Search Engine Shoot-Out

Mobile Search

Using search on a mobile phone or other handheld device is a unique and sometimes frustrating experience. Odds are you're traveling and you want quick, local information, like directions to a nearby restaurant or gas station, the phone number of a long-lost friend, or tickets to a baseball game. But your device's 12-button keypad or tiny thumb keyboard makes entering the wrong street address or zip code far too easy. Depending on your ISP and your physical location, your mobile Internet connection may not be particularly fast or reliable. And obviously, the road is no place to be searching for videos.

All of the major search services help you retrieve local information on a mobile device. We found Microsoft Live Search for Mobile offered the most accurate local results, but only by a small margin over Google Maps, Yahoo Local, Ask City, and Whitepages.com. Live Search for Mobile worked particularly well at finding contact information for businesses and people. That said, you'll want to use at least two mobile search sites, as different engines excel in different areas. For instance, if you're searching for phone-book-style information, use Live Search for Mobile, Superpages.com, or WhitePages.com. To find an online ticket seller for baseball seats, go to Ask.com, Google, or Yahoo--but use their Web search rather than the local-search option.

What's the difference between the two? The Web search allows traditional queries. Using our baseball example, if you're in Los Angeles, you can enter "dodgers tickets" and find an online ticket site such as StubHub. In contrast, local search may help you find the name, address, and phone number of a nearby ticket dealer--the kind of information you'd get from a phone book--but what you're probably looking for at the moment is an online seller.

The mobile search engines we tested are optimized for handhelds. Some accomplish this more gracefully than others, however. On our first visit to Google Maps and Yahoo Local via our Nokia E62 phone, we had to click the Mobile link on their home pages to view the modified display; on follow-up visits, both sites automatically switched to the mobile interface. By comparison, Ask City, Superpages.com, and WhitePages.com immediately recognized that we were connecting through a handheld and offered their mobile-friendly interfaces automatically. Using Live Search for Mobile was somewhat confusing: The main site, www.live.com, isn't optimized for mobile devices. Rather, we had to manually browse to m.live.com to access the mobile-optimized service.

Even though the search engines are optimized for handheld browsers, most of the sites they'll point you to aren't. StubHub, for instance, is built for conventional browsing only, which makes it painful to navigate on the Nokia's miniature screen. Indeed, when you're viewing only a small portion of the page at a time, it's easier to get lost. Ask City is one of several sites that attempt to reformat a page to fit the small screen, but the results are often just as difficult to use.

Chart: Dial Into the Local Scene

Newcomer Microsoft Live Search for Mobile edges out Google Maps atop our list of services that retrieve local info; local specialists trailed despite their many noteworthy features. Click the icon below to see how the tested engines performed, including their scores in each round.

Dial Into the Local Scene
Newcomer Microsoft Live Search for Mobile edges out Google Maps atop our list of services that retrieve local info; local specialists trailed despite their many noteworthy features.
Service First round Second round Third round Average Comments
Live Search for Mobile - - - 19 Very good at finding names and directions. But the main Live.com URL doesn't accommodate mobile devices; you have to navigate to m.live.com.
Google Maps 18 18 18 18 A tad better than most. The service is great for maps, directions, and restaurant searches but poor for locating long-lost friends.
Yahoo Local 15 15 17 16 Yahoo's local search scored well overall, though it doesn't list the distance between a business and your location (no "1.2 miles," for example).
WhitePages.com 15 15 15 15 The service did well in our restaurant and person searches; but it's not a good choice for general queries, such as finding an online ticket broker.
Ask City 14 14 14 14 To get driving directions, Ask City required that we enter a full street address (like 123 Main St.) rather than just a city name.
Superpages.com 14 14 14 14 Online phone book is great for local names and businesses, plus maps and directions.
Chart notes: The average score is composed of scores from three rounds of testing. Our scoring awarded a search engine three points if the first link in the results led to the target answer or site (or if the answer itself appeared at the top of the results page or within the first result). A link to the correct answer as the second or third result was worth two points, and a link to the correct response elsewhere in the top ten results scored one point. If the target answer or item didn't appear anywhere on the first page, we awarded no points to the search engine. A new version of Live Search for Mobile launched at the end of our test period, so we tested it only once.
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