The Year (Almost) Of Mobile Search

Each year at Razorfish we release our Digital Outlook Report in which we make predictions about the trends, developments and opportunities that will dominate the next calendar year.  Fortunately no one's keeping score.  For the last four years running we've said the coming year would be the breakout year for mobile.  So far that hasn't happened.  Since we've been wrong so many times before, I will take a more cautious approach here and simply say that 2010 is the year in which marketers need to make a serious investment in their mobile strategy. 

To be honest, I had written off mobile and mobile search.  Despite years of hype, we've seen only pockets of relevant opportunities for our clients, and even there the opportunities were very, very small.  To put it in perspective, our mobile search campaigns pull in less than 1/100th the volume of our traditional desktop-based campaigns.

At that level of scale, the channel has been easy to ignore.  The other week, however, I had a conversation that piqued my interest.  In speaking with the heads of mobile at Google and MSN, respectively, I learned their data independently verified that smart phone users (those on the iPhone, Palm and Google Android platforms -- BlackBerry is not quite there yet) exhibit mobile search behavior almost identical to that of desktop-based searchers. 



This is a profound and deeply important insight: smart phone users are treating their handsets like a portable desktop; they are browsing, searching and transacting on their phones.  Since smart phone growth is one of the fastest-growing segments of the mobile market, it is certain that over the next several years more and more searchers will be adopting this behavior and using their phone like a portable PC.   There are several important implications of this trend.

First, if searchers are treating their phone like a desktop, marketers need to offer desktop-quality experiences on mobile devices.  Developing a site experience that renders well on a 2"x3" screen will no longer be a cutting-edge novelty.  Marketers will need to invest in creating effective, small-format site experiences.  Apps may play a part in this ecosystem, but apps alone will not suffice.  If searchers are indeed using their phones like mobile PCs, they will demand Web-based content and functionality independent of the on-deck environment.  Marketers should take the time now to experiment with mobile site design while the stakes are still relatively small.

Additionally, search marketers need to start experimenting aggressively in mobile search.  This is advice we are giving to our clients today.  The tactics and techniques that make desktop-based paid search campaigns effective do not translate perfectly to the mobile environment.  Ad copy, for example, is much more effective in mobile search campaigns when specifically tailored for that channel.  While the stakes are still low, and the cost of experimentation light, search marketers and search agencies should take time to test, learn and prepare for a world where the mobile search opportunity drives meaningful business results.

Moving away from marketers' imperatives, searcher behavior on smart phones has serious implications for the major search engines as well.  Is search behavior on smart phones fully incremental to desktop search?  I can't believe it is.  That means mobile search will cannibalize desktop search activity, at least to some extent.  That's not good news for search engines, especially Google.  There simply isn't enough real estate on the mobile device to monetize search results as well as Google has done on the desktop format.  Could mobile search do to Google what the Web has done to print media, turning, to borrow a phrase, desktop dollars into mobile nickels?  I doubt the threat to Google is as grave as that facing the print industry today, but I'll be closely watching the dynamic between these two channels

It's easy to make predictions when no one checks your track record, but in 2010 we will put our predictions into action.  We'll work with clients to design compelling small screen site experiences, we'll test our way through the budding mobile search marketplace, and we'll short Google's stock as mobile eats away at its browser-centric revenue stream (that's a joke.  Honest.  I have no sound investment advice to offer, whatsoever).   It may be several years still before mobile search drives meaningful business results, but those who plan to take an early lead in this space will do so now.  Are you ready?

4 comments about "The Year (Almost) Of Mobile Search".
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  1. Jon-Mikel Bailey from Wood Street, Inc., October 9, 2009 at 10:22 a.m.

    I would say that this year has been a big year for mobile. Our website clients more and more are asking for mobile CSS (although they don't quite phrase it that way). Smart phones and the increase of mobile browsing speeds are making search on mobile something people do without too much thought.

  2. Hannah Kleyn from ExactTarget, October 9, 2009 at 10:39 a.m.

    Your statement, "There simply isn't enough real estate on the mobile device to monetize search results as well as Google has done on the desktop format", assumes that a given mobile search campaign is being tailored for the desktop channel -- not mobile, as it should.

    Therefore, this is right on -- "Ad copy, for example, is much more effective in mobile search campaigns when specifically tailored for that channel."

    And it's also right on target with what we provide here at ChaCha: We tailor 1.) our SMS search campaigns to the conversational nature of all phones -- smartphones and regular phones alike, and 2.) our SMS search to the idea that the mobile experience calls for answers, not long lists of results.

  3. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, October 9, 2009 at 5:31 p.m.

    For some reason the Ad Industry thinks people want advertising on their phones. What people want is information and for very specific activities they want special technology and games. Because of that mobile advertising and brand engagement needs to be tailored properly. For some businesses location and mobile ordering. For others they might have to give something away of value to invade the space such as a coupon or sweepstakes. But mostly people want simple tools and technologies for the mobile space. The small screen is never going to replace the large screen for entertainment or shopping, though it will supplement the large screen when needed. And because of the small screen there is limits to what can be presented which will always be an obstacle. If I am at best buy and want to compare prices vs other sources for a hdtv the google shopping results would take a few screens worth to match just one on my laptop when the results come in. It can never replace large screens for full news, reading, and articles. But for bit data like headlines and scores and maybe traffic, yellow pages etc it has a niche.

    Eventually in 2 to 4 years Tablet Computer/Readers with touch screens (hopefully folding in half) with web surfing ability will replace many phone web activities. And these devices will be truly mobile. Light weight, rugged, throw it in a bag or in your glove box and you have real mobile internet with full html and flash.

    But in my opinion until then mobile is best for apps, some utility and very respectful advertising.

  4. Annette Tonti from MoFuse, Inc, October 12, 2009 at 5:51 p.m.

    It is also of note that Google has a Patent (BLENDING MOBILE SEARCH RESULTS United States Patent Application: 0080183699) on Mobile Search Methods. Which means they get that search and search behavior on the mobile web are serious business.

    Completely agree that now is the time for businesses to understand that they need to really think about and design for the smaller screen. It just isn't appropriate to try to 'squish' your desktop website, designed for 10 -12 inch screens into a 2 - 4 inch event! When you think about your site design, consider mobile search!

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