InfoSpace, Fast deepen mobile collaboration

Companies' ongoing collaboration expands even more with their new hosted search program for mobile phones

Fast Search & Transfer and InfoSpace have expanded the scope of a years-long collaboration in mobile search, aiming to improve the technology they offer to carriers and end users.

The companies have developed a hosted search service they will offer to carriers, which in turn can offer it under their own brand, Fast Search and InfoSpace announced Monday.

In recent years, Fast Search and InfoSpace have provided mobile search engines to carriers -- individually and jointly -- but this new service represents a deeper partnership that goes beyond joint licensing and marketing. It involves ongoing research and development as the vendors seek to edge out competitors in mobile search functionality.

They will focus on improvements to the search index, development of a mobile ad platform, expansion of their existing filtering and recommendation capabilities, and refinement of "zero term" search, in which content is pushed out to users based on their preferences and profiles and without requiring a keyword query, said Michael Brady, Fast Search's senior director of mobile business development.

Since 2001, Fast Search has focused on the enterprise search market, but it is convinced consumer mobile search is worth pursuing because it is expected to grow significantly in users and advertising revenue in the coming years, Brady said. InfoSpace specializes in mobile content delivery and search.

Industry analyst Iain Gillott of iGR said carriers feel more comfortable with "white-label" deals because they like to maintain as much control as possible over subscribers. Having Google or Yahoo pushing ads directly to their customers terrifies them, Gillott said.

A big challenge mobile search providers will face is getting users comfortable with search on their cell phones. "Search isn't the first thing that jumps to mind when you open up your phone," Gillott said. Fast Search and InfoSpace will need to work with carriers to make their search engine visible and easily accessible on handsets, he said.

The mobile search ad market is so small and new that Jupiter Research considered it almost nonexistent until the end of 2006, although the market research company plans to issue a forecast for it this year, analyst Julie Ask said. There is no clear market leader at this very early stage of the game.

The main ad-related challenge for mobile search providers will be to gain a big enough audience for their inventories of ads, Ask said.

Then comes the issue of relevance. "If I am online and type 'Bruce Springsteen' into Google, I receive 2.75 million listings. This is useless on a mobile device. They need to assume that I have intentions that are different on a mobile device than on my PC," Ask said.

For example, if a user enters the name of a recording artist such as Springsteen, the mobile search engine should assume the user may be looking for ringtones, wallpaper photos, or concert tickets, Ask wrote.