Let Your Fingers do the Walking
A conversation with YP's Rohan Chandran on mastering local search on mobile.
Before there was Google, before Yahoo!, before the Web, when consumers wanted to find a local business they reached for a big, fat, iconic yellow book — the Yellow Pages. Every household had one, and every business was in it. "Let your fingers do the walking" was the pitch, a slogan that earned an honorable mention in the Advertising Age Top 10 Slogans of the 20th century. Today, consumers are still encouraged to let their fingers do the walking — and swiping, tapping, and scrolling – on YP.com and on YP apps built for every major mobile device. No longer the "Yellow Pages," YP is a local search powerhouse, garnering 50 million unique monthly viewers across its flagship properties YP.com and YP mobile. It has relationships with 700,000 advertisers and offers visibility across the extended YP Local Ad Network of 300 affiliated mobile and online publisher websites. Mobile is now the cornerstone of YP's strategy, with native apps on all the major platforms and a robust presence on the mobile Web. Benchmark recently spoke with YP Executive Director for Consumer Products Rohan Chandran about mobile development and testing strategies, and how YP deals with the scores of device permutations that characterize the mobile market.
Benchmark: YP has just about all the mobile bases covered — you’re out there on every major platform. How long have you had such a pervasive presence?
Rohan Chandran: We’ve been an early adopter, an early presence on all the major platforms for iOS and Android. We were there with the app store openings in each case and that’s been our approach — it’s two-pronged. We’re trying to catch the mass market as a whole. We’re not looking at a niche audience, so we want to be accessible to everyone.
When the iOS app store came about, that’s when we transitioned from using third parties to develop our mobile apps to actually creating an in-house mobile team that started doing the developing. And as a result, once you bring it in-house, you’ve got to start to manage where you focus your resources. So as time has moved on, you can see we focused a lot more, obviously, on iOS and Android, which dominate the market.
It’s really 90 percent of our user base today. We have the app for Palm and that usage is decreasing. We have a J2ME app out there that’s been there for years, and the usage of that is just continuing to decrease. As you see people going through the upgrade cycles on their phone, with free Android phones and now the free iPhone 3G, we’re seeing people clearly just make that transition.
We’ve supported the RIM platforms throughout, but we’re seeing that frankly decline as well. Windows is the interesting one for us, where we feel that there’s a big opportunity for a third player in the market. Where Blackberry may be relinquishing its grip, Windows may step in. So we’re watching that as it goes. We have a Windows app, which is more of a hybrid that leverages our mobile website and integrates it into the app experience. But if we see signs that it’s really going to take root as a third major platform, then we’ll be all over it with the native experience.
Benchmark: Obviously it’s critical to your business to have these apps functioning properly. What’s your testing regimen as you go through updates and new releases?
Rohan Chandran: We follow a cycle of continuous testing. The way we develop is, rather than develop big monolithic releases for each platform and then put them out, we have at any time half a dozen different capabilities that are under development. And we’re unit testing those individually on each platform as they go out. In some cases, capabilities may only be on one or another platform; for example, if you were to integrate with some of the new iOS 6 features, or the capabilities available on Android that you can’t access on iOS and so on.
We’re testing those continuously and then at any point in time we may decide okay, it would make sense to draw down from these half a dozen tracks and four of them will come together. And we can actually bundle a release that would go out to market, and at that point we’re doing really comprehensive testing.
That’s the point at which we start to leverage, for example, the Keynote's DeviceAnywhere platform —where we’ve got to be really thorough for the experience across all the potential devices that are in our audience out there.
And obviously, particularly with Android, the long tail of devices is pretty significant, and it looks like Apple’s going that way now, too, with different form factors and resolutions. Now you’ve got a bigger iPhone and an iPad mini. I get the feeling the two platforms are converging in the middle somewhere, and you’ll have four or five core resolutions that you have to deal with, and core types of devices.
Benchmark: So how do you test incremental improvements?
Rohan Chandran: Incremental ones we usually would take just, if I look at Android for example, two or three devices, or device types I’ll call them, where they have a certain resolution and form factor. We’ll test on the major ones so that we know we’re functionally working on the major versions of Android that are out there.
Again, we’re seeing that fragmentation converge a little in Android now, where even a year ago you had — I’m exaggerating a little bit — but you had 20 different device specs that had five percent of the market each, and a dozen different versions of Android OS, especially when they had Honeycomb and all that going as well. Now you’re down to probably three or four core device specs that account for 80-plus percent of the market.
That’s making it a lot easier, and so we’ll focus on those in the individual unit testing, and then when we bring the release together, we’ll go out to all the corner cases and edge cases and make sure that we’re still playing nicely with those platforms.
Benchmark: Where are you getting most of your traffic? Are you able to break that out by device OS and type?
Rohan Chandran: Absolutely. We’re fairly evenly split overall between Android and iOS, and those two together are comfortably 90 percent of our market. Give or take, it’s split down the middle between them. That’s been the case I would say, probably for the last nine months to a year, and that’s the point at which we saw Android really catch up to iOS in that regard.
If anything, we’re probably seeing Android, in terms of raw numbers, start to dominate. A lot of Android usage is not always as heavy as iOS usage because there’s a lot of lower-end Android phones out there — people who aren’t on full data plans, and therefore are much more conservative with their usage of an app like ours.
But by and large, they’re the big numbers. Blackberry, Palm, Windows, and all the other platforms are sub-ten percent put together.
Benchmark: As you say, even with your users coalescing around iOS and Android, there’s still a lot of device types out there. How do you determine which devices to test? Do you have a particular strategy? Do you use Keynote DeviceAnywhere’s planning tool?
Rohan Chandran: We look at our existing user base, absolutely, and we certainly make sure that we have full, thorough, hands-on testing of the top ten devices that are in our user base.
That covers at this point probably 80 percent of our traffic right there. Then we do look down the list, and this is where DeviceAnywhere really helps us. We can’t necessarily test on every single one of the 150 other devices, again especially thinking of Android. But what we try to do is bucket them into the permutations of, essentially, resolution and OS, and make sure we have one in each bucket.
There are some interesting corner cases that start to show up with Android where, for example, Sony had a couple of these two-screen, split-screen devices that you have to explicitly test for. For us it becomes a matter of resources and what we’re doing in a particular release, and whether it’s likely to impact that or not, as to whether we explicitly go out and test that. Because then you are getting into a corner case where you may have, instead of tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of users on a device, you’re suddenly talking about hundreds. And the amount of effort it may take to test that device if we don’t have it in-house, and the incremental effort as you add it on to the overall thing — it starts to become questionable, so we look at that on a case-by-case basis.
The more dramatic the changes that we’re introducing in the app, the more comprehensive we are with the testing.
Benchmark: What are your biggest challenges in making sure that you have all your bases covered and that everything is working?
Rohan Chandran: For us the biggest problem is the vast number of marginal differences that are there in handsets, particularly with Samsung and HTC and all these guys that have their own skins and layers on top of the OS.
Very often we run into a device that’s ostensibly running the same version of Android — it has the exact same screen resolution and everything else — and we’ll go through it and notice behavior that’s different. The widget won’t size correctly on a particular device because of the skinning that one of the OEMs has put on it, or some text will somehow wrap around in a particular feature where theoretically everything on that device is identical. But something in the skinning has had an impact that we can’t define and we can’t predict. And the key problem for us is that it’s not predictable.
So as a result very often we run into these things quite honestly almost by accident. You just bump into them, or we’ll get an email from a consumer saying ‘I’m on this device and this strange thing happens.’ And we’ll have three identical devices and not reproduce it, but on that specific device something unusual happens.
And so dealing with that in general across all the OEMs, essentially the matrix of permutations is just so incredibly huge that it’s fundamentally challenging. I’m pointing the finger squarely at Android, to be honest.
Benchmark: What about tablets?
Rohan Chandran: Yes, so that’s been an interesting one. We do have a Kindle Fire app, we have an Android tablet app ostensibly, and we have an iPad app. The iPad app is something that we developed directly for the iPad. The Kindle Fire and Android tablet apps are essentially stretches of the phone app. The reason for that on those platforms has been that the uptick in the user base is relatively low. Until we see enough traction, developing a completely independent app is not justifiable.
The use case for tablets we see pretty clearly is where people are fundamentally on the couch or in bed. Occasionally at work, but despite being classified as mobile devices, in a lot of ways their use case is arguably closer to a desktop use case, although again, the device is more personal, as a mobile device typically is.
Overall our premise is that the tablet use case is unique, it’s different from both the desktop and mobile, and we want to develop a unique experience for that. I think it’s something that not a lot of people have cracked in general, not just in our industry but across the board. A lot of companies, I think, don’t get the same kind of traction on tablets as they do on phones. Because I think we’re only all just understanding how that use case differs, and the fact that you can’t really just stretch a phone app and solve for it. It’s great in a pinch but it’s not a solution. So ultimately, as the market and the scale picks up outside of the iPad, we definitely want to be tablet-specific there as well.
Benchmark: And now Apple has introduced a smaller tablet, which, if history repeats itself, means that we will now have a viable new size in the market.
Rohan Chandran: Exactly. Apple has put themselves squarely in that market now, and I think they’ve said that the way it’s going to work is, they’re going to shrink down the large iPad apps to fit on that screen. But again, what’s going to be interesting there is whether the use case shifts. The traditional iPad use case, as I said, is on the couch and in bed more often than not, and in your hotel room when you travel and that kind of thing. But with this more portable tablet, the one you can hold in one hand, we may see a lot more of what some of the original premise was, the out-and-about usage of the tablet. In which case the behavior and the nature of the solution you want starts to become closer to the mobile phone app than the desktop. So I think there’s going to be a lot of interesting shifts and movements as that niche finds itself.
Benchmark: It will be interesting to see how many people decide to go for wireless connectivity if they’re going to be carrying it around more.
Rohan Chandran: Exactly. That’s where the whole use case and model starts to shift, because then you may be looking at, in our case, we’re local search, so you may now be looking for stuff on the go while you’re on public transit or something. Whereas with your standard iPad, you’re not doing that, you’re in the coffee shop when you’re looking and the nature of your search experience is going to be very different.
Benchmark: So you’ve got all these great apps that are taking advantage of each of these devices and their strengths and weaknesses, but you’ve also got your mobile site. Do you see yourself continuing to maintain all the separate apps? Or can you see a day when that will all coalesce into a mobile Web-only presence?
Rohan Chandran: With all the promise of HTML5 and so on that we’ve been hearing about now for two or three years, you’ve got to bear in mind that that day is there in the future. I’m very reluctant at this point to put a time line on it, because people have been saying that ‘the day is here,’ for a while. And it’s not here yet, right? It’s interesting to note, I think Facebook is a great example of someone who’s moved away from the hybrid approach.
So for us there is value in the diverged strategy here. There’s a huge amount of traffic that we get on the mobile website, because for people like us and Yelp and others in our space, SEO is a big source of user traffic. And there is no SEO for apps. So to maintain the mobile website is absolutely critical. As we get loyal users on the mobile website, people who are coming back regularly, we tend to find that they will successfully transition into app users.
Ultimately, the app user is someone who’s made a very conscious choice to use your brand and to download it in the relatively limited space they have. They’re making a very conscious choice, and so we find they are higher value users to us in the long run without question.
So there’s value there, but we’re certainly not in the position — I don’t think most people are — to neglect the scale that you get from mobile web.
Benchmark: So HTML5’s day may not be here yet, but do you see any other new tools or technologies that could significantly change your development efforts? A lot of people are looking into responsive design.
Rohan Chandran: Responsive design is actually something we’re talking about pretty heavily internally now. As I said for tablets especially, because the use case, especially with the mini-tablets now, is still something that we’re all trying to wrap our heads around — responsive design is a great approach, I think, to solve for that problem, where it’s not just a matter of, open the browser and you get the standard www.yp.com website in your nine-inch or seven-inch browser window. If we can actually take that and use responsive design principles and adapt that to the experience, I think there’s a lot of value, particularly in the interim until we get to a point that we introduce a full, tailored use-case, native experience.
We’ve got a lot of users who are browsing our desktop website today from their tablets, including the iPad, where we have an iPad app. But the natural approach is to open up Safari, the default on your iPad, and go to the website. We’ve got several million users who are doing that every month. So giving them an experience using responsive design principles that fits, rather than just saying, ‘hey your screen is big enough so you can handle the website,’ I think is definitely the direction forward.
Benchmark: What trends do you see on the horizon, what are you watching, either technologically or in terms of the competitive marketplace, that you think are going to impact the way you do things going forward?
Rohan Chandran: Technologically a couple of things, which are honestly stating the obvious, the shift to mobile particularly in our industry, is pervasive and it’s here. It’s gone beyond the horizon at this point for local search, which evolved from an offline industry with a print yellow pages book — which is the history of this industry — into a Web presence and now a mobile presence. So we’re seeing increasing activity on mobile devices.
And what we’re noticing there is not just on an out-and-about basis, but it’s people at home as well, because their phone is with them, it’s in their pocket and they’re going to reach for that when they want to find something, rather than get up and walk over to the study or the desktop or the laptop, open it up and look for where to go out for dinner on Friday night.
We’re seeing the mobile device become just so critical, and what comes with that is that the device is a lot more personal to a user. It’s an extension of themselves in a way that your desktop or your laptop really isn’t. As a result, the need to provide a more personalized, customized experience is very critical. It’s not necessarily enough to just go into the Google search box and get a set of standard search results. You’ve got to understand that I’m on this mobile device that’s part of me. And my expectation is therefore that what you give me with your product or service is going to somehow be intelligent enough to understand me and tailor itself to me as well.
That’s a key direction we see over the next couple of years and we think that’s going to be significant. From a market standpoint for us, we are in a highly competitive market. If you look at our business, we’re fundamentally about making good connections between consumers and merchants to drive value for both sides of that equation.
There’s a lot of people playing in that space and coming at it from different angles, whether it’s Google or Yelp or Groupon. Or FourSquare, who came from this check-in game approach and are now pivoting into a local search experience and squarely taking aim at the Yelps and YPs and so on of this world.
There’s a lot of people coming at it and coming at it from a mobile-first approach, whereas we’re coming at it the other way and moving into mobile, which has a lot of advantages but there is a competitive threat that we’ve got to address with people who are really thinking mobile-first.
The trend is so strongly towards mobile we’ve got to make sure we are at the forefront of that.
About Rohan Chandran
Rohan Chandran is the Executive Director for Consumer Products at YP, leading strategy and development for all YP's consumer-facing properties, including YP.com and YP mobile apps. Based in the company's Silicon Valley office, he brings over 15 years of experience to the company, both as a founder and early employee at successful startups, and as a product management leader in the online marketing and advertising space at Yahoo! and Experian. Rohan holds undergraduate degrees in Computer Science and Economics and a Master's in Computer Science from Stanford University.