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Text Searches Put the Operator on Hold

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Text Searches Put the Operator on Hold

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 9, 2005; F07

One of the coolest things about technology is discovering new ways to save a buck or two -- in this case the $1.50 fee that some wireless phone carriers charge for each call to 411.

If you know how to send a text message on your mobile phone -- and millions do -- then listings for a neighborhood deli or the closest ATM or even a weather forecast or stock quote are as close your mobile phone.

And it's pretty much free -- unless your phone plan charges text-messaging fees. For some, that's as much as 10 cents per message.

Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., as well as the smaller 4Info Inc., are now offering text-messaging search features that allow users to send a query to the search engines via text message and receive a reply within seconds.

The three work in a similar fashion: To use the service, a user sends a text message with the search request to the five-digit number for YAHOO (92466) or GOOGL (46645) or 4INFO (44636).

For example, text "pizza 20071" to GOOGL and within seconds you'll get text responses with the addresses and phone numbers for pizza joints in downtown Washington's 20071 Zip code.

Alternatively, the same search request can be processed by typing "Washington DC pizza," or narrowed by the specific restaurant by entering "Pizza Hut 20005" in the text message.

Yahoo, Google and 4Info all let you search for weather by typing in "Weather 20071" or, alternatively, just "W 20071" or "W Washington DC." All three also offer stock quote searches by typing in the company's ticker symbol.

But there are also searches unique to each provider. Google offers driving directions and answers to simple questions -- U.S. population, for example -- while 4Info offers more of the unexpected, such as Fantasy sports statistics, recipes for your favorite cocktail or sports scores (just type in the team's name).

So far, searching by text is still a relatively new idea. In August, M:Metrics Inc., a Seattle-based research firm, found that 3.6 million people had used text search, compared to the 12.1 million people who conducted a search on their wireless phones by logging on to the phone's Web connection.

Search-by-text is a service that is expected to gain in popularity as the big search-engine companies compete to keep users of their desktop search products, said Mark Donovan, an analyst with M:Metrics.

"Mobile search is another front in that war," said Donovan., who said he often uses the services, even while sitting in front of a computer.

Even though an estimated 95 percent of cell phones today are capable of sending and receiving text messages, there hasn't been much done to promote search-by-text. Donovan said word of mouth and increased more marketing will bring more users.

For now, providing the service for free does not generate any direct revenue, but it makes users more loyal to the Yahoo brand, said Nicole Leverich, a spokeswoman for Yahoo.

Still, it's likely to eat into the revenue wireless carriers get for directory assistance.

Even if search engines eventually start charging a small fee to use its text-search service, it will still cost far less than directory assistance today, M:Metrics' Donovan said.

"Carriers are excited about seeing increased use of cell phones but are ambivalent about losing that revenue," he said.

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