How Google Do Mobile Search

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Editor’s note: This article is written by Amit Singhal, Google Fellow. If you would like to contribute too, please contact me.

Google mobile search

The types of searches that people do on high-end smartphones are surprisingly similar to the kinds of searches they do on their desktop. When users are away from their desktop computers, they are likely to be on their mobile devices.

Despite similar search behaviour and activity, there are some unique challenges for Google and other search engines when it comes to mobile search. For instance, creating a good mobile search experience is far more complicated than simply shrinking the Google homepage to fit on a smaller screen.

Mobile is a crucible for three elements that are hard to get right on the desktop: speed, relevance and design. All of those are important on a PC, but they are absolutely critical on mobile. How have web companies like Google responded? By looking at these elements to ensure mobile is a big part of the future of search.

Speed: how Google deals with low powered devices and slow Web connections

People are impatient when they are searching on mobile – they’re on the go and they need an answer now (e.g. driving directions). Network speeds are beyond Google’s control yet are the key factor for speed to result in many cases. But what is within Google’s control, and what can be done to help users arrive to relevant results as quickly as possible?

Firstly, we know that people tend to repeat searches on their mobile devices, much more than on the desktop, so we automatically pull up your recent search history when you tap the search box

Sometimes it’s faster to say it than to type it. With Voice Search, you don’t have to spend time jabbing at your keyboard. Mobile Instant Previews let you quickly flip through images of search result pages so you can better assess which ones will be most useful.

Relevance: finding the right results, the very first time

On mobile, search sessions are on average, shorter than they are on the desktop – people don’t have time to refine their query, search again, etc. Some of the hard work that Google put into ensuring our desktop results are relevant is paying off with mobile. Universal Search, for instance, is really important on mobile because users can get the most relevant results across different types of results with a single query. If you search “how to tie a bow tie,” you will not only get websites with illustrations in your top search results but also YouTube instructional videos without having to search separately on YouTube.

Where you are matters much more on mobile because information about your location is much more useful than when you are on desktop. If you search for “Mydin’ on the desktop we might return a link to, but on mobile, our rankings would be different and we might show you a map with nearby Mydin store locations.

One way to search that currently exists only on mobile is to hit the Near Me Now button on the mobile home screen that brings up businesses and locations nearby.

Design: interaction and ease of use

On mobile devices, we are literally ‘all thumbs’. Keyboards are more difficult to navigate, screens are smaller so it is more difficult to give users navigational instructions and tools and things that are evident on the desktop are confusing on a smartphone.

Making smart User Interface and User Experience design choices, especially ones that take advantage of a mobile device’s “senses” (skin/touch screen, “eyes”/camera), is critical to overcoming these challenges.

Typing on a keyboard is difficult, especially for longer queries and those in languages that use non-Latin scripts – but you can say a query much more easily than you could type it. Some technologies make more sense when they can fit in your pocket. Google Translate on the desktop is a great product, but when we were able to give users a translation tool on their mobile devices, we opened up a whole new set of use cases, as well as a whole new set of product possibilities for our engineers.

Additionally, taking a picture can be even easier than speaking, especially if you’re not sure what you are looking at (like at an art exhibit) or where you would prefer not to speak your query aloud (in a fancy restaurant). So Google Goggles is a great way to perform a search based on an image.

Fun facts about mobile search

  • Mobile and mobile search are growing… and fast!
  • Globally, more smartphones are being shipped than PCs, a testament to the rocketing adoption of high-end mobile devices
  • With their smartphones, people are doing more searches – way more searches. iPhone users perform as many as 50x more Web searches than users of standard mobile feature phones
  • Mobile searches on devices with full Internet browsers have increased 4x in the past year [Fortune]
  • Today, over 50% of new Internet connections are coming from mobile devices. By the end of 2011, there will be over one billion mobile internet users worldwide, twice as many as there were last year.
  • Every week, tens of millions of people search on Google from their mobile phones and generate hundreds of millions of searches
  • Google is experiencing this mobile search growth first hand. Mobile search traffic grew 50% in the first half of 2010 [from Eric Schmidt’s keynote at IFA, 9/7/10]
  • Worldwide, mobile search experienced a 2.3x growth between Q4 2009 and Q4 2010. Over the past 2 years, we’ve grown 5x

Guest post: This article is written is by Amit Singhal, Google Fellow. According to the New York Times, Mr. Singhal is the master of what Google calls its “ranking algorithm” — the formulas that decide which Web pages best answer each user’s question. Amit got interested in the problem of search in 1990 at University of Minnesota. After getting a Ph.D. in search in 1996, Amit joined ATT Labs and continued his research in search and other related fields. In 2000, he joined Google and today runs a team in Google’s Search Quality group. He is and his team are responsible for the Google search algorithms.

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