How the iPhone Will Change Search Marketing

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Elegant. Uncompromising. Visionary. Each of these adjectives accurately describes the iPhone, which made its public debut last week at CES. Finally, it seems, the world has gotten its long-awaited convergence device: the one that makes the information riches of the Web accessible to mobile users.

Of course, the iPhone is hardly perfect, and the blogosphere has been filled with a healthy dollop of hype-busting this past week. Some argue that the iPhone's $599 price tag is too high, that it locks its buyers into a relationship with a single carrier, and that it remains, for all its beauty and elegance, a fundamentally closed system whose lack of outside developer support will render it an evolutionary dead end.

Only time will tell whether the iPhone is a bona fide hit, or just an interesting technology proof-of-concept. However it may fare in the marketplace, it's clear is that the iPhone has already raised expectations about the way a mobile device should look and act, the features such a device should have on-board, and, perhaps, the way mobile advertising will work on such a device.

One fascinating aspect of the iPhone is the fact that its in-built Safari browser provides a view of the Web that's essentially desktop-like. In contrast to other efforts to reformat Web pages to the requirements of tiny cell phone screens, the iPhone's display is generous enough to let users view Web pages in their entirety, and easily zoom into these pages by simply tapping the screen.

This fact creates several issues for search marketers. On the one hand, one could argue that because the iPhone lets users continue to view SERPs in much the same way that they do on desktops, there's no compelling reason to start thinking about rearchitecting one's search campaigns for the iPhone. In effect, the time-honored principle that click volume is proportional to visibility continues to apply.

On the other hand, one can argue that few iPhone users will spend a large share of their Web browsing time in some kind of zoomed view, because the iPhone's screen, while spacious, for a mobile device, is still too small to provide enough real estate to provide a readable version of an entire Web page, much less a four-line text ad. In zoomed mode, the view that iPhone users will get of SERPs is severely constrained: in certain zoomed views, the entire right rail of paid results is invisible, as are organic results extending below the fourth or fifth line. This "cropping" phenomenon is completely new, but will clearly have an effect on user behavior. Until some new eye-tracking studies are performed measuring the way that iPhone users interact with SERPs, we really won't know about how zoomed modes change, which listings are clicked upon, and which are ignored.

What's likely, however, is that any such studies will demonstrate that users tend to focus their attention on a much smaller area radiating out from the left-hand corner of the browser window. If this is so, marketers will need to compete more fiercely for positions on the "top rail," (the paid positions directly above the topmost organic result) on for the top organic result. Search engines may even have to evaluate the suitability of the "right rail" as a place they can count on for high click throughs.

Naturally, it's going to take a while for any new browsing paradigms to be felt. For the foreseeable future, the vast majority of search queries will come from people using traditional desktops and notebooks, which provide an unzoomed view of SERPS that preserves the existing spatial relationships between organic and paid results. But as mobile access to the Web continues to grow, and people get used to zooming, scrolling, and selecting page areas on their mobile devices, marketers will have to find new strategies to make sure that their listings are visible in this dynamic environment. Because nobody's ever going to click on an ad that they can't see.

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