Are Google, Yahoo the next dinosaurs?

"In the next 12 to 18 months we're going to see a growing segment of (consumers) using wireless services as the way to get on the Internet 95% of the time," says Imad Mouline, chief technology officer of Gomez, which helps Facebook, Expedia expe and other companies improve the quality of their Web presence. Currently, about 16% of cellphone owners use handheld devices to access the mobile Web, Jupiter says.

Entner, for one, thinks the mobile Web could produce a mighty rival to traditional desktop engines, one whose core strengths are rooted in the unique world of wireless. Such a newcomer, he says, "could wind up doing to Google what Google did to Yahoo" and other PC-based search engines. Namely, it could trump them in the marketplace.

To be sure, Google, a Web monster with a market value of more than $200 billion, would be tough to topple. But it's not impossible.

If it's not careful, Entner says, Google could wind up following in AOL's famous footsteps. AOL in the '90s was an online juggernaut with a gold-plated brand name and more than 30 million subscribers. Today, it's a free service with a dwindling base of about 8.7 million customers.

"Google is trying to replicate a 20-inch experience on a 2-inch screen, and that's leaving them, inevitably, about 90% short," he says.

Too much information

Making the leap to wireless is a lot trickier than it might appear.

For starters, there are those tiny screens. Internet search was designed for PC screens, which can easily accommodate loads of advertisements. The latter is critical, because search engines depend on ads for their financial survival.

In the PC environment, ads are abundant and constant. Paid advertisements are typically stripped along the right side of the PC screen, with premium spots at the top reserved for the biggest spenders.

Try that on a wireless device, and you'd quickly run out of room for anything else.

Similarly, the basic act of rendering searches also gets tough on a tiny screen.

In the online world, a single search request can result in a dozen or more pages of results. If results aren't specific enough, you simply resubmit a query. After a few tries, you usually find what you're looking for.

That entire process is a total non-starter in the wireless environment, says Sameer Mithal, a senior principal with IBB Consulting in Princeton, N.J.

Mobile consumers are typically on the run, he says, with little time or patience for typing on pint-size keypads. As for pages of search results — forget about it. There isn't nearly enough screen space for that, Mithal says.

And advertisements? Approach with care; otherwise, you may offend customers and lose them for good, Gomez's Mouline warns. "Not doing it thoughtfully can get you to a point where customers will abandon your entire brand."

Traditional search engines, to some extent, are victims of their own success. Basic search algorithms are designed to do a massive Web "crawl" each time a search request is received.

In the mobile environment, however, such thoroughness can be the digital equivalent of using a shotgun to take out a housefly — way too much firepower for the task at hand.

"The desktop search engines are what they are," Mithal shrugs. Even if you're only asking for a very specific thing — a sports score, for example — "they still have to search overall Web content."

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