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Mobile Web remains a mystery to most : Dumbing down the Internet key for wireless market

The mobile information superhighway is in need of some serious maintenance.
That’s the take-away from a new Yankee Group evaluation of 32 consumer-facing mobile Web sites. The market research firm scored the sites on a scale of one to 100, grading them on 25 criteria including effectiveness, design and ease of use.
The top score was an unimpressive 67. The average score? Just 54.
“I would make the argument that today’s mobile Web is very similar to where the World Wide Web was in 1994, 1995,” said Carl Howe, director of Yankee Group’s Anywhere Consumer research group, during a Webinar presenting his findings. “If we think of mobile Web sites the way we look at an average seventh-grade class, everyone so far, unfortunately, is failing.”

Success in numbers
And that failure comes as the wireless Web expands beyond early adopters to mainstream users. More than 40 million U.S. consumers actively accessed the Net from a mobile phone in May, according to Nielsen Mobile, nearly doubling the number of mobile Internet users in July 2006.
Howe’s findings echo a recent study from Bango that found half of Nielsen Mobile’s 20 most-visited online destinations “did not work well” on such popular handsets as Motorola Inc.’s Razr V3 and Nokia Corp.’s 6300, both on AT&T Mobility’s network. AT&T Mobility users visiting sites from Fox, Microsoft Corp. and Apple Inc. were greeted with the error message “Page cannot be displayed,” for instance – indicating mobile users may not have been redirected to a made-for-mobile page – while Vodafone U.K. visitors to Wikipedia’s site were forced to scroll at length to retrieve information.
“It kind of underscores the attention you have to pay” when building an Internet site for wireless devices, according Andy Sullivan, VP of account management for Crisp Wireless, a New York-based firm that develops mobile Web destinations. “You’re not optimizing for what that browser can support. There’s a huge range of browser functionality out there from low-end browsers that can just support images to high-end browsers that can support JavaScript, tables and other things. Which is why we feel you need to develop five or six versions of a mobile site” to really address the market.
That’s a sure way to reach as many devices as possible, of course, offering bare-bones content for cheap handsets and more sophisticated stuff for users with iPhones or other tricked-out gadgets. But building a half-dozen sites doesn’t just require additional investment, it doesn’t guarantee that users will be directed to the correct destination. Browsers with certain kinds of transcoding technology sometimes route users to PC-centric sites, as Sprint Nextel Corp. discovered earlier this year, automatically formatting content for the device and bypassing made-for-mobile sites altogether.

Information overload
There are countless other hurdles on the wireless Web, of course, from a lack of a standardized URL format (.mobi or .com?) to an inability to support many desktop features to the small screens and limited processing power inherent in wireless phones. So while surfers may appreciate eye-popping graphics and endless menus on their desktops, those features usually cause more headaches than their worth on a phone.
“Less is more” in wireless, Howe urged. “Too many sites actually try to give you too much information, and the challenge on the Web for a mobile device is that you really need to express yourself in somewhere between 30 and 50 words. This is not an environment that encourages long, detailed explanations, and unfortunately too many companies don’t really have the skill of boiling things down to just a few words and just a few links.”
But simply presenting a truncated version of an online site isn’t enough; publishers also need to remember why people access the Internet on their phones – and how that behavior differs from traditional Web browsing. Most consumers are likely to wait until they get home or to the office to perform complicated tasks like balancing bank accounts and doing their Christmas shopping on their PCs, Sullivan said, and will typically use the phone to quickly check out a few pages before moving along.
“A lot of building a good mobile site is about navigation and the content you choose to have on your site,” he explained. “You can’t just take content from a wired site, throw it onto a mobile site and hope people will navigate it the way they do the regular Internet. People aren’t used to navigating the mobile Web, so we really need to dumb it down. . I think another thing that’s really important is to offer content mobile users want right away, right up front.”

Airline model
Indeed, that strategy is serving American Airlines well in wireless, Howe said. The air carrier’s traditional Web site offers a dizzying display with a trip planner, special offers and a host of other options, but a stripped-down mobile destination is designed for users looking to check the status of their flights or view an existing reservation.
“What American did that stood out from so many other mobile Web sites is that they reprioritized for the mobile user. They said, ‘What’s the mobile user most likely to be doing, going to be wanting, from American Airlines?’ Howe said. “They rethought the mobile experience, and this is what put them head and shoulders (above) all of the other airlines.”

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