Yahoo quietly released a major upgrade to their mobile web based search product last month. I’m surprised that there wasn’t more buzz on this as I think it’s a pretty big deal. I can’t find an official Yahoo announcement and only one blogger, a Yahoo employee, seems to have written anything about it.
So what’s new? The big change is that when you do a Web search, Yahoo now includes mobile sites in the results – Yahoo used to only search for desktop sites and returned a transcoded-to-mobile copy of site. The problem with that is that transcoded PC web sites are usually not very attractive or even usable on handheld browsers. To me, transcoding is a crutch that lets you get to data that isn’t otherwise available in a mobile format. Someday we may have “one web” usable on both desktop and mobile but that will require both better mobile browsers and greater awareness of the needs of mobile users on the part of web designers. Lately the number of true mobile sites has been growing at an astounding rate and I want my mobile search to first and foremost find mobile sites. Only if I’m not satisfied with the mobile results, will I even look at the transcoded desktop results.
Google has pretty much owned the mobile search space since they launched their mobile web search in 2001. There simply haven’t been any other true mobile search sites. Oh, there are other sites that claim to do mobile search. I list a number of them in the Wap Review directory under Search/Web-WAP Search. But other than Google I don’t think any of those sites actually have working web crawlers, they are just searching a static local database of submitted sites.
Yahoo is offering the first real alternative to Google in mobile web search. In my trials it works pretty well. When you do a mobile search on Google you have to specify if you want to search the “Web” or the “Mobile Web”. With Yahoo, you just do a “Web” search. The results page lists the 3 top “Web” results (top image) followed by the 3 top “Mobile Web” results (2nd image). Below the web results is a More Web Results link and below the mobile results there’s a More Mobile Web Results link. Interestingly, if do your search on the UK Yahoo portal (uk.sushi.wap.yahoo.com/p/search), the mobile results come first before the web results while on Yahoo’s US portal (us.wap.yahoo.com/p/search) the order is reversed. I don’t know if this is a coincidence or if Yahoo believes British mobile users value mobile results more highly than we in do in the US.
When you visit a desktop web site from the “Web Results” group within Yahoo search the results are transcoded by Yahoo into a more mobile friendly form. Actually, Yahoo only transcodes results if it recognizes that your browser is not a full web browser. So if you try mobile search from Opera Mobile or Mini, any version of Netfront or Pocket Internet Explorer you’ll get the full desktop version rather than the transcoded one. This is generally a good thing as the aforementioned browsers do a much better job of adapting desktop sites to a mobile format than any of the transcoders. I did note a problem with Sanyo’s CDMA phones for Sprint which have a Netfront browser that is not a full web browser. These Sanyo phones need a transcoder to handle most desktop pages but Yahoo won’t serve transcoded content to them.
I found Yahoo’s transcoder is rather limited. It does split large pages into multiple smaller ones and it tries to hide menus to emphasise the content “meat” of pages. But unlike Skweezer, and the transcoders connected to Google, AOL and Windows Live mobile search, Yahoo’s doesn’t re-size images to fit the mobile screen – it simply strips all images out. Here are some screen shots comparing Nokia Europe’s main support page as it appears in the Yahoo (image right), Google (below left) and AOL (below right) transcoders. While the Yahoo transcoded pages work pretty well most of the time they certainly aren’t very pretty. I did a 4 part post on the mobile transcoder landscape a year ago before Yahoo’s transcoder was available. In those posts I tested each transcoder’s ability to render this blog and the Southwest Airlines site, www.southwest.com. The Yahoo transcoder did pretty with the WAP Review Blog. Long pages were split at around 8KB which should work on any device and the search form worked properly. The comment and contact forms didn’t, failing with the message “Unable to adapt page for mobile browser”. I got the same error on on a couple of other pages but when I retried it worked on the second try. The Yahoo transcoder did not do as well with the Southwest Airlines site test which consists of going through the steps of booking a flight. Only one of the other transcoders (Phonifier) was able to complete this task but Yahoo did worse than most – the first reservations page was unusable because it was missing all the entry fields like travel dates, departure and arrival airports and even the submit button – there was no way to even start the process of booking a flight! Compared with the other seven transcoders I looked at a year ago, I’d put Yahoo in the bottom half of the pack, behind Google, AOL, MobileLeap and Skweezer.
While I wasn’t wowed by Yahoo’s transcoder, I’m very pleased to see that Google finally has real competition in the mobile search field. Yahoo consistently returned more mobile hits than Yahoo for the searches I tried. In quality and relevance of mobile results I rate Yahoo and Google roughly equal although both returned a much higher percentage of irrelevant or duplicate hits than than the same searches of the full web. I think this is a function of there being so many more desktop web sites than mobile ones. Web searches are sorted by relevance so with fewer total results, the less relevant ones appear nearer to the top of the list.
Yahoo Mobile Web Search: xhtml-mp
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