In his Smashing Magazine response to Jakob Nielsen’s directive to build separate desktop and mobile sites, Bruce Lawson used the line “you never know better than your users what content they want” to argue that we shouldn’t be building separate mobile websites. I would agree with him that you never know better than your users what content they want, but would argue that’s usually a reason to build a separate mobile website.
In search, we have the benefit of user queries that tell us what the majority of users want, and those queries often tell us that they’re looking for different things than what’s on the desktop site.
I’ve illustrated this discrepancy in the past with individual examples from State Farm, Walgreens and others, but I wanted to see if these were isolated examples, or if they were the rule rather than the exception.
To find out, I used the category keyword lists in the Google AdWords Keyword Tool, supplemented with the top queries per related category in Google Insights for Search, to get a better sense of whether mobile searchers are looking for different things in different frequencies than their desktop counterparts.
It turns out they are, but more so for certain categories.
For example, if you have a restaurant or a local business that provides entertainment, a large portion of the keywords in your category (21% of the total) are searched more from mobile devices than desktops or laptops.
This includes the high funnel keywords, [restaurants], [restaurant], [bars], and [fast food]. According to Google search volumes, 88% of the total search volume for the keyword [restaurants] comes from mobile devices, and 97% of the total volume from [bars] comes from mobile devices.
It’s not an accident, then, that Google lists restaurants and bars on their smartphone browser UI homepage and not on their desktop UI.
Ironically, according to a recent Restaurant Sciences industry study, 95% of independent restaurants do not have a mobile website, and only about half of chain restaurants have some sort of mobile site.
Real-World Mobile & Desktop Queries
When we look at the top two hundred queries for desktop versus the top two hundred queries that have more mobile volume than desktop volume, we start to get a sense of what mobile searchers in the category need, and it’s not the same as what desktop searchers are looking for.
Desktop searchers are mostly looking for coupons, menus, locations, and specific names of restuarants like McDonald’s or TGI Friday’s. What’s more, they’re putting geomodifiers like Atlanta, New York or Puerto Rico to find a location in a specific area.
However, when we look at a visualization of mobile search queries, we see a different story. A lot of the same words appear, but with more or less frequency, and some of the words are absent entirely. Other words appear (like “number” and “nearest”) that didn’t appear in the desktop list.
For example, we can see that while desktop searchers were looking for locations of restaurants, they’re looking for coupons and menus more often.
Where mobile searchers are mostly not looking for coupons in this category, are looking for menus, but much less than they are for locations, which is clearly the most repeated word in the query list by far.
What’s more, they’re not putting in specific locations, but seem to be expecting the search engine to find the location nearest them without that information (e.g. “nearest”).
In fact, the keyword [restaurants near me] has almost 10,000 searches per month on desktop computers, but four times that on mobile devices. Beyond that, they’re looking for hours and phone numbers more with the mobile site.
This is consistent with recent Google smartphone research, which found that 94% of US-based smartphone users look for local information on their phone and 90% take action a result, such as making a purchase or contacting the business.
If you represent a restaurant or bar, you don’t want to serve your mobile searcher printable coupons, job applications or a Flash animation illustrating how irresistible your atmosphere is, as there’s a very good chance that user is just looking for a phone number, directions, or hours.
They have different goals than the desktop searcher, as illustrated by their queries, and if you try to serve them the same experience with a lot of content hidden, you’re just going to slow them down and make it more difficult for them to achieve their goals.
This is probably why the major chain restaurants that do have mobile sites (e.g. Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Domino’s, etc.) serve stripped down versions at mobile subdomains or subfolders with the Store Locator foregrounded instead of a responsive home page at the same URL with a lot of hidden content reformatted for mobile searchers.
We know what the mobile searchers want in the case of dining and nightlife, and it’s not what desktop searchers want, generally. Providing them a mobile experience at an m dot subdomain makes sense in this case.
To Bruce Lawson’s point, however, there still could be searchers looking for content that most mobile searchers aren’t looking for, and they should still be able to access that content. By providing a mobile home page and making duplicate pages responsive, we should be able to give all searchers a positive user experience regardless of what they’re looking for and from which device (unless their device doesn’t support media queries, that is).
How To Target Mobile Searches
How do you know if your audience has different search behavior on mobile devices than on desktop computers?
Use the research summary chart below as a guide. Based on Google search volume and queries, the categories at the top of the chart are more likely to require a separate URL for the mobile home page, while the categories toward the bottom of the list are less likely to have differences in user behavior and are more likely to benefit from a single site made responsive.
If you’re going to SMX Advanced in Seattle in June, be sure to attend the iSEO: Doing Mobile Search Engine Optimization Right session for more details on how this research was done, and what it could mean for your business. If you won’t be able to make it this year, contact me through the author contact form for specific vertical info.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.