Mobile Search – Forcing A Re-Evaluation Of KPIs

Online behaviour has changed dramatically over the last 18 months. Up to (and sometimes over) 50% of website traffic can be on smartphone. Mobile offers an unrivalled opportunity to reach people on-the-go as they use mobile search to answer any questions they can think of. User intent can vary on mobile compared to desktop, however, mobile traffic is regularly reviewed using the same metrics as desktop, and this can result in cutting back on mobile advertising, resulting in missed opportunity for advertisers.

This article uses aggregated data from Mindshare accounts to review mobile performance, and refers to findings from a Nielsen and Google study published in November 2013 (             It challenges the current focus on online metrics for performance measurement. Mobile search refers to search conducted on smartphones.

Mobile search is largely conducted while looking for a quick answer. A person may be looking for a sports shop in town where they can buy a certain brand of runners. They may be checking the opening hours of a restaurant. They may need home insurance, and shop around for prices while waiting for a train.

However, when we look at completed sales attributed to mobile, performance lags far behind desktop. Below is a typical example of online performance from Google Analytics. While traffic is very high on mobile devices, the proportion of transactions attributed to mobile is extremely low. We just have to look at the comparison in Ecommerce conversion rate to see why.

Device   Traffic  Transactions   Ecommerce Conversion Rate 
Mobile         40%             17%                     2%
Desktop         50%         72%                    6.5%
Tablet         10%         11%                     5%

Mobile traffic does not convert to sale in the same way as desktop traffic. One reason, is that the screen size can make it cumbersome to complete a detailed sales page, but often it is because the intention of a mobile search is not to complete an online sale. Does that mean we stop targeting mobile? Absolutely not. People ask questions on mobile. They initiate research by completing generic searches. They may then go and complete a sale on a desktop, over the phone, or in store. How do we prove this?

We recently took a sample of Mindshare client PPC accounts and did a comparison between brand and generic search by device. It is commonly accepted that generic search (unbranded keywords) is research based, and branded keywords are used closer to the completion of the sale.

In the table below, we see that 31% of all generic searches are conducted on smartphones, but only 20% of total branded searches are on mobile. We see that 55% of generic searches were conducted on desktop, while 65% of the brand searches are desktop based.

Device Generic Brand
Mobile         31%      20%
Desktop         55%      65%
Tablet         14%      15%
Total        100%      100%

It becomes a bit clearer when we look at that by proportion of search volume by device in the graph below. Over 60% of mobile search is generic, and under 40% is branded. For desktop it sways the other way, with 46% generic and 54% branded.

What does this mean? It suggests that the nature of the devices is different. People do the early stages of research on mobile, but use desktop to complete an action. A smartphone screen is great for accessing information, for reacting to offline triggers. The desktop is a work station, for which most online processes were developed. It remains the most suitable device for completing online actions.

Nielsen and Google conducted a study on mobile behaviour, looking at the mobile path to purchase. 3 of their 5 key findings are:

  1. Consumers spend 15+ hours per week researching on mobile (7.3 of which are on mobile websites)
  2. Mobile research starts with a search – Search engines are the most common starting off point for mobile research, with 48% of research starting there
  3. Mobile influences purchases across all channels. 93% of people who used mobile to research go on to make a purchase.
  • 83% purchased in-store
  • 45% purchased on desktop/tablet 45% purchased on desktop/tablet
  • [only] 17% purchased directly on their mobile phone

This research backs up assumptions made from the review of the Mindshare aggregated data. Clearly, mobile search is an extremely effective medium for advertising, driving sales through other channels. Do not expect sales to be completed on mobile proportionate to traffic.

We must take the nature of each device into consideration when measuring the effectiveness of search advertising. The real heavy lifting a search campaign does is in increasing your brand’s reach on generic search terms. This is how we target people looking for the products and services you provide.

With online advertising, it is very tempting to focus on online conversion metrics only. If we were to focus only on online conversion rates, we would be quick to cut back on mobile advertising. If we do this, we run the risk of cutting our reach on crucial “top of funnel” research, completely missing out on the opportunity to reach people in this phase of purchase.