Mobile Is Slowly Killing Search

Trends
Jason Mander / January 20, 2015

This post orginally featured on Mediapost’s MAD here.

With 2014 having marked the 10th anniversary of Google’s IPO, it’s hard to deny the ubiquity that the search portal has in the daily lives of digital consumers — of the 150 or so Web brands tracked by GlobalWebIndex, Google is the one with by far the best reach. Indeed, GlobalWebIndex’s data revealing that 85% of global Internet users are visiting the site in some form each month is a remarkable achievement (by way of comparison, the next-closest names — YouTube and Facebook — can boast lower visitation rates of 67% and 60%, respectively).

Nevertheless, Google has a problem. And that problem is mobile. Its current dominance on the Web is a result of PCs and laptops being so fundamental to the way that the Internet developed. And while these devices aren’t going anywhere — with multi-device Internet usage being the standard approach adopted by most users — it’s clear that mobile is playing an increasingly important role as Internet access points (with their audience increasing in size with each quarter of research that we undertake). The challenge this presents for Google is not just that search is less of a fundamental behaviour on this platform. It’s that mobile has brought with it so many other ways for consumers to navigate the Internet and find the information for which they are looking — with vertical search in particular playing a more important role here — why look for a product on Google when you can go straight to Amazon and start your search there instead?

Now, let’s be clear here. Search engines are not about to disappear overnight; the drop in monthly usage over the last five years is a very, very gentle one (from 90% in 2009 to 86% in 2014). Google’s relevance is not about to be fatally wounded, then. Nevertheless, the link between Google and PCs/laptops is a very strong one; engagement rates by device show that the vast majority of PC and laptop users are visiting Google on a monthly basis, whereas the equivalent figure among mobile Internet users is just 50%. And even on tablets, where the experience is closer to a PC, it’s only 57% who are visiting Google. As we have stressed, PCs and laptops are not being abandoned. But it is clear — and abundantly so — that mobile is capturing a progressively bigger share of Internet time and traffic, especially in fast-growth markets.

Of course, most Web brands would pay a handsome premium to have a 50% reach among mobile Internet users. Seen in this light, these numbers are still pretty solid for Google. But that there is such a gap between the brand’s usage on different devices is a clear sign of the fundamental changes to web behaviours that the rise of the mobile Internet is causing.

We find more evidence for this evolution if we look at the sources people say they use to investigate products and services on the Internet. Break the figures down by age and some particularly interesting trends emerge. Among teens — defined here as 16-19s — usage of search engines is absolutely in line with the average. Yet look at the places where the youngest Internet users overindex the most and it’s mobile that comes at the top of the list: teens are 30% more likely than average to be using apps as a research channel. They’re also ahead on other “newer” sources of discovery such as video/content sites, micro-blogs and pin boards. In a sense, then, the rise of mobile means that — in some cases — search engines are being leapfrogged; we’re going directly to familiar, popular or mobile-friendly channels without visiting a search engine first. And although still in their nascent stages, we have to imagine that the growing sophistication of visual- or voice-based technologies will eventually have a similar impact on the need or desire to visit a search portal.

As we have noted, the scale and speed of the changes in behavior here should not be overestimated. But it seems clear that this is another area where mobile is having a transformative effect over online behaviours.