The bar-bet phenomenon: increasing diversity in mobile searches

May 7, 2009

Posted by Maryam Kamvar, Melanie Kellar, Rajan Patel and Ya Xu, Google Research

Historically, research suggests that web search on mobile phones has been limited when compared to the diverse set of queries which comprise computer-based search. Researchers attribute the homogeneous mobile search behavior in part to the phone's form factor and browsing capabilities. However, our new logs-based study indicates that high-end phones, like the iPhone, are changing the landscape of mobile search. We found that search from these phones has evolved not only to mimic computer web search patterns, but to exceed the expectations set by conventional web search in some cases.

We see iPhone searches mimicking computer-based search behavior in terms of query length (~3 words per query for computer and iPhone queries, as opposed to 2.5 words per query for conventional mobile queries) and query classification (notably the percentage of Adult and Entertainment searches have decreased on the iPhone relative to conventional mobile phones). But what is most surprising to us is that frequent searchers on iPhone surpass frequent searchers on computers in terms of the diversity of queries they issue. In other words, people are using high-end phones to search for a more diverse set of information needs than computers are used for; we jokingly refer to this as the "bar-bet" phenomenon -- or the "pub-quiz" phenomenon for those of you in the UK.

We devised a metric for quantifying the variability of a user’s search intentions across time. This variability metric, entro-percent, is a normalized entropy metric which compares the number of search tasks issued by a user to the number of categories those search tasks fall under. This user-variability for conventional mobile web search is much lower than for computer-based search, confirming the hypothesis that mobile web users query over a much less diverse set of topics. The surprising news is that iPhone users, on the other hand, had a higher variability than computer based users, indicating their information needs are more diverse! This shows that the challenges posed by a phone's form factor can be outweighed by its "always on, always in your pocket" benefits.

To understand the meaning of the entro-percent equation, read our full paper summarizing the findings of our logs-based study of search patterns on conventional mobile phones, iPhones and conventional computers and get all the juicy details.