Phone Keyboards and Seachers Using Predictive Query Suggestions

A few years back, finding myself stranded on the side of the road with a broken down pickup truck and being over an hour’s drive from home, I convinced myself to finally get a mobile phone.

broken down pickup truck

I didn’t necessarily want to have a phone hanging at my side all of the time, and I didn’t need it for work at that time. But it would have been useful in that emergency, and I wanted to start seeing what web sites looked like on a phone.

Search engines are also paying more attention to the smaller screens, and the more limited keyboards available to people who access the Web by phone. What influence do these constraints have upon the future of mobile search?

Studying Query Suggestions on Phones

In many cases, the future of the Web is on smaller screens, which presents challenges not only from a design stance, but also from how search engines may suggest queries and present results to searchers.

Internet access by phone is growing at a very quick clip, and will likely continue to do so. That’s why it isn’t surprising to see papers published from researchers at the major commercial search engines like one from Google titled Query Suggestions for Mobile Search: Understanding Usage Patterns

If you own a web site, or work on one, it might be time to start thinking about how your site looks on a phone, how people use your site, and how mobile search might influence whether your site will be found in searches made by people using phones.

While people do perform searches on mobile phones, using a standard nine number keyboard can be challenging. We are told that:

The average query on Google’s mobile search page is 15 letters long, but takes 30 key presses and approximately 40 seconds to enter

The paper describes a study which explores how people search on a mobile phone with nine number keyboards (a future study might look at users of phones with qwerty keyboards), and how they interact with query predictions and suggestions that appear as a searcher is typing a query into a search box.

Some Phone Search Usage Patterns

Some interesting observations came from the study:

  1. Mobile phone users will rely heavily on suggestions if they are provided.
  2. People asked to search on a system which provided query suggestions considered their workload lighter, their enjoyment higher, and saved half the keystokes than searchers who didn’t use a system offering query suggestions.
  3. Users tend to select the correct suggestion by the third time that it is shown.
  4. Users will accept suggestions even if it means an increase in the total number of key presses (scrolling down to select a suggestion instead of typing the rest of the word out on their keyboards).

It’s interesting that people will so readily choose query suggestions offered to them in a dropdown as they are typing in a query. What impact will that have on the words that people choose to use when they search?

Implications of Query Suggestions on Phones

We are told that the primary purpose behind the study was to:

…build a usage model of query suggestions in order to provide UI guidelines for mobile text prediction interfaces

What isn’t discussed in the paper are the possibility implications behind offering query suggestions to begin with.

I’ve written a few posts here before about Yahoo’s Predictive Searches and Alternative Search Query Predictions, as well as Google’s Dynamic Search Box, Predictive Information Retrieval, and Non Standard Text Entry.

Many of those posts go into some detail on how a search engine will determine which query suggestions to present when someone is typing a query into a search box, and my post on Yahoo’s Alternative Search Query Predictions provides a list on the types of suggestions that could be shown in predictive queries as well as the kinds of factors that might bias which results appear within a drop down.

The differences between how search engines interact with searchers using phones and searchers using bigger screens (and keyboards) may grow more pronounced in the future. I’ve written a couple of posts on how search engines might react to smaller screen sizes:

Google has also provided a look at local search and maps, and how it could change distances as a searcher tries to find destinations while moving around and searching through their mobile phones, which I wrote about in Smarter Google Maps Would Add Movement and Templates for Tasks

A couple of years from now, people searching on newer generation iPhones and other more capable smart phones and PDAs may be trying to find your site on their phones. Will they find you?

Pickup truck image from AdamosMaximus via Creative Commons license.

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26 thoughts on “Phone Keyboards and Seachers Using Predictive Query Suggestions”

  1. Clearly if it’s of interest to the search engines, we’ve got to take notice. However my reaction to all this is that mobile phones are designed to handle sound so why keep trying to use the keyboard to input data. I feel this work will be overtaken as speech technology and AI is refined. Interactive search is an obvious way to go.

  2. Hi Barry,

    Those are very good points. There are moments when speech technology is the appropriate technology on a device that’s so limited in size, and in ability to input. I’m looking forward to speech technology making phones even more capable. :)

    But the other characteristics of internet capable phones is their mobility and the ability to carry many in a pocket or on a belt clip.

    Even a small map is worth seeing if it can help you find a destination, keep from getting lost, or help you get your bearings once you might be.

    Being able to check emails, blog comments, forum postings, and more when waiting in line somewhere, or away from home, can be really convenient. I’d much rather read emails than have my phone read them to me.

    Some exciting times ahead.

  3. Hi Bill,

    I share the same views as Barry. One of the main purposes for a mobile, is its voice/sound capabilities.
    I am a very “addicted” user of mobile phones.
    Making calls just probably constitues about 30-40% of my usage.

    All remaining are split between browsing various/service provider wap sites or downloading/playing games etc…

    It would be awesome to see applications/technologies using which you can take your outlook anywhere anyplace.

    I do see new phones coming with features that embrace certain of these wap/internet stuff.
    But i just wish the operators would do more.

    If they did, i am sure, as a webmaster, i wouldnt want to miss out on this new “medium” :)

    On a side note, just imagine if the search wars also go to the mobile platform, we would have a new set of Mobile SEO’s :D

    Lovely isnt it :)

  4. Hi Praveen ,

    There’s no time like now to start thinking about how people might view your site on a phone, and how they might find it on a search engine that creates search shortcuts to help make it easier for people to find the information that they might be looking for.

    I don’t know if I use my phone that often for calls, but I do find in very convenient when I’m traveling, even a short distance away, and I want to find something nearby. :)

  5. Man you’re captcha questions are gettin tough! My question was math related, (I hate that), what is 7+9

    I had to plug in a calculator and kick off my shoes to get the answer :(
    ******************************
    >mobile phones are designed to handle sound so why keep trying to use the keyboard to input data

  6. Hi Bob,

    I have to do a few posts about captchas some time soon.

    mobile phones are designed to handle sound so why keep trying to use the keyboard to input data

    Because we can?

    Seriously, I would rather read my email than have it read to me. I would rather check some checkboxes, then answer yes or no to a long list of spoken questions. I really haven’t been too pleased with many of the “smart menus” on phones that I have to deal with.

    I had a problem with my FIOS connection a couple of weeks ago, and the automated system decided to send me a new hub that (1) I didn’t ask for, and (2) that it didn’t tell me that it was going to send me. The “intelligence” in AI is still overrated these days.

    I like my little qwerty keyboard on my little smart phone, and I don’t understand why you all want me to talk with automated systems. :)

    I’m looking forward to smarter speech technology, and being able to dictate a blog post on my phone sounds like a lot of fun, as long as I’m able to edit what I dictated with my keyboard if I feel like it. :)

    The ability to pull my phone out of my pocket, while I’m sitting in a parking lot 100 miles from home, and find a hotel, or a restaurant, or a place to shop, or directions on how to get back to the highway home is wonderful, and I don’t mind typing on a little keyboard to do it.

  7. I am new to this SEO thing, trying to get more interest in our charity through search. I was recommend your blog as a good place to start for beginners. After reading two of your articles I am now thinking I was sent here as a joke – this is pretty heady stuff. Hopefully will be able to understand more soon.

  8. Hi Adult,

    I love your site, and its mission. If you have questions about anything that I write here, please feel free to ask, either in the comments or by using the contact form.

    I don’t mind answering, and I’d love to see what you are attempting to do with your pages succeed.

    I also have a lot of SEO related sites in my blog roll, and I’d recommend that you start exploring some of them. You may find some that you feel comfortable with, and that can help you learn more about how your charity site can be found more easily on the Web.

  9. Praveen said: …we would have a new set of Mobile SEO.

    Would we really? I have no intention of changing anything on my site. The structure is logical, I use anchor text in all my links and the site degrades nicely with CSS and images turned off. I use a hamdheld.css to simplyfy the layout so it’s fairly accessible for any browser. It follows therefore that if the SE concentrate on ‘mobile friendly’ websites I’m already there. The people who are going to struggle are those with lots of nested tables, JS navigation, scripts, lots of images and so on.

    And on a different note. Content is going to become far more important on mobile devices. On my tiddly little screen I don’t have room for anything else but the actual news/route/address. All your beautiful backgrounds, curves, subtle shades and fluid three column layout are wasted since I can’t see them! But if your structure is sound you can filter out all the bits you don’t want with your CSS ready for display on my mobile phone.

  10. Hi Graham,

    Thanks. You raise some great points.

    One issue that many may want to consider is that when search engines present web pages on their wireless access proxy (WAP) pages, they may just ignore separate style sheets for mobile devices, and may rewrite navigation text, break pages up into the blocks that they think are most important, and so on.

    I do agree that sites with “lots of nested tables, JS navigation, scripts, lots of images and so on,” are going to have issues with being displayed on smaller screens, and may not even be included by the search engines in mobile search. And yes, content will take precedence over designs constructed for desktop viewers. That makes things interesting.

    While you may not need much help with your site showing up well on handhelds, many may…

  11. I agree Bill,

    My site works well on the newer phones but is pretty pants on my old RAZR. But it still works. The answer, as both you and I have suggested, is to make sure you have a simple and clean document structure. At least this way you have a chance of accessible from a mobile device.

    It may be that the increase in mobile internet will see a return to the good old days when sites were compact and efficient, images properly optimised and all extraneous code relegated to code bin of history.

    But I doubt it. Even now half the sites I look at on my mobile device require plugins or simply fail to work. But I bet the designers took home a barrow load of cash for their stunning design…

  12. Hi Graham,

    This site needs an overhaul, with a new look and feel, and attention to what it appears like on small screens. That should be coming within the next few months. It’s somewhat overdue.

    I suspect that the sites that do provide interfaces that work well on phones will benefit from their efforts tremendously. It’s a potential advantage for those paying attention to emerging technology.

  13. You must have been the only person in Delaware with a Pickup!

    I am a little timid and unsure about mobile phone technology. I have done some testing with it and don’t feel that the investment is there for me. I would be interested to see how mobile works for you.

    I feel that several industries (travel, auto shops, restaurants) would do really well with it. In fact I have talked to some of these and they don’t want to devote resources to develop for mobile users.

  14. Hi Chris,

    Funny but at one time, most of my friends had pickup trucks, too. Most of them were traded in for SUVs or cars with room for child seats.

    With the announcement of a faster and cheaper iphone, I suspect that we are going to see a lot more people browsing the web on their phones.

    There may be some other industries that benefit from setting themselves up for mobile, but I think the ones that you identify are good choices. Shame that some don’t want to get involved, but that provides opportunities for the ones that do. :)

  15. Phones these days are capable already of viewing html pages. Even when my phone was still N6600 which like 2 years ago, i can already view pages on the phone through Opera mobile browser. The SEO thing is I guess still applicable to mobile browsers in the same way it is to normal pc browsers.

  16. Hi Abstractmind,

    My post isn’t so much about the ability of phones to browse the web, or even aspects of SEO related to using a phone to browse the Web. Instead, it’s about some of the contraints that a search engine, and a site designer, and an SEO might have to consider because of smaller screens and more limited keyboards.

    A search engine showing predictive query suggestions, so that searchers using phones don’t have to type as much is one kind of response that search engines are adopting. What does that mean for people who try to use certain words on their pages in the hope that someone will search for those words to find that page?

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  18. Very interesting observations, although this article is older it still has some great points.

  19. Hi Mike,

    Thank you. Mobile phone usage is definitely one of the drivers behind what the search engines do these days, with more and more people connecting to the Web and internet with smaller devices that they can both carry around with them and safely stow away in a pocket.

  20. hello
    i was just writing a review on a research paper by Maryam Kamvar and Shumeet Baluja (Query suggestionn for mobile search: understanding Usage Patterns) and found this article somewhat relevant.Nice observations.

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