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?