The dominance and ubiquity of smartphones in today’s culture is almost cliché at this point. Just a few years ago we were working to convince VPs and C-level executives that mobile was the next big thing, and now we have to work to pull their attention away from their smartphones during meetings. So why is mobile search marketing still such a challenge for so many brands, agencies, and even the search engines themselves?
The Reasons Search Marketing Works
Let’s start by examining why traditional search marketing (both paid and organic) has been such an effective channel on non-mobile devices:
- Real-time intent. Search marketing is a push channel – rather than trying to distract people from their current activity (watching a video, reading an article), search marketing captures intent at the moment of truth. When a user does a search, she’s not only telling you what she’s looking for, she’s raising her hand and saying, “I’m open to hearing your marketing message right now.”
- Trackability. Think back 10 or 15 years – the ability to track actions and conversions at a real-time, granular level was how digital marketers snagged budget for search initiatives, and it remains a key component of any effective search marketing strategy.
- Extensive, easily understood format for the user. The above two benefits demonstrate the value of search to marketers, but the actual search engine results page is what the user sees. While the SERPs have undergone tremendous changes over the years, they’re still an incredibly effective format that provides extensive information in an easy to understand layout. Paid ads, natural results, local listings, knowledge graph data, personalized results, and other elements are neatly arranged on the page to provide the user with a wealth of information at a glance – and to give advertisers and brands multiple opportunities to interact with the searcher.
The Mobile Challenge
The problem with mobile stems from the fact that while smartphones resemble computers, users interact with them in completely different ways. The above three strengths of search marketing don’t completely apply to the mobile space, and both advertisers and the search engines are all too often trying to force mobile search into the same constraints and format as desktop search.
Screen size is the most obvious difference. The SERPs on mobile phones contain much less information simply because there’s less real estate available. For paid search, if you’re not in the top two positions, you’re effectively not participating, and Google’s struggle with smartphone CPCs over the past few years is a key factor in the recent changes rolled out with Enhanced Campaigns.
Tracking issues are another big problem. There are still gaps in smartphone conversion tracking from site analytics and third-party cookies, and the elusive challenge of cross-device tracking is still a major missing piece (though Google is reportedly very close to rolling out a solution).
Outside of these purely technical issues, the fact remains that mobile users are often simply looking to take different actions. While some will click through and convert on their phones, others are looking for a phone number, store hours, or an address. All of these actions have value, but the world of search marketing is so entrenched in hard data and trackability that many marketers simply aren’t prepared to quantify and assign value to these other actions. Some marketers view these other interaction points almost like an excuse instead of a success metric – “We didn’t see any direct conversions, and ROI is low, but 60,000 people saw your store address…which I guess is valuable, right?”
The Future: New Formats, New Features
In reaction to these challenges, the search engines and device manufacturers are testing a variety of new approaches to mobile search, each of which has advantages and drawbacks for marketers when compared to the above list of traditional search marketing strengths.
Voice search. While this solution keeps the strength of real-time intent, the results the user receives after her search are problematic. Many voice search tools simply deliver the user to a mobile search results page, which as described above limits advertiser opportunity. Google is exploring another solution with “cards” that provide basic answers via quick snippets of data from the Knowledge Graph (as seen on Google Glass). While cards provide a great user experience, Google will be hard pressed to replicate the paid result/natural results dichotomy that makes traditional SERPs so effective within the limited screen space and focused information provided by cards – and it remains to be seen if Google has any idea how to monetize this format.
Proactive analysis. Google Now uses your account data, location history, and past searches to predict what you’d like to know – weather, traffic on your route home, good restaurants when you’re traveling – and then proactively provides this information. While these results are well-targeted, their usefulness as marketing tools is more limited than traditional search, as they remove the key expressed need (via a search query) and “moment of truth” intent that makes search marketing so effective. They’re much more akin to a targeted display program.
New secondary signals. The new Moto X phone’s “Moto Assist” feature is a great example of this approach, which uses constantly tracked secondary signals to infer what the user is doing and respond accordingly. While I’m a huge fan of leveraging secondary signals in paid search, it remains to be seen what kind of access to these new data points Google will provide marketers – and the SERP/output challenge still remains.
The classic format of typing a query and reviewing a SERP is going to seem very quaint within the next few years. Smart advertisers won’t just build a mobile search strategy for today’s formats – they’ll pay close attention to how their customers are searching and interacting with their mobile devices to ensure they’re present for every opportunity to respond to their customer’s needs.
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