.0 companies bursting on the scene are best-positioned to benefit from the buzz around location-based services. However, a closer look reveals that it is the directory publishers – namely, the established location information providers we know from print and the Internet – who have the corporate DNA and the track record to deliver compelling location-based services and – more importantly – monetise them through mobile advertising.

Granted, it may be early days but, in my view, that is all the more reason why directory publishers must prepare to seize the mobile opportunity. Indeed, with revenue streams for paper directory and published products in near-term decline, and an increasingly fragmented market for online services, mobile is the only channel that offers real and sustainable growth. Without a doubt, mobile is going to play an important and valuable role in reinforcing the presence of directory publishers and their product offering, and deliver a significant supplementary source of new revenue.

So how do directory publishers get there from here? To capitalise on this emerging opportunity, publishers must first create a consumer relevant mobile offering that can be delivered to a mass audience.

Put simply, directory publishers must “think” mobile. It is not just another screen, as some in the industry suggest. I contend the mobile environment is different for two main reasons.

First, neither the devices – nor the offers – can be classified as “one-size-fits-all.” The diverse range of mobile devices are all extremely varied in their capabilities, user interfaces, core features, computing power, memory capacity, and operating systems. To complicate matters, new devices are continually being introduced to the market that must be supported and factored into the service equation. As a result, directory publishers must develop offers that are accessible to a large potential user base across a broad range of devices, without incurring overbearing maintenance and support costs.

Second, mobile is about finding information on the fly. Consumers may browse on their PCs, but they expect a vastly different experience on their mobile phones. On mobile, requests and search queries are more likely related to the consumer’s individual circumstances or situation – in, short, their context. What’s more, they expect immediate answers and demand actionable results, all of which require customisation.

It’s easy to assume that only made-for-mobile companies – such as portal providers and search engine companies – have what it takes to cash in on the mobile opportunity. However, these players share a fatal shortcoming that plays in the favour of directory publishers. They lack a highly developed and effective sales force. Fortunately for directory publishers, this is a key strength in their competitive arsenal and one that I suggest represents the highest barrier to entry to competitors.

Put simply, if publishers can generate usage to mobile then their sales force will be able to monetise it. I therefore strongly advise publishers to sharpen their focus on mobile and do all they can to increase usage of this channel. Developing features for the mobile platform that will ultimately allow their sales force to demonstrate proven value is more than a winning strategy; it lays the groundwork for a slew of services that deliver consumers a genuinely relevant and useful end-user experience – a deliverable competitors are still struggling with. After all, the quality of answers a service delivers can only be as good as the information the service provider has collected and categorised – and I’ve shown directory publishers have a head start on both counts.

But this isn’t the only ace in publishers’ hands. They can also draw competitive advantage from:

  • An established market position and existing brand recognition amongst consumers.
  • Content that is focused towards a buyer and therefore ideal for a mobile user.
  • A well developed classification structure and taxonomy, which is well understood by consumers.
  • A depth of location knowledge and understanding of location hierarchy, which enables highly relevant local based results to be presented.

These combined strengths empower publishers to define the ideal service offering for mobile. But they must be careful not to lose sight of the consumer. I have only too often seen publishers overlook the end-user of their services, with severe consequences! It is essential that directory services focus on efficiently delivering information and results that empower consumers, provide them choice, and support an actionable outcome. These actions vary but can be divided into the following categories: call, share (with friends/family), save, book or buy.

With the ground rules for a successful mobile service offering established, what’s the next best step for directory providers determined to harness mobile? This depends to a large degree on the service the publisher wants to deliver and – more importantly – on the publisher’s own in-house capabilities.

Creating and customising mobile services is no easy task, and directory publishers should be careful not to overestimate their capabilities or underestimate the amount of planning and effort involved. They may have deep understanding of print and Internet, but this knowledge is hardly transferable to mobile. Put simply, the specialist nature of the mobile environment and technical challenges associated with developing, implementing and supporting services, are competencies that most publishers simply do not have.

On paper, directory providers possess the capabilities that put them in pole position when it comes to monetizing mobile. In practice, directory publishers nonetheless lack experience in the conceptualization and creation of compelling mobile services that satisfy the criteria I have identified.

If directory publishers are to deliver a market-ready mobile offering, then it makes business sense for them to outsource services development to companies that have mobile in their DNA.

Today, we are seeing a trend to outsourcing as more of the world’s leading directory publishers partner with specialist companies for core technology and development skills. These directory publishers realise that outsourcing key capabilities does not result in them losing control. To the contrary, outsourcing frees valuable resources, allowing publishers to develop a more flexible approach to market and deliver products and services with far shorter lead times.

In line with this trend, a number of companies have sharpened their focus on helping directory publishers extend their offer to mobile. Granted, each has its area of expertise, but directory publishers should choose partners that are specialised in three key areas simultaneously:

  1. Building and operating mobile services – The company should work with the directory publisher to help define, develop and operate mobile services that play to the publisher’s strengths and are right for the market that they are targeting. (These can be client- or browser- based services, which are list- or map- centric in design.)
  2. Supporting user acquisition – The company must ensure that services are simple to access or obtain. Obviously, experience in mobile marketing tools and customer-acquisition techniques are a plus and allow the directory publisher to develop a user base quickly and cost-effectively
  3. Enabling the mobile channel to deliver new revenue streams – The company must maximise the potential revenue opportunity that mobile can offer. Here, experience in usability and a detailed understanding of advertising provides a clear advantage, allowing directory publishers to introduce products that deliver proven value to customers.

A winning strategy is one where the directory publisher and specialised partner have a clear division of talents and responsibilities. In this scenario the directory publisher outsources application development, implementation, and operation. Search and presentation rules, business listings, and advertising content are managed internally by the publisher.

This approach enables publishers to focus their resources on what they do best: Wielding their highly-developed sales force to wring more value out of mobile. This allows them to deliver benefits for themselves, in the form of monetiseable services and advertising, and for their customers, in the form of useful and relevant results and answers. Leveraging the expertise of a specialised partner ensures the delivery of a robust commercial channel.

With this check-list in mind, I have reviewed the players and value propositions on the marketplace. A company high on my radar is Mobile People, a local mobile search and advertising solutions provider whose capabilities mix includes significant strengths in the three key areas I outlined above. Notably, Mobile People’s client list includes directory publishers including Yell, Sensis, and World Directories – publishers widely considered to be among the most active – and successful – in the mobile space.

Mobile People is keenly focused on developing and operating mass market orientated services. To accomplish this, they port and operate services for large numbers of devices. The company, which has established its own User Lab to engage end users throughout the design process to evaluate the desirability of new ideas and possible solutions, views usability and performance as a top priority. This emphasis on the end-user experience pays off in rich features that delight the customer, drive additional usage, and move the mobile Internet a huge step closer toward becoming an indispensable part of our daily routine.

Location-based information and services are indisputably a potent way to generate value. Like all industry sectors, mobile will pay the biggest dividends for the companies who harness it first. Directory publishers currently have an important head start on portal providers and search engine providers, but these competitors are stepping up efforts to close this gap. For this reason, directory publishers are well advised to move fast and recognise their limitations. Chief among these is their inability to deliver an end-to-end mobile solution on their own.

Once directory publishers are clear about their true capabilities – and developing mobile services that deliver actionable results is not one of them – then they should choose a specialised company to partner with and get down to the business of monetizing mobile. As I said, reduced barriers to entry and shortened times to market mean the mobile space is not only crowded; it has become fiercely competitive.

Trial and error is a risky business strategy that costs time, resources, and shareholders’ patience. High performance directory publishers such as Eniro, Sensis, World Directories, and Yell demonstrate that collaborating with specialist companies is not only a smart move; it delivers sustainable results.

Published on mSearchGroove: www.msearchgroove.com

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