Mobile Apps: Search By Another Name

Responding to Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ declaration that on mobile devices “search hasn’t happened,” we’ve now written several times about how mobile apps of various sorts are essentially search by another name. Just to refresh your memory, here’s Jobs making that statement in April of this year:

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The specific app he references (in case you missed it) is Yelp. He mentioned Yelp again in his recent interview at the D8 event in discussing the same issue of search on mobile devices:

Steve: We discovered something — people are going into apps. They’re not just going onto to websites. And people love apps. This is an entirely new thing — they aren’t using search, they’re using apps like Yelp.

Last week in conjunction with the release of the fifth version of its iPhone app Yelp exposed some striking data about the role that mobile now plays in its traffic:

On average, 27% of all Yelp searches come from our iPhone App. That number dips during the week when traffic surges. Then on the weekend, it moves up again as people pull out their Yelp mobile apps when they’re on the go – a trend we’ve already been seeing for quite some time!

(Emphasis added.)

Yelp can be variously described as: a) a city guide, b) local restaurant and shopping vertical or c) a local search engine. It really doesn’t matter what it’s called, people input queries in a search field to find information — although there are other ways to discover information and recommendations on or its mobile app.

Not all mobile apps of course can be used as substitutes for search engines or have search functionality. But there are quite a few of them that are used in the same way one might use now Google on the PC to navigate to content or otherwise obtain information. And of course both Google and Bing offer iPhone apps that are explicitly search engines.

What Jobs is really saying when he says “search hasn’t happened” or “isn’t happening” on mobile devices is that traditional search (and Google in particular) isn’t the gateway to mobile content the same way it is on the PC internet. Instead, “search” as it has moved into a mobile context is a little like Humpty Dumpty — broken into a million pieces called apps:

One of the most popular apps on the iPhone and other smartphone platforms according to Nielsen is Google Maps, which we might describe as a “local search engine”:

Beyond all the specific apps available, people are in fact using the browser and its search box in the old fashioned way to find content on the mobile internet. According to comScore, 31 percent of the US mobile audience used a browser to access internet content in April:

In addition, according to comScore, the number of people who used a mobile browser exceeds the number of people who used apps (see above). If we were to focus exclusively on the smartphone segment (now 23% of US mobile handsets according to Nielsen) the data would be somewhat different.

We can also see from the most recently published Opera data that the most popular site accessed through its iPhone Opera Mini browser is . . . Google:

So people on the iPhone are searching the mobile web with Google.

The larger point is that on the iPhone and Android, to a somewhat lesser degree, “search” has taken many and varied forms and isn’t all about Google. Jobs is technically correct that “people aren’t searching on a mobile device like they do on the deskop” — “like they do on the desktop.” But they’re still searching; it’s just that mobile search and PC search aren’t entirely the same.

The “so what?” of all this for search marketers is that while mobile paid search and “mobile SEO” are important tools, other strategies are now also required to reach consumers engaged in “directional lookups” on their mobile devices.

We’ll be showcasing both mobile search tactics and the role of apps (in an LBS context) at SMX Advanced next week in two sessions that I’m moderating: “Ads On The Move: Mobile Paid Search” and “Location Services: The New Local Search?” Both are on Wednesday.

Related Topics: Channel: Mobile | Google: Maps & Local | Google: Mobile | Search Engines: Mobile Search Engines | Top News


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Stupidscript

    Responding to Steve Jobs’ comments is a non-starter, Greg. Sorry, but you might as well have written an article about whether the iPad is, in fact, “magical”. (Amazingly, there are a plethora of articles about how it’s not so “revolutionary”, but nobody is taking the “magical” claim seriously … hmmm …)

    Keeping in mind that Steve hasn’t uttered a non-sales word for the past 25 years, let’s look again at the data you posted:

    The data relating to smart phones indicates that Yelp is not in the top five, though Google is, with their Maps section. It’s 2-for-5 with Android users, including Google Search. So, as far as smartphone users turning to Apps for that, it certainly ain’t Yelp’s app, no matter what Steve claimed.

    The data relating to general usage informs us that, as usual, is the number one destination for browser users of all kinds.

    What are we left with? That Steve Jobs is pumping up his crowd of devotees, again, by claiming that the universe he is creating for them, and that they are increasingly becoming absorbed by, is taking over the *real* universe by displacing browser searches with app searches even though the data can’t demonstrate it.

    So, tell me, why is the iPad “magical”?

  • lajthabalazs

    I think that there are two important questions to ask:
    - How much easier is to use application embedded search?
    - What does it give in addition to Google?

    First is mostly a question of user interface design, I won’t go there, I disaprove of browser embedded “toolbars” with the only purpuse to promote a search engine.

    Second is a question of context and data processing. I think that this is an interesting issue. On a mobile device, screen is always a limitation. I don’t like Google search results on my mobile phone because I can’t see them through. What I would prefer is some preprocessing and filtering. Display for example keywords for each page, instead of the quotations that google does. Add an option that filters out, or just shows blog entries or articles, or online shop’s inventories.
    Preprocess results of a type: show addresses or phone numbers of restaurants/shops/museums instead of some random text extracted of the their web page’s content.
    Add context sensitivity, based on the current session, based on current needs, location (google did that), time (day or night, weekend or weekday)…

    If the app is creative, I would use it gladly, and leave Google behind (the scenes?).

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