Analyst firm BIA/Kelsey has projected that by 2015 there will be more local searches coming from smartphones than PCs in the US. It’s a bold prediction and one that has logical merit: smartphone search volumes are growing faster than search on the PC. While local search is at least 20 percent of total queries on the PC (per Google) it’s at least 40 percent of smartphone queries, also according to Google.
Mobile vs. PC Local Search Volumes (BIA/Kelsey Forecast)
Source: BIA/Kelsey (2012)
In some categories such as restaurants and travel, mobile searches represent 15 – 20 percent or more of overall query volumes. There can be no dispute that mobile search is now a huge phenomenon. But will it eclipse PC local search query volume in three years?
Let’s think out loud a bit, shall we?
50 Billion Local Queries on the PC
Using the Google 20 percent figure as a guide we can estimate that in March there were approximately 3.7 billion local searches on the PC in the US. In the absence of significant month over month growth that would translate into roughly 44 billion annual local queries coming through US search engines on the PC. But let’s assume modest local query growth and say there will be something on the order of 50 billion local queries on search engines in the US in 2012. (The number could be higher of course.)
Now, how many local-mobile search queries are there?
Answering that question depends on whether we include app-based local search (e.g., Yelp, Foursquare, yellow pages apps, Urbanspoon, etc.). Data from comScore, Localeze and 15 Miles finds that half of US mobile consumers (survey respondents) say they use apps at least some of the time for local search. However, we don’t know the frequency or the volume of in-app search because no one is really tracking those numbers today.
Let’s limit the definition of “mobile search” to browser based search through one of the major US search engines. However right now Google represents about 95 percent of the total “mobile search” market in the US.
12 Billion Local Queries on Smartphones
If there are roughly 125 million smartphone owners in the US (50 percent of 250 million mobile subscribers) and a large number of smartphone owners do an average 20 mobile searches per month, then there are something like 30 billion mobile searches annually right now in the US. (Let’s leave out tablets of this discussion.) If 40 percent of that overall mobile search volume is local, that would mean roughly 12 billion annual local searches on mobile devices. (This number may be slightly inflated today.)
We can assume growth in smartphone penetration and some growth in per-person mobile search query volume — though this assumption is a wild card for several reasons. It also may be a bit risky to assume that the percentage of overall mobile search that is local will continue to climb significantly, though it could reach 50 percent (which is what Microsoft says it is today on Bing).
Let’s assume smartphone penetration reaches 75 percent (say 187 million people) and each person does 40 mobile searches per month (doubling our per-person monthly query assumption). That translates into 90 billion annual mobile queries. If the local percentage of mobile search volume grows to 50 percent, we’d have 45 billion annual local-mobile search queries.
That event would get us pretty close to PC-mobile local search parity, if there weren’t dramatic PC local search growth. However a number of factual assumptions must come to pass. And the future is not guaranteed to look like the past.
What If the Paradigm Shifts?
The proliferation of mobile apps (whether native or HTML5) combined with the rise of Siri and other voice assistants could mean that browser-based mobile search doesn’t grow much over time. Google has cited figures of 130 percent year over year mobile search growth. But there are reasons to believe that the current PC search model on the smartphone small screen will be supplanted, at least to some degree in the relatively near future.
More than a couple of years out it all starts to get very speculative, since mobile is evolving so rapidly. However, regardless of whether the BIA forecast comes true in three years — I don’t think it can without including in-app search volumes — it’s certainly directionally accurate. And one day in the relatively near future it’s clear that people will be using mobile devices to find local information as much or more than their laptops and desktop PCs.