Battleground Mobile: Why (& How) to Prepare for the Future

Posted by EricEnge

[Estimated read time: 12 minutes]

The world of mobile continues to explode. Major players like Google, Facebook, and Apple are investing massively in efforts to establish themselves as the dominant player in the new markets that are emerging as a result. These companies are betting in a big way on continuing changes in mobile usage and in user expectations for mobile devices, and that means you should be, too. It means you need to have a mobile-first mentality.

The investments by these companies are happening at many different levels. For example, Google has already made mobile friendliness a ranking factor, and intends to increase the strength of that signal in May 2016. But there’s much more to this story, so let’s dig in!

Continuing rise of mobile devices

Sure, you’ve heard it before, but the growth of installed mobile devices is probably happening even faster than you think:

According to this data, PCs, tablets, and smartphones will only be about 25% of the installed Internet-enabled devices by 2020. Just a few years ago, these represented two-thirds of the installed Internet devices. In the biz world, this is what we call a “disruptive change.”

Many of the new device types will probably have a fairly passive role in our lives (such as smart refrigerators, smart thermostats, and other Internet of Things devices). By this, I mean that I don’t expect them to become devices that we interact with heavily.

However, many classes of these devices will be ones that we’ll interact with substantially, such as smart TVs, Internet media devices, and wearables.

Here’s a recast view of that same chart focusing on just this class of devices:

Looking at this new chart, we see that PCs and tablets – the devices that have a fairly substantial keyboard available – still make up only about 40% of the installed devices.

Rise of voice search

So how will we interact with those devices? The primary way of doing that will be via voice.

In the recent keynote event I did with Gary Illyes, he indicated that the number of voice searches Google received in 2015 was double that of 2014, so they’re definitely seeing a steep rise in voice search volume.

The recent interview that Danny Sullivan did with Amit Singhal underscored this. The now-retired Head of Search Quality at Google (he retired as of February 29, 2016) spent a year living primarily on mobile phones. One of the interesting exchanges in the interview:

Danny Sullivan: Do you tend to type more or do you voice-search more?

Amit Singhal: I’m swiping and voice-searching far more than letter-typing.

At another point in the interview he also says: “I realized … that on mobile devices, that I wanted to act more.” This notion is backed up by something Gary Illyes said in our recent keynote event: “We get, I think, 30 times as many action queries by voice as by typing.”

This emergence of voice search is a big deal. As Singhal noted above, this leads to much more voice search, and voice queries use natural language queries far more than typed searches. This appears to be one of the major reasons behind Google developing and launching its RankBrain algorithm.

Who’s winning the mobile wars so far?

Recently, I watched a great video of a presentation by Chartbeat’s Tony Haile. In this video he shows some interesting data on content consumption, as well as the mobile market. One of the more fascinating charts is this one showing that Facebook utterly dominates consumption of major news events:

Note that this particular chart is for one single story on The Atlantic, entitled “What ISIS Really Wants,” but it’s a compelling chart just the same. In addition, Facebook has 678 million users (47% of all their users) that access their platform solely from mobile devices, and 934 million of their 1.44 billion users (65%) access Facebook from a mobile device every day.

Taking this a step further, you can see how Facebook’s dominance here plays out on a minute-by-minute basis, using (once again) the ISIS news story as an example:

In this view, you see Google leading the early surge, but once Facebook spikes, its volume quickly overwhelms that of Google. So in this view, it looks like Facebook is dominating major news cycles. In contrast, Google owns the lulls in the news cycles:

Another interesting note from the Haile presentation is that overall mobile traffic share is continuing to grow, and is pushing towards 60% and higher of all traffic. However, he notes that this is “not because it’s killing desktop, it’s because it’s outgrowing it.”

Haile also points out that there are 5 types of things that you can do with content. These are:

  1. Create
  2. Host
  3. Curate
  4. Distribute
  5. Monetize

Facebook has historically been used to curate and distribute content. With their new Facebook Instant Articles initiative, they are now taking on the hosting and monetization of content. I’ll discuss that more below.

So does this mean that Facebook is the runaway winner in mobile? No, as the charts above focused on the major news cycles, but nonetheless, it shows that Facebook has some strong advantages over Google that you might not have expected.

Mobile apps

Another thing that many underestimate is the growing importance of the apps market. comScore’s September 2015 Mobile App Report provides some compelling data to help you increase your understanding of where apps fit into the overall market.

First, let’s took at the share that apps represent of all digital media time:

Per this chart, usage in all 3 segments is growing (including desktop), but the growth of time in apps is happening at a far greater rate than any other segment. In addition, time spent on apps exceeds that of time on desktop and the mobile web together. Note that not all app time is on smartphones, as usage in tablets have high app usage as well, but smartphone app usage by itself represents 44% of all digital media time spent:

I gotta tell you, seeing that 44% number was a “wow” moment for me. Facebook and Google have both recognized the importance of this growing usage pattern. You can see this in the following chart of the top 25 installed apps by user count:

The top 6 apps, as well as 8 of the top 9 apps, are all provided by either Facebook or Google. Ever wonder why Google keeps Google Plus around? Might have something to do with that app coming in at position 18 among the most-installed apps. This makes G+ a huge potential source of data for Google.

Facebook has the clear lead here too, though, as it’s the number-one installed app, and it’s considered the number one app for 48% of those that have it installed:

One of the big problems with Apps for most publishers is even after you get installed is driving ongoing usage. According to Google, “only one quarter of installed apps are used daily while one quarter are are left completely unused.”

One method that Google offers to help app publishers is app indexing. This will enable content within apps to show up in search results for related queries:

Google currently has 50 billion links within apps indexed, and “25% of searches on Android return deep links to apps for signed-in users. In addition to driving re-engagement, app indexing on Android will also surface install buttons for users who do not yet have your app installed. Since 1 in 4 apps are already being discovered through search, app indexing is a simple and free method for acquiring new users.” Here are some examples of app install buttons showing up in the SERPs:

As shown here, the query that led to this showing up in the SERP was the name of the business, Priceza. However, Google’s Mariya Moeva provided me with other examples of “app seeking queries” that might bring up such an install button:

  1. restaurant finder
  2. grocery shopping list
  3. breaking news app

The benefits of app indexing should be obvious, but Google shares many case studies here. One of these from AliExpress showed an 80–90% increase in search impressions, and a 30–40% increase for searches on Android for users that had the app installed.

This leads to bringing users back to your app, and this offers compelling value as app engaged users tend to be more loyal, place higher dollar value orders, and order more frequently. Part of the upside in terms of visibility results from the fact that app indexing is used by Google as a ranking signal, though the scope of that boost isn’t clear.

Driving initial installs, and then getting help to get users back to your app seems like a good thing!

Speed, speed, and more speed

You’ve heard this, too: that speed is paramount. But you might still have no idea how important. You may well have seen data like this:

Or you may have seen data from some of the Akamai travel site performance study that showed:

  1. Three second rule: 57 percent of online shoppers will wait three seconds or less before abandoning a site
  2. 65% of 18–24 year olds expect a site to load in two seconds or less

It would be tempting to look at all this data and then start setting specific goals as to how fast you need to be, but I want to discourage you from thinking about it that way. Instead, I’m going to give you a different goal:

Be faster than your competition

In today’s hyper-connected world, the real issue is that any time you offer some subpar aspect to what you do, the competitive alternative is only a click or two away. Understanding the implications of that, and applying it in all your online thinking is one of the most important things you can do.

Don’t just focus on being faster than they are today either, but make yourself faster than they will be in 6 months or a year from now.

For some basic help you can check your pages out in Google’s Page Speed Insights tool. However, both Facebook and Google offer initiatives for dramatically speeding up your web pages, and that’s what I’ll explore next.

Facebook Instant Articles

Facebook Instant Articles officially launched on May 12th, 2015. The idea behind the program is to dramatically speed up performance of content on mobile devices. When the program initially launched, it was available only to some publishers, such as the NY Times, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Business Insider, NBC News, and Mic.

The benefits that the program offers is near-instant loading of content on mobile devices, and the opportunity to get Facebook to sell your ad space for you (though you can still sell it yourself if you want to). If Facebook sells the ads for you, the split has been reported at 70% to you and 30% kept by Facebook, though that does not appear to be a hard-and-fast number.

Instant Articles come with some neat visualization features too, such as rapid scrolling, zooming capabilities, and the ability to connect to maps functionality.

However, the platform is a proprietary one, with Facebook hosting the content. This will be scary to some. To try and ease those concerns, Facebook does enable publishers to sell their own ads if they prefer, without any need to pay Facebook a cut, or to include their own analytics on the Instant Articles.

As of April 12, 2016, this program will be opened up to all publishers. According to Peter Kafka of re/code: “When I asked reps there if that included one-person operations – that is, someone typing their own stuff on a Tumblr page or Medium page or whatever – they said yes, with a tiny bit of hesitation.”

Accelerated Mobile Pages

In October of 2015, Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) were announced. Like Facebook Instant Articles, its goal is to load pages on mobile devices instantly. One of the fundamental differences about AMP is that it’s an ope source project, with participants such as:

  1. Google
  2. Pinterest
  3. Twitter
  4. WordPress
  5. The Guardian

AMP relies on two basic principles to make it operate faster:

  1. The permitted HTML is very limited, with the basic goal being that all code is already pre-rendered to minimize need for server accesses when rendering a page.
  2. The pages can be cached by third parties. For example, Google already has the caching infrastructure in place, but companies such as Pinterest and Twitter can set up their own if they choose.

To make this work, you are only allowed to use fairly limited CSS, and the AMP-supplied JavaScript library. You can more or less forget about AJAX, or forms, for example.

There are also some hoops you need to jump through to implement analytics on these pages, run your ads, and deal with unsupported functionality, but workarounds do exist. For example, according to Paul Shapiro at SMX West, iframes are “the holy grail of unsupported functionality” for AMP:

Also, to implement analytics, you’ll need to use special tags. Paul Shapiro recommends the PageFrog plugin to help with that for both AMP and Facebook Instant Articles:

Expect the AMP platform to evolve rapidly, as there are many interested parties working on this and many of the current shortcomings will get better over time.

Developing an action plan

The cumulative weight of all these changes represents a significant disruptive event. These are the times when businesses can rapidly accelerate their growth, or lose the opportunity and get stuck playing catch-up. I’m pretty sure which of those two scenarios I prefer. The first steps, really, are to understand what are the specific opportunities for connecting with your customers over mobile, and prioritizing among them.

You should have a basic mobile-friendly site, as that’s already a ranking factor. But, your thought process needs to go deeper than that. For example, start understanding what type of mobile experience your customers want to be having. I’d urge you to put significant creative thinking into this question, as the best mobile experience might involve approaches that are quite different from what you do on your current website.

The strategic shift you need to make is to make your business mobile-first. Any time you think about adding something to your website, for example, stop coming up with the desktop design first and relying on responsive web design to handle mobile for you. Start thinking about your mobile experience first, and then consider the desktop variation second.

As you engage in that thought process, be willing to incorporate some of the specific elements I’ve discussed within this article. Here’s a summary of those items, and how they might fit in:

  1. Should you build an app? Yes, if you believe you can put enough value into an app to generate installs and bring users back to use it on an ongoing basis.
    • While I did not discuss this in this article, make sure to perform App Store Optimization to help generate more installs as well.
    • Implement Google’s app indexing. This may help you generate more installs, and should also help bring people back to your app on a regular basis
  2. Should you implement Facebook Instant Articles? I’m a big fan of trying this out for your article-level content. It can’t hurt to have it load instantly within Facebook, particularly if you do any level of Facebook promotion. We’re planning to test it here at STC and see what it does for us.
  3. Should you implement AMP? I’m in the same camp on this one: you should try this, and we’re testing it here at STC.

As for the impact of natural language (voice) search, this just increases the emphasis on the quality of your content and your focus on natural language in that content, instead of obsessing over tweaking the content for search engines.

This list really just itemizes the tactical opportunities for you, and the biggest point is that you need to start operating from a mobile-first mindset at all levels in your online business efforts.

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