Find It Knows Navigates Local Mobile Search

With all the talk about the magical things users will be able to do with their mobile phones, from watching TV to surfing the Web, developers may have lost sight of the thing most people are likely to want their handsets to do most often: help them find their way to goods and services they need when they’re out of the house.

Up to now, the mobile version of local search has been an often-exasperating exercise in how much thumb-typing you can do before you give up and ask the guy standing next to you where the post office is. But mobile carrier Sprint Nextel and online directory provider InfoSpace have launched an innovative product that can fill that gap, and in a way that most users should find pretty friendly.

Bellevue WA-based InfoSpace has been around for a while and has made a business providing mobile content to users and mobile Web portals to carriers. (The company also is parent to metasearch engines Dogpile and Webcrawler and the online directory Switchboard.com.) Now its mobile division has entered into a non-exclusive deal to supply wireless carrier Sprint Nextel’s subscribers with an application that lets their phones keep track of where they are when they ask for local directions. The technology relies on the global positioning system (GPS) function that’s required for all new handsets in the U.S., so their users can be located by emergency services.

By integrating GPS with local directory content, InfoSpace has come up with a new way to let mobile users looking for retail services or maps on their cell phones get around the pain point of having to find and enter their location before turning up results.

Infospace’s original approach to mobile content was grounded in what Rod Diefendorf, the company’s vice president of online and local search, calls “info-snacking”: news headlines, stock quotes, sports scores and horoscopes. From there, the company progressed to downloadable content and applications like ringtones, wallpaper and graphics. Eventually, they also found their way into licensing content from Web publishers, primarily games and entertainment partners.

Much of the local directory content being served by the new FindIt application will also be licensed from a variety of sources, including data aggregatros such as Acxiom and INfoUSA, locally Yellow Pages print publishers and Internet Yellow Pages operations like YellowPages.com, Verizon SuperPages.com and Dex.

Users will need to download the Find It application to their cellphones and then pay a $2.99 monthly fee for the service. When they log in using a mobile phone, they’ll see a start page that lists their geographic location at the top and offers three choices: Search by name, Browse by category or Maps and directions. Browsing categories brings up a page with some half dozen basic options: Dine Out, Go Out, Shop (which displays stores categorized as men’s or women’s apparel, malls, groceries and convenience stores), Travel (including taxis and hotels), Health, and Services, a category that includes businesses from dry cleaners and Kinko’s copy shops to ATMs.

Clicking on the “Dine out” category will bring up a menu of culinary choices, or the user can simply click on “All restaurants” to get a list of everything Find It has found in the neighborhood.

“We conceived of this as a lifestyle tool for users and tried to make it as easy and intuitive to use as possible,” Diefendorf says. “If a user’s looking for a movie, they can easily navigate under ‘Go out’ to which movie they want to see, and then get the location of the theater nearest to them that’s showing that movie, with the times of the shows and a synopsis of the movie. Once you’ve selected which movie and time you want, we can show other things nearby, such as restaurants and ATM machines, along with giving directions on how to get from where you are now to the theater.”

“Under the old way of doing all that on a mobile phone, you would have had to use two or even three separate applications—a movie guide, a city guide and a mapping program,” says Joe Herzog, senior director of emerging products for InfoSpace. “When we did focus groups in developing the service, that was a consumer frustration that we were really trying to eliminate. We found that the majority of users needed help navigating through the 15,000 business categories they might want to search for via mobile. So we focused down to six broad categories and a set of sub-menus of things most people want to do when they’re out and about. We really paid attention to presenting options that involved the shortest click-distance getting around the app.”

Users searching a category will see either the top three, five or seven listings, depending on the size of their phone screen. Each listing will show the business’s name, its distance from their current location, and an obviously truncated portion of the street address. If users click on one of those listings, they will see the full address and a live click-to-call phone number, along with links to map directions and to a list of other businesses nearby. Clicking on a specific movie and theater will also produce other movies being shown in the same multiplex. The map can also be anchored on a future stop, so that users can get directions from the movie they plan to see to the restaurant where they’ll stop for dessert.

That level of detail begins to make the $2.99 monthly sub fee for Find It look pretty reasonable—especially considering that most mobile carriers charge around $1.50 for directory calls that, at best, simply connect you by phone to the business you’re trying to reach.

Herzog says one of the biggest obstacles to including GPS in a mobile directory application—and one of Find It’s most defensible technologies—was the ability to get geo-location to work inside offices and building structures. Most mobile Web directory searches can go down to the ZIP code as a positioning tool, and even then users have to key in their location manually.

Another roadblock until recently has been the relatively small number of phones in the U.S. with GPS inside. As people upgrade their handsets, however, that picture is changing. The Sprint Nextel deal will give Find It access to users of about 25 different phone models the carrier serves, reaching about 30 million of its subscribers.

Marketers have been strategizing around the GPS feature since long before the Federal Communications Commission mandated its inclusion in mobile phones. Early on, it was seen as an opportunity for mobile marketing, raising the prospect that retailers might push coupons or offers to anyone who carried a phone past a Starbucks or Banana Republic. Government regulations and consumer resistance have derailed such blatant marketing efforts.

That’s what makes the InfoSpace Find It platform an interesting approach to monetizing GPS. Diefendorf says that once the service begins to establish some traction with users, InfoSpace will look more deeply into letting local marketers spend to enhance their listings with more prominent displays, user ratings, and pay-per-call options. Local merchants may also get the opportunity to add mobile coupons or special offers to their listings.

“This is an ad-based business for us,” says Diefendorf. “But in the first releases we’re focusing on providing a great user experience and mobile relevancy.” When the concept proves out through consumer acceptance, that will be the time to work on the ad revenue model—either by selling directly to marketers or by working out an ad share with market aggregators.

Another development to come is real-time navigation possibilities for the maps. Right now users who want turn-by-turn directions must get them by prompting the map, telling the service that they’ve progressed to the next portion of the directions. But Diefendorf says InfoSpace will in the future let the GPS system take over the navigation, so that your phone will constantly pinpoint your position and feed you the next turn when you’re ready to take it.

He adds that there’s plenty of opportunity to bring the Find it platform to other mobile carriers in North America, and Infospace is in talks with other wireless service providers.

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