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Rethinking Mobile Search in Light of New Data From Google/Nielsen and Pew

  |  April 12, 2013   |  Comments

Mobile search is clearly having a very disruptive impact on brick-and-mortar retailers, and yet these same retailers are under-investing in mobile because the proof is hard to come by.

This week Google announced that enhanced AdWords campaigns will allow for mobile bid boosts/adjustments at the Ad Group level. That change goes a long way to giving marketers the control they desire with regard to the level of aggressiveness in pursuing the smartphone customer. The same announcement also clarified/changed the data of automatic "upgrade" to July 22 from previous reports of a June deadline. That's great for marketers who don't currently have a good user experience for tablet traffic and need to build tablet-friendly sites.

The data supporting marketers in their efforts to serve smartphone customers continues to mount. If Google and Nielsen's research and separate research from Pew Internet is to be believed, you are very likely under-investing in mobile search, even if your business is an Internet pure-play. Google has a lot to gain from increased interest in smartphone mobile advertising, so there might be a bit of bias built into its methodology, but Pew Internet studies have long been considered to be fairly well constructed. Measureable conversions are challenging to tie back to smartphones and only the largest campaigns can do longitudinal or geographic split tests to try to tease out the exact materiality that a smartphone search experience has on influencing the eventual sale. Yet all of us know from our own use and from within our marketing gut that smartphone clicks are a bargain, even though we can't always prove it.


Google search is of course a common occurrence on smartphones, and Google has a huge opportunity to better monetize the ever-growing user base of smartphone owners, some of whom are now doing searches on their smartphones that would have occurred on their desktops (some cannibalization vs. new growth in search queries is due to new usage occasions). Therefore, it's not surprising that Google and Nielsen teamed up to learn exactly what consumers do after interacting with a mobile search engine results page (SERP). They were very excited about the results and named their blog post after the study's most amazing finding: "Mobile's immediacy effect: Half of mobile search conversions happen in one hour."

Those of us measuring online-only conversions would typically kill for a 50 percent conversion rate, even if we included all the conversions that could reasonably be considered to have a significant marketing value (email newsletter registrations, social media likes/follows, visits to the "contact us" page, and of course our primary conversions, which may be online sales/leads). If we were to broaden our criteria to include those consumers who returned to the site to continue their research and took offline behaviors, we might see numbers approaching 50 percent. The Pew Internet mobile study looked at different behaviors and asked respondents what they did via a survey, not an app. So even when questions were similar, the studies don't provide an apples-to-apples comparison.

The Google mobile search study methodology was pretty cool and different than earlier studies that I'm aware of. A custom app was involved and the participants used the app to report post-search behaviors. The research team "asked participants to log their mobile searches over two weeks in a diary smartphone app, logging more than 6,000 mobile searches in total."

Google asked the users to report their post-search actions, and although some of these behaviors wouldn't be considered a home run, the overall data is extremely positive. According to the study:

"…three of four mobile searches trigger additional actions. These range from open-ended actions like additional research (36%) or a website visit (25%), to more concrete conversions like a store visit (17%), a purchase (17%), or a phone call (7%). On average, each mobile search triggers nearly two actions…"

If we eliminate repeat site visits from the above stats, we arrive at what initially might seem like a 41 percent conversion to concrete, high-value actions (17+17+7). However, the following sentence indicates that "nearly two actions" is the typical/average response. This means that there may be some duplication in the stats.

The Pew Internet "In-store Mobile Commerce During the 2012 Holiday Shopping Season" study focused on the ever-exciting topic of in-store usage of mobile phones. That usage occasion is of course completely new compared to the days before ubiquitous mobile connectivity. The two factors of most interest to online marketers are:

  • 28 percent of cell owners used their phone while inside a store to look up reviews of a product to help decide if they should purchase it or not.
  • 27 percent of cell owners used their phone while inside a store to look up the price of a product to see if they could get a better price elsewhere.

Mobile search is clearly having a very disruptive impact on brick-and-mortar retailers, and yet these same retailers and their pure-play competition are under-investing in mobile because the proof is hard to come by, and if there's room to profitably deploy budget in desktop search (desktop, laptop, and for Google Enhanced tablet) those campaign managers often gravitate toward a course of action likely to show undeniable success, rather than having to support investment in smartphone searches.

I urge all marketers to break down the data and budget silos within their organization and begin to use whatever reasonable means are available to track the value of the mobile searcher. If you have a brick-and-mortar footprint, ask salespeople to chat with customers about mobile search use or consider mobile-only deals. Sell to retailers as a brand/manufacturer, then do both geographic split tests and longitudinal studies, going heavy into mobile search to tease out the incrementality in positive behaviors and sales that result from mobile search.


Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee, Didit cofounder and executive chairman, has been an acknowledged search engine marketing expert since 1995. His years of SEM expertise provide the foundation for Didit's proprietary Maestro search campaign technology. The company's unparalleled results, custom strategies, and client growth have earned it recognition not only among marketers but also as part of the 2007 Inc 500 (No. 137) as well as three-time Deloitte's Fast 500 placement. Kevin's latest book, "Search Engine Advertising" has been widely praised.

Industry leadership includes being a founding board member of SEMPO and its first elected chairman. "The Wall St. Journal," "BusinessWeek," "The New York Times," Bloomberg, CNET, "USA Today," "San Jose Mercury News," and other press quote Kevin regularly. Kevin lectures at leading industry conferences, plus New York, Columbia, Fordham, and Pace universities. Kevin earned his MBA from the Yale School of Management in 1992 and lives in Manhattan with his wife, a New York psychologist and children.

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