The 10 ways mobile search is different: implications for your mobile Web/search strategy

Let’s get one thing straight: mobile search is huge and growing rapidly

• “25 percent of overall search queries are now on mobile devices.” – BIA/Kelsey (April 2014).
• “During the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, 60-65 percent of Olympics-related searches were performed on a smartphone or tablet.” – Google (April 2014).
• In the US, mobile was 34.2 percent of all paid search clicks in December 2013. It is expected to be 42 percent by December 2014 and 50 percent by December 2015 – Marin Software (March 2014)
• In the UK, mobile was 43.4 percent of paid clicks in December 2013. In the rest of the Eurozone, it was 20.2 at the end of 2013 – Marin Software (March 2014).
• 58.7 percent of smartphone users access search; 73.9 percent of tablet users access search – ComScore Mobile future in focus (March 2013).
• US consumers will spend more time on mobile devices than PCs in 2014: three hours a day – eMarketer (April 2014), as examined in previous blog post.

Let’s get another thing straight: mobile search is not the same as PC search

This article will explore the 10 ways that mobile search is different from desktop (and will only become more different, as new forms of search such as voice and visual search take off), and the implications for your search/Web strategy. Mostly, the focus will be on smartphones and, to a lesser extent, feature phones. We will also consider media tablets, as they are generally bundled with other mobile devices by analysts and marketers, but in many ways a tablet is more like a keyboard-less laptop than a cell phone – they have big screens, can’t make calls or send SMS and are predominantly used at home and over a WiFi connection (but we’ll leave the are-tablets-mobile-devices argument for another day). The article will also be more concerned with organic search and mobile search engine optimization (SEO), rather than paid search. • See: Mobile SEO best practices.

  1. Location of search
  2. More local intent
  3. Time sensitive
  4. Context
  5. The device – capabilities
  6. The device – limitations
  7. Voice search
  8. Search by image and visual search
  9. Mobile apps
  10. Attribution and measurement

What is mobile search?

Definition of mobile search: using a web-enabled mobile device – feature phone, smartphone or media tablet – to query a search engine, using a relevant word or phrase – e.g. “emergency plumber in Manhattan” – known as a search term.
Most commonly, this search will occur on Internet search engines, such as Google (the dominant global player in mobile as in desktop search), Yahoo, Microsoft Bing, Baidu (Chinese search engine); Yandex (Russian search engine) or on numerous directory, review or price-comparison sites/apps including Google Places, Yahoo Local, Bing Places, YP, Yelp (US directories), Thompson Local or Yell (UK directories), or Tripadvisor (travel reviews), but can occur on any Website or app with a search facility.
The search provider responds with links to relevant third-party Websites of two types:
A) Organic results – the Websites are organized by relevancy, which is likely to be a mixture of subject nature, popularity, locality and mobile-friendliness. This can be enhanced with SEO.
B) Paid results – the advertiser has paid for their site to be prioritized.

1. Location of search

• PCs are (generally) used in the office or home on a wired or WiFi connection.
• Media tablets are mostly used at home and over a WiFi connection rather than a mobile operator connection. 68 percent of tablet use is at home – Millward Brown (October 2013). 93.6 percent of tablet use is over WiFi connection – ComScore Mobile future in focus (March 2013).
• Smartphones are used everywhere and mostly over a mobile operator connection, rather than WiFi. Smartphones are used: at home 36 percent of the time; in a store 15 percent; while waiting 14 percent; commuting 13 percent; in a restaurant 10 percent – Millward Brown (October 2013). 58 percent of smartphone use is via a mobile connection – ComScore Mobile future in focus (March 2013).

Implication of search location for your search/Web strategy

• A cell phone user (smartphone or feature phone) is less likely to be searching from home or the office than a PC or tablet user, so there is a higher likelihood that they are nearby your business and searching for something with more urgency.
• Make sure that you can detect the visiting device and the type of mobile connection – operator or WiFi – in real time, using a tool such as DeviceAtlas and serve up a site suitable and optimized for that device and connection. But there’s a lot more to this than just providing a site that works well on the mobile device – knowing which visitors are mobile, enables segmentation and tailoring of the whole user experience to the specific needs of these customers.
• Anticipate the requirements of the mobile user – i.e. the motivation for their search – and prioritize these on the site so they are easily found by both the visitors and search engine spiders (the robots that crawl and index the Web). This not only increases the likelihood of the searcher finding your business, but also the probability of meeting their needs, by making the journey to conversion – whether that is purchase, registration, reservation, store visit, phone call etc – as fast, smooth, intuitive and tempting as possible.
• How you anticipate and react to motivation for mobile search is all explored in greater detail in each of the points below.

Graph shows: Distribution of location where consumers use mobile devices to access Web: Millward Brown (October 2013)
Figure 1: Distribution of location where consumers use mobile devices to access Web: Millward Brown (October 2013).

2. More local intent

Smartphone users more commonly seek location-relevant information, such as nearby store, restaurant, taxi, plumber, directions and local weather. According to BIA/Kelsey (April 2014), 50 percent of mobile search queries have “local intent.” That’s a lot more than PCs, where only 20 percent of desktop searches include local intent.
• Search engines prioritize local results to those mobile users that are prepared to share their location. This prioritization of local businesses is certainly the case with businesses listed in search engine directories, though not always apparent in general search listings.

Implication of local intent for your search/Web strategy:

• Make sure the nature of business, location/business area, address, contact details, opening hours, availability (of stock, tables, rooms etc), what’s on (at your business and nearby), news, menu (for restaurants) and so on are up-to-date and prominently displayed on your site, so both visitors and search engines can easily find them.
• If you operate from multiple locations use a find-my-nearest-store/business locator. Provide a map or click-to-find-on-a-map to help people navigate to your location, using the maps on their handset.
• Provide offers using mobile coupons/voucher codes to make your service/product even more irresistible; offer mobile and email ticketing; and click-to-call, to facilitate the sale and help you track conversions offline, e.g. sales in-store or over the phone.
• Make sure your business is listed and listed correctly on directory/reviews sites/apps such as Google Places, Yahoo Local, Bing Places, YP, Yelp (US directories), Thompson Local, Yell (UK directories); Tripadvisor (travel reviews). There are countless Internet directories worldwide, so research which of these are relevant to your business and location and are mobile-friendly – check how they look on your mobile device and look to see if phone numbers use click-to-call.

3. Time sensitive

Mobile search tends to be more time-sensitive than PC search. There are several elements to this:
a) When the search occurs. Mobile searching increases through the day with 36 percent of searches occurring between midday and 6pm and 40 percent between 6pm and midnight – Google/Nielsen (March 2013). This coincides with peak shopping time, commuting and downtime in the evening.
b) Search triggered by other media. The trigger/impetus for the search could be something seen on TV, heard on the radio, read in a paper or spotted when out and about. Perhaps it is an event such as the Oscars or Olympics, as noted above, 60-65 percent of 2014 Winter Olympics-related searches were performed on a smartphone or tablet – Google (April 2014).
Commonly people will use a digital device while the TV is on – this is called “dualscreening” or “multiscreening” – this occurs with as much as 35 percent of a person’s daily screen time – Millward Brown AdReaction (March 2014). The majority of dualscreening, 22 percent of screen time, is unrelated to what is showing on the TV, e.g. catching up with emails, but 14 percent of screen time is spent looking at related content on a second screen. This is where the opportunities lie for savvy marketers.
c) Pre-planning for search/traffic peaks is also essential from an infrastructure point of view. Whatever the trigger for the search, everything will be lost if the mobile site or payments system goes down under the weight of traffic, coupled with the threat of customer backlash and corporate embarrassment.
d) Search triggered by real-time need. There tends to be more urgency – more “I need to sort this out right now” – about mobile searches compared with desktop searches. Intercontinental Hotels Group reports that over 60 percent of mobile bookings on IHGs mobile channels occur within 48 hours of the hotel stay, whereas less than 30 percent of PC bookings occur within the same period – Google Mobile Playbook (US version).
Aside: IHG’s revenue from mobile was US $600 million in 2013 (IHG Q4 2013 earnings call).
e) Shorter window of opportunity. The nature of the mobile context (more on context below) means that there is a greater likelihood that the user might be out-and-about, between appointments, on public transport, in the middle of something but needing check information and so on. This means there is more pressure to complete the task before the customer arrives at their destination, the meeting starts, the connection drops or they need to get back to what they were doing. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that mobile searchers act fast: 55 percent of conversions (store visit, phone call or purchase) following a mobile search happen within an hour of the search – Google/Nielsen (March 2013).

Implication of time sensitivity for your search/Web strategy:

• Be ready – anticipate surges in mobile search. Predict what events will trigger relevant searches, including those you control e.g. company news, advertising and email newsletter/offer; and those you don’t but can capitalize upon – such as events on TV.
• Be aware – study your Web analytics to watch for patterns in mobile behavior – for example, entertainment or restaurant businesses may see spikes in their mobile traffic in the afternoon as people plan their evening’s entertainment.
• Be agile – be ready to react to events you can’t predict as they happen.
• Be connected – use quick-response (QR) codes in offline messaging, such as billboard or print advertising and product packaging, to direct traffic to the right place on your mobile site.
• Be efficient – consider how you serve the mobile visitor and convert those search enquiries into sales in the quickest and most straight-forward manner.

Graph shows: Time when mobile searches occur: Google/Nielsen (March 2013)
Figure 1: Time when mobile searches occur: Google/Nielsen (March 2013).

4. Context

The mobile context drives the person’s motivation for the search and the actions they take following the search. A combination of factors contribute to this context including where they are, what they are doing, what time it is, urgency, the device they are using and what they have seen, heard or done that triggered the search.
Mobile searches are strongly tied to specific contexts. So restaurant-related searches are more likely on-the-go; tech searches are more likely at work; arts and entertainment are more likely at school, but most strikingly shopping and food-related search queries are two times more likely to occur in store – Google/Nielsen (March 2013).
These stats on in-store search are born out by evidence from Walgreens. According to Google Mobile Playbook (US version), the US pharmacy receives 14 million Web visits each week; 50 percent are those are from mobile devices; and 50 percent of those mobile visits occur while customers are in a Walgreens store.
There are several reasons why mobile users might search in-store, perhaps looking for product information, check reviews, search for a coupon or stock availability, but, of late, all the attention has focused on online price comparison or what has become known as “showrooming”. Showrooming is the technique of checking a product out in-store, then buying the same thing online from a different retailer, motivated by a cheaper price or free shipping.
Research into showrooming by Columbia Business School/Aimia (September 2013) found that 21 percent of consumers will use their handsets in-store to assist with their purchase decision – this is across all age groups and demographics. 70 percent of these m-shoppers admitted showrooming at least once in the last year. But the survey also found that more than 50 percent of m-shoppers were actually more likely to purchase a product in-store having used their mobile device to get online reviews, information or trusted advice.
The m-shopper is just as likely to be checking info and reviews – 50 percent do this regularly – as opposed to checking prices – 52 percent do this regularly – and they are almost as likely to use the store’s Website –70 percent – as that of a third party – 75 percent. N.B. mobile Web is used much more commonly than mobile apps in-store.

Implication of mobile context for your search/Web strategy:

Be aware that the mobile context is different for distinct mobile searches, and these will vary for different types of business, for example:
• Restaurants should anticipate that mobile searchers are most likely to be on the go and likely to be looking for somewhere to eat in the near future. Make it easy for them to find your business and all the information they need to make a decision, book and find your location via a Web or directory search, and make timely offers to aid conversion.
• Retailers should consider that mobile use in-store can be as much as an opportunity as a threat. Ensure your site is found when shoppers search (e.g. for product information, recipe, review etc) and that all required information is available in a mobile-friendly format. Use quick-response (QR) codes in store to hyperlink customers to more information on your site. Include a mobile barcode scanner on your mobile site, so customers don’t need to use a rival’s – e.g. eBay’s RedLaser. If showrooming is an issue, offer to match any online price to make sure you don’t lose the sale.

Graph shows: Different mobile searches by context: Google/Nielsen (March 2013)
Figure 1: Different mobile searches by context: Google/Nielsen (March 2013).

5. The device – capabilities

Modern mobile devices, even feature phones, are the ultimate communication and multimedia tool – off the back of a search mobile users can: visit a Website, find information, read a review, compare prices, make a purchase; collect/redeem a coupon; send/receive an SMS, email, phone call; communicate by instant messaging, social networking; navigate to location; buy/use phone as a plane/train/bus/event ticket… endless possibilities. But searchers can only do these things if the Website (yours or your competitor’s) served up by the search enables it.
Mobile’s array of capabilities means that searches result in both online and offline results: 73 percent of mobile searches trigger additional action and conversion – Google/Nielsen (March 2013). Survey respondents reported taking the following actions following a search: continue research – 36 percent, visit a business’ Website – 25 percent, share information – 18 percent, visit a business premises/physical store – 17 percent, make a purchase (on or offline) – 17 percent, call the business – 7 percent.


The ability to make calls is the most obvious, though often overlooked, function of a mobile phone, and can be easily enabled with a click-to-call link or icon. (Imagine how irritating it is when you need to write a number down or call directory enquiries before you can call a business). 32 percent of UK smartphone users always or frequently ring a company following a mobile search. 36 percent say they are more likely to explore other brands if they can’t call a business directly from search results – Ipsos/Google (February 2014).
The number of calls to business driven by mobile search is growing at 42 percent per annum and is predicted to fuel a staggering 65 billion calls in 2016 – BIA/Kelsey (April 2014).

Implication of mobile device capabilities for your search/Web strategy:

• Ensure your mobile-friendly site includes and prioritizes all the tools that take advantage of functions of the mobile device: click-to-call, click-to-be-called-back, click-to-email, click-to-find on a map, SMS alerts, store-finder, mobile coupons, mobile barcode scanner and links to share on social media.
• Request that users share their location – they will if it is clear that this is to their advantage.
• Keep profiles on directories e.g. Google Places, Yahoo Business, Bing places, YP, Thompson Local, up to date, with the right address, business hours, phone number etc.

Image shows: Mobile search results showing click-to-call in organic and paid results: Google/Ipsos
Figure 1: Image shows: Mobile search results showing click-to-call in organic and paid results: Google/Ipsos.

6. The device – limitations

Mobile phones, even smartphones, have limitations. The small size of the screen, lack of physical keyboard, clumsy fingers, battery life, patchy network connections, cost of data, inhospitable locations, e.g. in the street, and problems with multitasking can all contribute to making searching on mobile devices more of a chore than on a desktop or tablet.
It’s not just that mobile devices are different from PCs – smartphones are different to tablets and feature phones, both in terms of the size of the screen and the size and complexity of the site they can download. Some Websites, such as, serve different sites to different types of smartphones even – this is called content adaption. You can study how much Websites adapt, or not, for different devices with dotMobi’s Prism.
N.B. Search engines do not want to send mobile visitors to a site with a poor mobile experience. Google makes recommendations on mobile-friendly sites and prioritizes sites that conform to its rules in its search results. Recommendations include: sites should load onto a mobile device in less than a second, avoiding down-load-our-app interstitial ads and minimizing the use of Flash (which doesn’t work on most smartphones).

Implication of mobile device limitations for your search/Web strategy:

• You must have a mobile-friendly site. When the user clicks through from the search results, they are not going to appreciate a site that: a) is slow and/or costly to load; b) does not fit the screen; c) does not work properly, perhaps due to using Flash; d) does not show opening hours; e) does include location/find nearest store with click-to-find-on-map; f) has no easy-to-find contact details with click to-call, click-to-email; or g) doesn’t allow or makes it tedious for them find, research, book, register, buy the products or services, get help or generally fulfill their motive for searching.
• If mobile coverage is patchy at your location, offer WiFi. This gives you more than just good will. It provides an opportunity to influence customer behavior; means you know exactly the physical location of the search; and gives you an element of bargaining power: in return for WiFi visitors may be prepared to register for a loyalty scheme and/or share information.

How mobile friendly is your site?
• Test it for speed: PageSpeed.
• Test it for compliance: mobiReady.
• See how it looks on multiple devices and check the download size: Prism.

7. Voice search

The limitations of the mobile device and context makes searching on a mobile phone harder than with a PC. Technology is stepping into the gap with voice-recognition software allowing hands-free operation of the handset and searching of the Web. It is unclear how many people use voice search with Google’s Ok Google and Apple’s Siri, today, or how accurate the results are, but it is clear that users search differently with voice compared with text-based search. In fact, people are encouraged to use them differently – this advice from Apple: “Talk to Siri as you would to a person.”
So instead of using brief strings of keywords “curry [zip code/postcode]”, voice searches:
a) Use natural language – semantic search using whole sentences/more wordy search queries: “Find the best curry in walking distance.”
b) Are conversational – follow up questions are more common, as only a limited amount of info can be delivered in each response: “Show me the menu”… “What are the opening times?”… “Find the reservations number”… “Call the number”… “Find directions/guide me there”.

Implication of voice search for your search/Web strategy:

• Rethink Web content, so it incorporates anticipated long-tail search queries as well as keywords. Build an FAQ or Q&A around common questions mobile users would ask about your business, products, service and your industry generally… this improves customer service and SEO at the same time. Consult lists of common voice commands for Google and voice commands for Apple to understand better how users talk to, or are expected to talk to, these so-called digital assistants.
• Be aware that voice searchers may visit your site less. Demos of Google’s voice search (see below), show how much information can be provided without leaving the search engine results page (SERPs). (Aside: Google’s other search innovations such as Knowledge Graph, which creates a box with popular facts about people, places and things alongside Google’s traditional results, also seem designed to provide answers to searchers without needing to leave the SERPS). But searchers may still call or visit your business, if Google provides the information.
• Ensure that Google’s results are showing all essential information: the right address, business hours, phone number etc.
• Make sure profiles on directories are kept up-to-date.

Video demo: Google visual search in action.

8. Image and visual search

Some search engines also allow users to search by using an image, perhaps a photo snapped of an unknown animal, plant, place or a coveted item of clothing. See
Mobile apps such as CamFind put a glossy front end on this process, but it still take a while to deliver search results. Examples of use include identifying a product from a photo snapped by a mobile device, delivering identification, information and comparing prices at various retailers; and identifying a movie from a poster, bring up information about the film, including where it is showing nearby and the ability to watch a trailer.
In the future, expect image search to evolve into augmented reality-based visual search, where a user focuses a mobile device, perhaps a wearable device at an object and on screen information about that object is overlaid in real time.
Today AR visual search applications, such those demonstrated by David Chen, tend to rely on pre-populated databases of images, but as image recognition and Web-based image search improve, it is easy to envisage AR and Web search coming together with wearable technology such as Google Glass. Consider that as you watch this video from Layar or the CanFind video below.

Implication of image search for your search/Web strategy:

• It is difficult to find any research into how people use search by image or how companies should tailor their sites to drive traffic from image-based search. However, it is prudent to maintain a library of quality images on the site for key products and services – in particular any images that are in the public eye, either through billboard, TV advertising, media coverage or celebrity endorsement. All images should be appropriately sized for mobile devices/connection, i.e. small, and follow best-practice rules on titles, alt text and copyright. See these guidelines from Google.
• Clearly there will be a balancing act between having a site that is rich enough in images to meet the requirements of image-based search, and maintaining a streamlined mobile experience that loads in under a second.

Promotional video: CamFind search by image application.

9. Mobile apps

Search engines only index Web content. If your content is only available in a native application, today it is invisible to a search engine. This might change in the future as Google starts to index in-app content, but this project is at a very early stage, and looks like it will only work with Android apps. Naturally it requires that the searcher already has the app downloaded to the handset to allow a click-through.
N.B. Native apps versions of mobile directories, reviews and price comparison sites, like Websites, also (generally) click through to Websites not other apps.

Implication of mobile apps for your search/Web strategy:

• Native application have their place and may be preferred by your most loyal customers, but for everyone else, you need a mobile-friendly site that search engines can index and potential customers can click through to when they
are searching for information, products, services that are relevant for your business.
• Make sure all essential content and features of your mobile app are replicated on your mobile friendly site. This includes all items that are likely to attract searchers and are necessary to make the sale.

10. Attribution and measurement

As explained above, the incredible capabilities of the mobile phone make it the ultimate multi-purpose tool, with all manner of communication, multimedia and navigational capabilities and mobile users will take all manner of positive actions of the back of a mobile search, including purchase. But what if the mobile search results in a purchase offline, in-store or over the phone? A purchase is a purchase – but a problem arises when you are attempting to calculate return on your investment in your mobile-friendly site or mobile advertising expenditure and attempt to correctly apportion future investment.

Implication of attribution and measurement for your search/Web strategy:

10 ways to use mobile’s versatility for attribution and measurement:

  1. Use click-to-call, track the click-throughs and attribute over-the-phone sales back to mobile. Also consider click-for-call-back.
  2. Use click-to-email, track the click-throughs and attribute conversions.
  3. Use click-to-share on social media, or send-email-to-a-friend etc to encourage and track customers sharing information about your business.
  4. Use a store locator, find-on-a-map and other mapping and navigational tools to help track and attribute in-store sales back to mobile.
  5. Use mobile coupons, voucher codes, offers and competitions to track mobile to online, telephone or in-store sales.
  6. Use mobile coupons, voucher codes, offers and competitions to attribute email, advertising and SMS campaigns to mobile sales.
  7. Use QR codes, Bluetooth and near-field-communication (NFC) with dedicated mobile landing pages to help track the impact of off-line media campaigns.
  8. Use QR codes, Bluetooth, NFC and offer of free WiFi with dedicated mobile landing pages to facilitate in-store sales and track mobile’s contribution.
  9. Use m-payment and m-ticketing to augment offline and online sales and help track multichannel customers.
  10. Use m-loyalty schemes, using Web, apps, SMS and/or email to enhance customer relationship management. Use location-based offers to reward and identify regular store customers.

Mobile search advertising

Paid-for mobile search deserves an entire article in its own right, so we’ll keep this brief.
Organic mobile best practices can be enhanced by paying for search advertising. This involves paying Web search engines, directories and other sites/apps to prioritize your business along side natural/organic search results when mobile users search on key terms. Many of the best practices explained above can, and should be, used with paid-for search. The basics include:
• Make sure your ads click through to a mobile-friendly site/landing page, hosted on servers that have the capacity to handle a surge in traffic.
• Include click-to-call and click-to-email in the ad.
• Use click-to-find-on-a-map and click-to-find-local store in the ad.
• Use mobile coupons, voucher codes, offers and competitions.
• Consider what people will search for and the terms they will use.
• Consider when people will search – including the triggers for search. Buy key words associated with and timed to coincide with relevant events.
• Track everything using your own analytics tools and/or those provided by the ad network.

Don’t miss:

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• Mobile browsing stats: why do iOS users surf more than Android users?
• UK regulator benchmarks mobile/fixed broadband progress against EU countries
• The insiders’ guides to world’s greatest mobile markets • Latest: Brazil
• Guide to mobile industry awards • Latest: GSMA Global Mobile Awards 2014
• The insider’s guide to mobile learning (m-learning) in Africa: Dr Álvaro Sobrinho, PEI
• Mobile marketing resources: links to the most useful places on the Web (2014 update)
• Mobile SEO best practices for 2014
• Next-generation mobile ads: What is a demand-side platform (DSP) and real-time bidding (RTB)?
• Guide to mobile agencies
• Guide to mobile ad networks
• Mobile events 2014 • best conferences, great discounts and free tickets •
• The big compendium of global mobile stats
• Most popular content on mobiThinking in 2013

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