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How the Future of Mobile Search Is Unfolding This Year and Beyond

How the Future of Mobile Search Is Unfolding This Year and Beyond
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Mobile use is at an all-time high, and shows no signs of slowing down. It has been predicted that by 2020, there will be the equivalent of 1.5 mobile devices for every person in the world.

It's no wonder this trend is sometimes referred to as the "mobile revolution."

But what does this mean for search? How will mobile SEO -- including keyword research, content creation and device targeting -- be impacted? This post will look at current trends in mobile search, and how you can get ahead of the game.

"Mobile first" moves beyond responsive design.

Mobile first is a popular term these days, but what does it really mean?

A few years ago, the phrase mobile first was largely used to describe the need to accommodate increased mobile usage by having a mobile app or responsive website design. Basically, the term was telling us to get our apps and websites ready "now."

Related: 3 Ways to Use Mobile Marketing to Keep Customers Coming Back

Today, the words and definition of "Mobile first" has become a clarion call we need to heed as marketers. Most marketers and business owners are on board with having a mobile-friendly site. The so-called Mobilegeddon update of 2015 spurred many complacent site owners to action. And, those persons who have been comparatively sluggish in their perception of the magnitude of how quickly this "thing" is moving? Those who weren't convinced the first time? Their minds may have been changed earlier this month -- when Google increased their mobile-friendly ranking signal.

Mobile first is much bigger than just having a mobile-friendly site design. It encompasses user experience, keyword research and content creation.

Perhaps most importantly, mobile first is looking at user intent by asking, "How are our customers and prospects using various devices to get the information they need?" Many of the trends below touch on this question.

Apps have now overtaken mobile browsers

According to Flurry Mobile, 90 percent of time on mobile is now spent in apps; the remaining 10 percent is spent in browsers. The most popular apps remain Facebook (accounting for 19 percent of time on mobile), entertainment-based apps (17 percent) and gaming apps (15 percent).

This trend has serious implications for marketers who are investing heavily in mobile sites (as opposed to apps). Simon Khalaf, CEO and president of Flurry describes the problem perfectly: "Historically, the media industry has relied almost entirely on search for user and traffic acquisition, building entire teams around SEO and SEM on the desktop web. But search engines are predominantly accessed from a browser. If mobile users aren’t using browsers, the media industry will have to look for new approaches to content discovery and  traffic acquisition."

Micro-moments replace in-depth search.

Mobile users are increasingly using search to get instant answers to their queries. Whereas desktop (and often tablet) users are more likely to engage in longer, more in-depth search sessions, smartphone users expect bite-sized, instantaneous answers or information. Users may experience hundreds of these "micro-moments" each day. According to Google, these queries fall into four categories:
  • I-want-to-know: e.g., "How old is Barack Obama?"
  • I-want-to-do: e.g., "Download Angry Birds"
  • I-want-to-go: e.g., "How do I get to First National Bank?"
  • I want-to-buy: e.g., "Buy bedding online"

These moments represent important opportunities for marketers. Optimizing for these "in the moment" searches allows marketers to engage with consumers in real-time, capturing their attention throughout every part of their day.

Related: Planning Your Mobile Marketing Strategy

Complex natural language queries are possible.

Google has been able to interpret natural language queries for a while now. Since the introduction of Knowledge Graph in 2012, Google has been able to handle everything from single-word queries (e.g., "California") to longer, more intuitive queries (e.g., "What is the capital of California?"). Google has recently upped their game, announcing an improved ability to deal with complex natural language queries. This means users can ask more complicated questions, relying on Google to more accurately interpret the meaning behind the queries. The examples Google gives include:
  • Time-based queries: "What was the population of Singapore in 1965?"
  • Questions using superlatives: "Who are the tallest Mavericks players?"
  • Complex question-combinations: "What are some of Seth Gabel's father-in-law's movies?
Clearly, today's mobile search is far more sophisticated than it was even a few short years ago. This is a benefit to both users and marketers as they seek to find and provide the most relevant information possible.

Mobile search = local search.

According to Google, one third of all mobile searches are now local. This means mobile users are far more likely to perform "I want to go" and local "I want to buy" queries (both of which tend to have much higher commercial intent), and therefore opportunities for marketers. Businesses trying to rank in local search should use the same optimization strategies they would for a non-local site. However, additional location-specific strategies should also be deployed:
  • Getting listed in local directories
  • Earning review signals (quantity of reviews, diversity of reviews, etc.)
  • Maintaining consistent NAPs (name, address, phone number) across all websites and listings
  • Using location-specific keywords (including hyperlocal keywords - such as, street or neighborhood names)
  • Inbound links from local publications and blogs

The journey happens across multiple devices.

We know that mobile has overtaken desktop when it comes to search. However, users aren't abandoning their desktops -- not by a long shot. Research is consistently showing that we use multiple devices to accomplish tasks online. For instance, we may start researching a product on our mobile device, but then complete the actual purchase on our desktop. Google refers to this as multi-screening. According to Facebook's own research, the customer journey may be even more complex: "[T]he path to purchase is by no means linear. In today’s multi-device world, people are discovering on one device, researching on another and converting on a third. Add in activity that happens in-store and it becomes even more complex."

Related: 4 Critical Things Every Business Must Know About Mobile Marketing

Facebook's research found that mobile is an integral part of the purchase funnel, even when it's not the only part. For instance, nearly half (45 percent) of all shopping journeys contained at least one action on mobile. Marketers will need to continue to find ways to keep each leg of the journey consistent, seamlessly guiding users through the purchase process...regardless of which device they're using.

Search on tablets and smartphones are different.

When we talk about mobile, we're usually referring to both mobile and tablet. However, the use of each product can differ quite significantly, both in terms of usage and search intent. Here's what we know about the differences between tablets and smartphones in 2016:
  • Smartphone users are now more likely to make purchases than tablet users. Just a few years ago, the reverse was true. This year, 20 percent of all online orders will be made from smartphones, as compared to just 9 percent on tablets.
  • Almost twice as many searches now take place on phones compared to tablets: 80 percent of internet users conduct searches via smartphone, compared to just 47 percent on tablets.
  • While smartphones are used anywhere and everywhere, tablets are more likely to be used at home or work. Smartphone users tend to be more action-oriented: they'll be more likely to perform "I-want-to-go" and local "I-want-to-buy" queries. Tablet users, on the other hand, are more likely to engage in longer search sessions and more in-depth content consumption.

Marketers may need a to look at a separate content marketing strategy for targeting mobile and tablet users, and they should be aware of the differences in usage and intent. This may be the time to consider that there may be a way to up the game for savvy marketers who can figure a way to garner the advantages of targeting the tablet users.

Mobile search is changing, and marketers need to keep up. "Mobile first" is no longer simply about having an app or a responsive site, but it is about meeting the mobile customers at every point of their journey -- from their very first Google search all the way to purchase or conversion.