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Pinpointing mobile search

According to IBM and many other industry observers, 2012 is shaping up to be the year of mobile. As brands roll out new apps and optimize email and websites for customers using mobile devices, one particularly rich area for growth has been mobile search. But while marketers invest more and more in engaging customers who are seeking products or services through smartphones, many believe mobile search engine marketing (SEM) has much further to go. In areas such as tracking, geolocation and ease-of-use, mobile search appears poised for significant growth.

According to Google, there has been a fivefold growth in mobile search over the last two years. Broken down into specific verticals, it makes up a significant and growing percentage of overall search, with 20% of telecom, 30% of restaurant and 25% of movie searches coming from mobile devices.

While mobile searches can occur on a mobile Web browser or an on-device search application, another crucial component to mobile SEM is ensuring mobile search results direct to a landing page designed for handheld devices. Easy mobile search navigation can make or break a relationship with consumers. Brendon Kraham, team manager of Google’s global mobile sales and product strategy groups, points to recent research from Google showing 57% of users won’t recommend a business if it has a poorly designed mobile site, while 40% will turn to a competitor’s site after having a bad mobile experience. This makes it increasingly vital for marketers to be sure both their organic and paid search advertising is driving users to a mobile-enabled site.

“If you are driving traffic to the desktop version of your site, you are doing a disservice to your customer base,” Kraham says. “Irrespective of all other things that you think about and other tactics, the site is the most critical thing — otherwise it’s very hard [for the user] to conduct the business they want to be doing.”

Kraham emphasizes the need to look at the context of how consumers are using their mobile devices to conduct searches. Google sees roughly 95% of mobile users turning to their mobile device to search for local information, and of that, some 61% of mobile users call a business following a search.

Instant gratification

Even with big-ticket purchases, mobile search enables prospects to become buyers with ever-greater speed. Kraham gives the example of hotel bookings, where a growing number of consumers use mobile search and book within 24 hours of their stay, prior to the advent of mobile search, consumers booked weeks in advance.

“[Consumers] want that immediacy and want to be able to do something at the last moment,” Kraham explains. “That’s different from what you would do on a desktop,” he adds.

Besides hotel stays, cars are another pricey item that consumers have increasingly been searching for on their phones, and Cars.com has been taking steps to ensure its information is in front of mobile users. In addition to the company’s mobile website and  apps for iPhone, iPad and Android devices, Cars.com also ramped up its SEM for both smartphones and tablets.

These marketing efforts have paid off, with the company reporting an increase in downloads of all of its apps, as well as solid lift in the traffic going to the Cars.com mobile website.

“Each year for the past several has been dubbed ‘the year of mobile,’ and it seems like that’s finally true,” says Lynda Myszkowski, senior manager of online marketing at Cars.com. “We know that these shoppers are using our site and shopping for vehicles on their mobile devices, so tailoring search marketing campaigns to mobile will continue to play an important role for Cars.com.”

Myszkowski says she expects Cars.com’s investment in mobile SEM to continue to grow as consumer mobile usage itself rises.

Recent enhancements and new solutions have made brand investments in mobile SEM more viable. Google continues to build out its search formats and infrastructure to make it as easy as possible for consumers to get the information they want. This entails using the devices’ native features to drive value for on-the-go customers conducting mobile searches.

For instance, incorporating location extensions into ad formats shows customers who are searching for a San Francisco restaurant a map to the restaurant’s physical location.

Click-to-call extensions that allow users to directly dial the restaurant, store or other service they are searching for are another powerful mobile tool. Since Google introduced the offering, there have been 10 million click-to-calls per month.

“It used to be the phone, and it is still the phone, but now it does a lot more,” Kraham says. “It’s actually tapping into those behaviors and using formats that simplify the process [of] getting you closer to purchase,” Kraham explains.

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Google is also expanding its “deep link” offerings where search can actually drive application downloads. A user searching for “Angry Birds” can be presented with results that include a direct link to iTunes or the Google Play store. Similarly, Google’s Sitelinks allow for a product search to land on the exact page where customers can find information on their specific search query, minimizing the amount of clicks toward making a purchase.

Adam Riff, SVP of digital strategy at MediaWhiz, says usability should be the top priority for brands developing mobile search strategies.

“You have to make sure that you are answering that challenge on the phone, they certainly don’t want to go to a website to call you, they want to be able to click a little link right in the ad or organic listing that dials the phone number,” Riff says “Understanding not just the device, but the intent and behavior of the user while using the device is an integral part of [mobile SEM].”

All in the timing

Many of these offerings are based on the notion that a search on a smartphone is a much more spontaneous action than one on a desktop or laptop.

“Mobile search can be so much more time-specific or need-sensitive than a desktop search,” says Catherine Schenquerman, digital advertising manager at JetBlue. “Mobile is a highly timely and sensitive touchpoint for conducting queries and searches, and we think the opportunity lies in being accessible and relevant through mobile channels.”

Schenquerman points out that customers frequently compare product prices on their mobile devices — a tendency that affects the airline industry as well — and JetBlue has taken steps to capture the search results from these consumers.

In addition to offering apps and a mobile-enabled site, JetBlue uses paid search and mobile display advertising to drive traffic to its mobile properties. While the airline’s mobile strategy is thorough, Schenquerman acknowledges an element of experimentation.

“We intend to test our way through our ideal mobile mix,” she says. “Having a presence in mobile is important to us because we know our consumers utilize this technology to interact with our brand.”

Paul Sacco, director of product management at Southwest Airlines, agrees that the immediacy of mobile makes it an attractive offering for an airline, and expects to see geolocation become an increasingly important tool for marketers using mobile search.

“If we knew someone was at an airport versus around town or home, we might be more inclined to send a message that’s more targeted to experience, for example something about the loyalty program or a business-select product or some product we’d want them to know about as they were traveling,” Sacco says. “That’s where a lot of work is going on, so that’s exciting — that’s probably the next big step.”

Sacco emphasizes that mobile is more “task oriented,” with users looking for specific, time-sensitive information rather than casually surfing as they would on a laptop or even a tablet.

With this in mind, Southwest has worked to tailor its messaging to be most appropriate to these different kinds of interactions, with more simple and practical links connected to mobile search. On desktop search, these links might emphasize more experiential marketing messages to consumers.

Keeping it simple

When Gifts.com launched its mobile site in 2010, the company’s marketing team distilled the site to its most essential features. After the launch, mobile conversions increased 75%.

“To put our desktop site on a phone would be … too cluttered and hard to use,” says David McPherson, CMO at Gifts.com. “Mobile drops you right to gift items, so you can easily scroll through and see larger pictures without having to use fingers to increase or decrease screen,” McPherson says.

Products meant for specific occasions, like Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, McPherson adds, are simply easier to target with keywords, making them more efficient for mobile users to locate quickly.

While Gifts.com has made significant investment in search recently, McPherson acknowledges that the company lags behind desktop SEM. Desktop search yields higher conversion rates; bounce rates remain higher in mobile, he says.

Some online purchases are too complex for mobile. Jason Tabeling, associate partner of search and social media at marketing agency Rosetta, gives the example of a banking client that conducts student lending and mortgages hesitant to embrace mobile SEM efforts. “They have 10-page-long applications — no one is going to fill that out on mobile,” he says.

In these situations, Tabeling believes that the marketer should find other ways to generate conversions, such as offering a click-to-call option where the application can be filled out over the phone. Working with a mutual insurance client that decided not to create an app to offer online quotes, he advised them to drive users to a simple mobile landing page with a photo of an agent and a number they could click to call.

“They know their conversion rate is higher via phone than online — why not let someone call when they have a phone in their hand?” Tabeling says. “The mental model is there, and they’ve supported it without having to build a complete mobile site.” Tabeling says.

State Farm similarly integrates the voice channel within its mobile SEM strategy. The insurance provider simplifies its mobile presence, while promoting its click-to-call extension to direct users to one of the company’s 18,000 agents.

“Every month we see calls going up and up, and [have] seen calls more than double year-over-year — part of that’s just a function of the growth of consumer usage of mobile, but we would’ve bought more calls if we could get them,” explains Matt Johnson, digital media manager at State Farm. “The mobile device is supposed to be simple, it has its limits.”

Fully focused on mobile

As mobile search explodes, brands and agencies have shifted it from an afterthought to a central plank in their marketing strategies. While every plan Rosetta develops somehow incorporates mobile, within the last year, the agency has established two taskforces of up to five members dedicated to search, one team working on paid search, the other on organic search. The two groups meet weekly.

This coordinated effort around mobile search is something Tabeling says would not have been considered a year earlier.

Kraham believes that the companies at the forefront of mobile search are able to do so by having a dedicated person specifically focused on mobile.

“It’s not a percent of time for someone in the marketing department, it’s a true core function, and they should be going at it aggressively,” Kraham says. “The companies that are winning are investing more of their resources, whether the marketing budget is increasing, or they’re building landing pages or beefing up analytics spend, so there is more time on mobile — just as they would have a sound digital strategy with multiple components of the organization focused on that.”

Much more work needs to be done in what Kraham calls “closing the loop” from initial search to final sale. Google Wallet has helped simplify and track the payment process, but he believes more solutions will roll out in the near future.

Challenges remain

Tracking and metrics remain big challenges in mobile SEM. Measurement and reporting options have not advanced in mobile as much as they have in other areas of traditional search marketing, which means the marketing team is often required to fill in the blanks about where it is getting a return on investment.

Ultimately, this inability to provide as comprehensive a picture as brands would ideally like means mobile SEM solutions are largely experimental deployments.

For example, Cars.com’s marketing team was frustrated that while it could trace clicks from the search ad to the app store, it couldn’t track whether the user actually downloaded the app.

“We can look at total traffic to our mobile site and downloads of our apps and try to correlate to mobile advertising that we have run,” Myszkowski says. “Depending on goals for each campaign, optimizing against clickthroughs only may not be enough.”

As mobile becomes more critical to companies’ strategies, she expects that measurement will follow, just as it has over the past several years in the digital and social channels.

Southwest has moved cautiously into mobile SEM, partly because the nascent tracking and analytical capabilities make it harder for the company to correlate marketing spend with results.

“Right now, we’re diverting some spend into mobile because of its growth and the potential we believe is there for our mobile apps and mobile sites,” Sacco says. “But we don’t quite have the measurement in place to get good ROI analysis — it’s sort of going on faith at this point.”

Besides its clear potential, Sacco emphasizes mobile search’s value as compared to standard search, since only the top two paid search ads will display to users on the mobile screen at one time, compared to the three available on desktop search.

“There’s limited inventory that they have at this time,” Sacco says, adding that he views that as a temporary situation. “It’s still early as far as large-scale investment in [mobile search], but we’re seeing good buys as far as the cost.”

He adds that as capabilities and sophistication on the search providers’ side improve, allowing for greater ability to connect with customers who are most likely to be interested in particular messages, that Southwest’s investment in this area is also likely to grow.

Tabeling expects to see ad formats advancing to better leverage mobile devices, even drawing in the smartphone’s camera, GPS and audio capabilities. One area he is watching closely is voice search, which has enjoyed an enormous amount of attention from the Siri program on the iPhone 4S.

“It will take off with enough momentum; right now it’s a nice toy to play with when you first get the iPhone,” he says. “I think there’s opportunity there, but don’t think it’s the most important thing currently.”

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