Monday interview: JumpTap's Eric McCabe on why mobile search is more about music than sex

Interviews, Mobile phones

For many people, mobile search is what they do when they’re about to leave the house, and suddenly realise they’ve left their Nokia down the back of the sofa. Yet in the mobile industry, it means something different. It’s about internet-type search engines on your phone, allowing you to search for content either directly from your  handset, or on your mobile operator’s portal (think Vodafone Live or O2 Active).

Some big names from the Web world are piling into mobile search, for example Google and Yahoo. But there are also several mobile-only search companies working with operators in this area. One such is U.S. firm JumpTap. I chatted to VP of marketing Eric McCabe to find out more about what people are searching for on their mobiles, and why he thinks his company can compete with the goliaths of the Internet world.

“We’re a white-label provider focused purely on mobile search,” says McCabe. “We work with the mobile operators, and offer them a set of products so they can launch their own operator-branded search to their customers. It’s the user-interface, the search engine itself, and then the advertising suite allowing people to do pay-per-click or other forms of advertising.”

The company currently has deals with five North American operators, and are pitching to operators here in Europe at the moment. So what do operators want to do with mobile search? Why would they work with a company like JumpTap?

“Initially, they want some kind of way to help people find more digital content, mostly on their own portals,” says McCabe. “They want to sell more stuff, basically. But they quickly see that they need to offer more to their subscribers.”

According to JumpTap, when people search for something on their operator portal, they’ll find it between 60% and 70% of the time. For example, you might search for ‘Madonna’, and your phone will come back with some ringtones to buy. But what if your search is one of the 30-40% that don’t correspond to a piece of content your operator can sell you?

This is where ‘off-portal’ search starts to become important, where the operator allows you to see search results from people who aren’t part of its portal, and tries to make money by selling advertising around different search terms, much like Google does on the Web. “The operators are all thinking in this direction, and some are moving ahead with it, but they have to figure out a strategy around advertising,” says McCabe.

So what kinds of things are people searching for on their phones? Earlier this year, JumpTap released some research from its users, showing that 58% of mobile searches are for music artists, followed by 12% for adult content, 8% for games, 5% for sports, 5% for TV and then 7% for other stuff.

The company also released its Top 20 most popular searches, which makes for interesting reading:

1. eminem
2. 50 cent
3. sean paul
4. shakira
5. sex
6. metallica
7. family guy
8. porn
9. t.i.
10. madonna
11. playboy
12. tetris
13. reggae
14. rihanna
15. country
16. tv theme
17. theme
18. game theme
19. nhl
20. Disney

McCabe says that this kind of information can directly affect what content operators have on their portals, particularly when they receive the data quick enough to make changes in response.

“We might say ‘hey, a song called SexyBack by Justin Timberlake is one of the top searches, but you’re not showing that many results, so you need to source more content for this particular song’,” says McCabe, who is also vocal about the differences between web search and mobile search (not least because it provides an opportunity to have a crafty dig at rival Google).

“Mobile search is much more about getting to actions and answers, rather than just seeing a long list of links,” he says. “Google’s mobile search is basically their internet results presented on the mobile screen. You still get a million results back.

“We have tried to get people right to a particular piece of content based on the word they’re searching for, and the context that it’s in. If you’re searching for an artist, we’ll bring back a list of images and ringtones. If it’s more of a local thing, we’ll bring back addresses and numbers of restaurants.”

However, McCabe says local search is not that common yet, although this may change in the future. People apparently say they would like to search for local things – maps, directions, restaurants etc – on their mobile, but in practice they’re not doing it much.

But getting back to those big rivals, aren’t companies like Google and Yahoo going to dominate mobile search? Operators like T-Mobile and Vodafone have already been keen to sign deals to put Google on their portals, for example. McCabe says their attitudes are changing, however.

“Their first initiative was to work with Google because they have a great brand, and they thought it would drive more usage,” he says. “What they’re doing now is coming back to us and saying now they understand this market a bit better, they want to work with a white-label provider. And Google is increasingly a competitor for them, offering search but also telecommunications-type services, from VoIP to Wi-Fi to Google Wallet for purchasing things.”

JumpTap might not ever be a brand mobile users will be familiar with in the same way they are with Google and Yahoo – not least because of its policy of providing white-label services to operators – but its technology, and the wider area of mobile search, will become increasingly important in the coming months and years.

Stuart Dredge
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