CTIA - Search startups vie for position in mobile market

Startups in the mobile search market explained why operators might not want to partner with Google or Yahoo.

Leading search companies Google and Yahoo didn't appear to have a presence at the CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment conference in San Francisco this week, but their startup competitors and smaller rival AOL were all angling for influence over mobile search.

While Google and Yahoo have been pursuing what is perceived to be a large opportunity in mobile search and advertising, they've met resistance from mobile operators in the U.S. "Some are concerned about Google and Yahoo being stronger competitors, that [the operators] will become in effect the dumb pipe that the ISPs became," said Greg Sterling, an analyst following mobile search as part of a joint venture between Sterling Market Research and Opus Research. "I think that's a valid fear."

That creates an opportunity for companies such as JumpTap and Medio, which offer technologies to operators to present self-branded search tools for their mobile users.

Operators tell JumpTap that they don't want Google and other online search brands to siphon away search traffic, and with it, the opportunity to earn revenue from advertising, said Adam Soroca, vice president and general manager of search services for JumpTap.

But operators and startups face a steep challenge: Any mobile user can simply type the URL for their preferred search provider into a browser on a mobile phone. Users will do that if they think that the search from the online giants is better and if they want to access connected services such as mail and calendars, Sterling said.

If the carriers manage to offer a better search experience, and one that may be easier to use because it is placed predominantly on the phone home screen, which the operator controls, then people may use it. "But if their experience is lackluster or sub par or comparable, then they're at a disadvantage, because the brand strength and other tie-ins [from Google or Yahoo] are greater," he said.

JumpTap said its technology is superior to other mobile search offerings because it uses proprietary algorithms that are mobile-specific. In addition, JumpTap knows the search history and location of users, so it can display more relevant results and advertising, Soroca said.

In addition to the startups, competitors of Google and Yahoo in PC-based online search are working hard to prevent the search giants from dominating the mobile Internet. Microsoft is pursuing a foothold in mobile search and has an advantage through its Windows Mobile operating system. Phones running the OS feature a link to Microsoft's Live Search on the start page.

Also, AOL made a handful of announcements at the CTIA conference about new mobile services. It even had a booth, which included a small poster for JumpTap in the area of the stand promoting a new AOL mobile search offering. JumpTap said it could not discuss any relationship with AOL. AOL could not be reached for comment.

It's ironic that JumpTap may be fueling AOL, which ranks low among PC-based search offerings but has a strong brand. "The scenario that operators are concerned about, [JumpTap is] enabling" with AOL, Sterling noted. But from JumpTap's perspective, AOL looks like one more customer, he said.

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